I’ve just spent an hour walking round a space station smashing mugs with a spanner in case they jumped at me and tried to eat my kneecaps. Welcome to the world of Prey, a game which takes jump scares and huge drama and turns it up way beyond 11.
The idea of making you jump out of your skin in a game isn’t new. I vividly remember actually shouting out loud when a balloon popped in Dead Space 2, and the feelings that Alien: Isolation still bug me to this day, and what made these two games so great from a horror perspective was the tension, the idea that you never really knew what was waiting around the corner, or what that weird scratchy noise is that you can’t quite pinpoint. Soundtracks, too, play a huge part in just how scary a game ends up being, with the right underlying music taking a jumpy game to all out nightmare material.
Prey does all of these things right. For a start you begin your journey in an abandoned space station, a huge sprawling building-in-space which has become home to some freakish alien type creatures which can change shape (hence me smashing inanimate objects just in case), wander round on fire and generally be a monumental pain in the ass. The settings itself is enough to give you shivers; stuck in space with no obvious way to escape, surrounded by evidence of recent life but very little in terms of living people… the Talos 1 space station was clearly designed with luxury in mind, but whatever happened to the ship (something that will start to become more apparent as time goes on) has left is battered, broken in places and more threatening than a Prime Minister in a wheat field.
From the very start the option of exploration is obvious, the the means to do so are limited. Locked doors need a key card and offer an agonising glimpse into what might lie ahead, others have clearly reachable alternatives through air vents or damaged walls, but are just out of reach for someone at the beginning of their journey. But as time ticks by, so your tech tree starts to flourish, offering you abilities from both a human and Typhon direction, the latter being tech picked up from the aliens on board the Talos. Some of these abilities are awesome and can really give you some great powers to play with, but also affect how the ship’s AI systems see you. As was (nearly) scrawled on the wall in the Shining, all Typhon and no human makes Jack a turret target, and this game is no exception. Slice too much alien tech into your abilities and the turrets will start to target you as well as the bad guys, and while you can learn your hacking skills enough to reverse the defences, it’s a huge trade-off for having some slightly more funky abilities at your disposal.
In terms of sound and visuals Prey is fantastic. The music, mentioned earlier, makes an enemy’s sudden morph from lamp to alien less of a “blimey” moment and more of a “HOLY S**T WHAT JUST HAPPENED” occasion, and as you run around like a nutter waving your spanner around in the vague hope of smacking the offending creature (which might have since turned into a mop without you realising) the pumping soundtrack will keep your pulse as high as you’d like it to comfortably get. Take a quick spacewalk outside the station (something you’ll need to do to access various areas) and the silence is profound, a stark contrast to the chaos that you’ll have been fighting again (or running away from) while inside.
But the spanner waving brings me to the game’s one weakness from where I stood: the combat. Controls are quite fast, and with the aliens being very nippy themselves (the morphing ones at least) I often found myself looking at the floor spinning in circles until I could find the little git before he could nip off an become an ornamental vase next to the TV. Quite often I’d take a bit of damage, but not know how much – you’re never quite sure straight away if you’ve got a bruised arm or are seconds from a painful death, and while this does a huge amount to increase the tension it can be a little awkward to keep an eye on while you’re in full panic mode.
But as you’d expect from a game coming from a Bethesda studio, there’s a huge amount to do. We’re not talking Skyrim or Fallout levels of extra tasks, but the story is filled out by side missions, exploring seemingly pointless areas, reading through personal emails and generally being nosy. It’d be easy to miss all of the extra detail and that’d be a huge shame because the story is very decent indeed, and the extra detail provided by these off-piste quests do more for the story as the main campaign itself. It’s also going to give you some extra beef behind your upgrades, so it’s very easy to recommend you complete as much as possible, and go to as many place as possible.
It’s also very easy to recommend that you buy Prey, because as you might’ve noticed by now it’s very very good. It’ll make you jump, it’ll make you swear, and it’ll make you accidentally spill your Vimto all over the cat, but it’ll also provide you with an unforgettable gaming experience that needs to be played to be understood.
Give it a go; you won’t regret it.
Reviewed on PS4