(Minor spoilers for Prey’s “Opening Hour” are included in this article. Do yourself a favour and go play it!)
It’s been some time since a demo has reeled me in like Prey’s “Opening Hour” (2017) has. Not since EA Black Box (tragically shuttered in 2013), and its Skate demo (2007), have I been so enthralled by a developer’s taste of what’s to come. While it might seem like an odd comparison, Skate’s short demo is an example of how a largely unknown commodity can garner the interest and favour needed to become a success story. I would say that Skate’s demo was critical to its success. It was a simple and powerful proof of concept that immediately sold the player on what Black Box was trying to achieve: a realistic, pure skateboarding game with a wildly inventive control concept. I must have sunk ten plus hours into that demo in an attempt to squeeze every last drop of content out – it’s thirty minute time-limit felt like two. I can still clearly hear my sister telling me to shut up as I hummed the catchy chorus of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” (it still holds up). In similar ways, the “Opening Hour” of Arkane Studio’s Prey has me coming back for more.
Playing as Lead Scientist Morgan Yu, I stepped gingerly through a shattered window onto Prey’s Talos I station. The transition from idyllic future metropolis condo to a freshly derelict space station is equal parts jarring and mystifying. All concept of reality and truth had also been shattered by that physical transition. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting after the intro sequence (a well-crafted, almost Half-Life-esque day in the life of a scientist), but it surely wasn’t what Arkane had in store for its players. For the better part of the next hour, I slowly started piecing together not only what had happened to Morgan, but what had become of Talos I. I loved every minute of it.
I normally hate describing settings as characters, but it’s hard not to consider Talos I as a living, breathing thing. Each room is lovingly crafted and imbued with small details that help tell a story about its inhabitants, and what has happened to them. Early on, Morgan encounters a dead scientist with a GLOO Cannon sitting a short distance from an outstretched hand. A wild spray of quick hardening glue arcs around the dead body. The player not only infers that this is a weapon used to slow assailants down (GLOO is short for “Gelifoam Lattice Organism Obstructor”), but more critically, that this person was overwhelmed. It’s a warning of what’s to come. Typical office correspondence on computer terminals devolves into hastily typed messages of abject horror. All of these elements coalesce to form a terrifying, but intriguing, atmosphere. I wanted to see what was around the next corner – no matter how far out of my seat I might jump.
For a cowardly gamer like myself, simply making the decision to download the demo took some deeply hidden courage to surface. I’m glad I found it. Prey expertly strikes a balance between the player feeling the dread of being hunted by a mysterious alien force – amorphous black creatures called Mimics (nightmare material, truly) – and the ecstasy of finding a way to survive. Perhaps each encounter feels like it could be your last, because this demo is, afterall, only the beginning of the game. Prey will be well-served if Arkane is able to sustain that feeling of being constantly under threat of a Mimic attack. Mimics can appear as inanimate objects which can turn every room into a giant game of whack-a-mole as you attempt to get the jump on your assailants–a task easier said than done. The way battles can shift and evolve via this mechanic reinforces the idea that you are never truly safe. It also has the ancillary benefit of creating encounters that don’t feel repetitive or like they will be easily managed. The satisfaction of emerging victorious from a tough battle reminded me of time spent with the poster-child of atmospheric FPS games, BioShock – this is not a bad feeling to invoke, and perhaps intentional on Arkane Studios’ part, given their history with IP (they assisted on 2010’s BioShock 2).
While Prey’s demo is hitting all the right notes needed to sell a game, the game’s publisher, Bethesda, seems to be doing its best to botch the launch. Bethesda is continuing its decidedly anti-consumer practice (this began with 2016’s Dishonored 2) of not sending out pre-release review copies to media outlets. Arguably, this is an act that robs gamers of the ability to confirm whether Prey sustains itself after the opening hour – whether it truly earns their hard-earned dollars (Arthur Gies’ take on this troubling trend is worth reading). For a twenty to forty hour long game, we could be waiting almost a week after launch to see what critics think. This lack of follow-through by Bethesda is an unfortunate turn of events for a game that has shown every indication of being a critical success, and could use all the help it can get to become a commercial one.
Prey is available May 5th on Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC.