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REVIEW

Prey: a surprising, pleasant shock to the system

Enemies in "Prey" are tough — almost too tough. Don't expect an easy game.

SCREENSHOTS TAKEN BY MICHAEL S. DARNELL

By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 8, 2017

It’s difficult to talk about “Prey” without talking about its predecessors.

No, I’m not talking about the forgettable 2006 title that is technically the first game in this iteration’s series. I’m instead referring to games like “Half-Life” and “System Shock,” games that this “Prey” resembles more than just a little.

“Prey’s” progenitors — as well as “Prey” itself — are narrative-driven, immersive simulation games with first-person exploration and shooting elements holding the entire concoction together. They’re also firmly ensconced in history as some of the most innovative and engrossing games of all time.

So, when a comparison between some of the all-time greats and a new jack like “Prey” are made, you have to wonder whether it’s a legit comparison or a byproduct of hype. It’s understandable.

In this case, however, I can honestly say that “Prey” has not only the DNA of those vaunted titles, but also their feel, emotional resonance and stellar gameplay loop. If you get a chance to play this now, in 2017, know that you’re getting a chance to play a game that will make you feel like us old folks did in 1998, when we stepped off into the then-unknown Black Mesa Research Facility.

Instead of Gordon Freeman, you’ll take on the role of Morgan Yu, a scientist who — along with his or her (you choose) sibling, Alex — runs the research space station Talos I. Nestled among the stars, Talos I is a hotbed of scientific research focused on alien-human interaction.

See, in this universe, the early days of the U.S.-Soviet space race was interrupted by the discovery of an unspeaking, unfeeling alien species called The Typhon. Humanity has banded together — on Talos, at least — to discover their purpose and to see how to combat them, should the need arise.

This being a video game, obviously, things go south quickly. The Typhon infest the station and quickly threaten its population. Morgan is then forced to take a direct role in deciding the fate not only the station, but of all humanity.

While it is true that the plot isn’t exactly breaking new ground, the way the story unfolds is so superbly handled, you’ll quickly forget you’ve played “save humanity from the alien threat” roughly 870 times before.

Much of that is due to the game’s incidental storytelling. If you’ve ever played one of the modern “Fallout” games or something akin to “BioShock” or “Half-Life,” you know the best parts of those games aren’t the on-rails dialogue or cutscenes, but the little bits of storytelling found while playing.

In “Fallout,” that might be discovering a radio signal of a man begging for help, then discovering his bunker has been sealed shut for hundreds of years. “Prey” is filled with little moments like that.

Morgan will come across an email chain that leads to the discovery of a plot to steal valuable equipment from the station, plans that ultimately end in death. On a park bench on Talos’ arboretum sits the body of a man, his outstretched hand near a pistol. His tale is obvious. Others take time and exploration to figure out.

The game plays with discoverable moments like these, but also offers up plenty of great scripted sequences. In particular, I felt the side story of Danielle Sho, a star-crossed lover and science geek, to be very emotionally impactful.

Some of the quests are of the basic type that can be found in any game. Others take advantage of the passage of time. In “Prey,” if a person radios for help, there is a good chance they’ll die if you don’t help them — the quest won’t just sit there until you’re bored enough to tackle it.

How you approach those quests is left largely up to you, the player. There is some light gating of exploration — some areas are blocked until you get a space suit and travel to them from outside the station, for instance — but most of Talos is open from nearly the beginning.

“Prey” really takes advantage of that open design and its science fiction setting. All gameplay elements loop back into both. Weapons are scarce — it is a science station, after all — and ammo, at first, even more so. Before too long, though, Morgan gets the ability to turn junk around the station into elements, which can then be crafted into anything from ammo to medkits.

Exploring is both its own reward and a necessity in “Prey.” Without a hefty amount of poking around, you’ll find yourself short of supplies. Without a good stock of supplies, prepare to die. Often.

Morgan is a scientist, and it shows. When it comes to danger on the station, she (in my case, you can also choose to play as a male Morgan) is better suited to avoiding enemies. Even the lowly mimics — Typhons that change shape to look like random objects — can quickly kill an unsuspecting Morgan.

Greater enemies, like the technology-disrupting Technopath or the towering, relentless Nightmare, will utterly destroy even a prepared scientist-turned-adventurer. In fact, for all the glowing praise I’m giving “Prey,” combat is the one area I felt could have been done better.

While it’s obvious Arkane didn’t want players to just Rambo their way through the game, I’m of the opinion that if you give players a shotgun, it should feel like a shotgun. In “Prey,” even your best weapon — a laser beam that explodes enemies — feel supremely weak. Combat is best avoided, but when it has to come down to fisticuffs, some of the game’s luster is lost.

The skill tree provides some outs for dealing with enemies. In the “Prey” universe, neuromods are the key to unlocking humanity’s potential. At first, those neuromods provide basic skills like better mechanical aptitude — key for fixing turrets to fight on your behalf — and a larger health pool.

Later, Morgan can make a choice to inject herself with alien DNA to gain what amounts to magic powers like telekinesis and shapeshifting. Choosing that upgrade path will cause not only more attention from the Typhon, but the station’s security will also view you as an alien presence and will react accordingly. It’s not a serious repercussion, but it’s a fun bit that makes you evaluate how you want to play the game.

All of those major elements — the storytelling, the well-executed plot, the punishing combat, the rewarding exploration — are great bullet points to mention when going over a review. But it’s the small touches that turn this from a good, checklist-fulfilled type of game into a modern “System Shock.”

Entering a room and seeing two trash cans by a desk won’t appear odd the first time, until one transforms into a mimic and attacks you. The next room you enter, you’ll be looking for oddities. A chair where it doesn’t belong. Shoes that don’t pair up. Something in a locker room that doesn’t belong.

Emails found on computers are just as likely to contain banter as they are to contain story hints. A group of scientists are discovered to be playing an ongoing game akin to “Dungeons & Dragons.” A love affair springs up among the mundane day-to-day operations of the station, pre-infestation. And so forth.

Those small moments — and more — help bind together the bombastic, fantastic elements of “Prey,” humanizing a world that otherwise would bear very little resemblance to our own. I came into the game expecting a good, quality shooter. Arkane Studios — the studio behind the decent “Dishonored” series — has made a career out of that type of experience.

Not only have they surpassed their every previous endeavor, they’ve done so in spectacular fashion. “Prey” is, in my opinion, easily the best science fiction game of this still-young generation. “Dishonored” put them on the map, so to speak. “Prey” catapults them into the ranks of those to keep a very close eye on from here on out.

It’s impossible to say with any certainty, but I personally believe one day this game will be mentioned alongside the likes of “Half-Life,” “Deus Ex” and “System Shock” when discussing the best immersive simulation games of all time. And the distinction will be well-earned.

Grade: A+
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.

"Prey" takes full advantage of its disintegrating space station setting. There are plenty of moments that flip gravity on its head and exploring outside of the space station is dangerous fun.
SCREENSHOTS TAKEN BY MICHAEL S. DARNELL

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