Thursday, March 11, 2021

Let Us Prey

I didn't have any particular expectations when I started playing Prey, and have been blown away by how much I enjoyed it. This was another gift from my sister and brother-in-law, and in passing they mentioned its similarities to System Shock 2. That should have been a hint for how much I would love it; SS2 remains one of the most memorable games I've played. Having finished Prey, I almost feel like you could call this game System Shock 3. It returns to the heavier RPG-style elements of the original franchise, unlike the more official "spiritual successors" of BioShock that moved into more of a run-and-gun style of gameplay.

Even the skill trees in Prey closely resemble the SS2 originals, with you leveling up in Scientist, Engineer, and Security trees, roughly equivalent to OSA Agent, Navy Sailor and Marine in System Shock. The environment is fantastic, atmospheric, tense, threatening and moody. And the gameplay is a great blend of action, strategy, and resource management. There are only so many bullets, so many EMPs, and so on, so you are incentivized to be strategic in when to fight and when to hide and when to flee.

There are a lot of great innovations in this title. One really nice aspect is recycling, which fits very well with the setting and also gives a lot of nice flexibility to the gameplay. Throughout the game you pick up a lot of trash, as well as items that you personally may not have a lot of use for. You can recycle these items to reclaim simpler forms of matter: minerals, biological components, and so on. Then you can use matter fabricators to reconstruct items of more use to you. So, for example, if you're using the silenced pistol a lot and running low on ammo, you can recycle items you aren't using so you can make more 9mm bullets.

This system is also a great incentive to thoroughly explore areas and collect all the stuff you can: there's no true "junk", everything has value. I probably took a lot longer to get through the game than most people since I'm an instinctive completionist and wanted to fully clear everything; this in turn got me a lot of resources and made me pretty powerful by the end. But you could also stealth your way through a lot of the game and save on resource expenditure, finishing the game more quickly but maybe with some more risk.

Some minor random strategy notes from my own gameplay (on Normal difficulty):

Advancement is entirely done through Neuromods. Some of these are just lying around and can be claimed during exploration, some are placed as rewards for side-missions, and you can eventually fabricate some yourself from raw materials.

There isn't much use in stockpiling Neuromods. I'll sometimes keep a few in reserve - like, if I have 5 points and am debating between Hacking 2 or Leverage 2, I might wait until I need one or the other and get that first. But usually you're better off having active support from upgrades.

It's probably best to prioritize the neuromods that let you collect more materials and use them more efficiently. In no particular order these include Dismantle, the Repair tree, Materials Expert, and Necropsy (the latter gated behind Physician). You don't have to get those first, but the earlier you get them the better equipped you'll be for the remainder of the game.

Take advantage of the stackability of items. If you're carrying 1 each of 5 types of food, and 5 pieces of another type of food, then you should recycle the first 5 to free up a ton of inventory space, and just eat from the last stack.

In the mid-game and later, look at recycling not just junk and food but all equipment. In my case, I'd accumulated around 60 Psi hypos without ever using any of them; I recycled half, and got about twenty neuromods out of it.

You'll pick up a lot of spare weapons, and as long as you aren't on the hardest difficulty, you don't need any duplicates. Dismantling and recycling are both valid approaches, so do the former if you're running low on Spare Parts and otherwise recycle; I found Minerals increasingly rare and valuable the later you get into the game (though that may vary depending on your playstyle and loadout).

Turrets can never be permanently destroyed: when broken, you can always repair them again. Turrets keep their Fortified status even after destruction, so it can be very worthwhile to invest in Fortify if you're using Turrets. Turrets can be knocked over pretty easily by enemies, but there doesn't seem to be much you can do about that.

Having a mix of a couple of favored weapons seems to be the way to go. If you exclusively use a single one (that shotgun!!), you'll always be low on ammo and need to fabricate more. But if you use every gun, your upgrades will be spread thinly. I generally favored:

  • The wrench when possible (a single not-too-strong enemy who I could ambush)
  • The shotgun against most heavy targets
  • The pistol for sniping at a distance
  • The Q-Beam against powerful enemies who are weak against it
Gloo and the Boltcaster can be situationally very useful. At first I wondered "Why is the game giving me all these weapons that do no damage?", but in addition to some puzzle-solving aspects and navigation aids, they also can be key assets in combat.

Enemy weaknesses can make a huge difference. An EMP can completely knock out some weaker electric-based enemies. Stronger electric enemies aren't disabled by the EMP, but will take significantly more damage from subsequent attacks while under the EMP effect. So a great technique is to sneak in, toss an EMP, activate Combat Focus, and shoot a bunch of times with your shotgun.

There are a few timed quests, which are very clearly indicated. Fortunately, the time allowances for these are very generous. You'll usually want to focus on that quest until it's done, but don't need to rush on the way to completion.

Enemies can spawn on maps you've previously visited/cleared, but don't do so repeatedly. Basically, once you kill an enemy, it stays dead, but more enemies may arrive in the area after the plot advances. There are only two exceptions I'm aware of, which are both pretty clear in-game. I'm not sure if enemies are ever automatically removed from a map or not.

When you approach the very end of the game, exploration becomes more challenging and limited. There's a sort of sweet spot to explore, so once you have full access to the station, if you want to explore and do all your sidequests, that might be the best time to do it. By this point of the game I was deeply invested and loving it so I did my standard RPG thing and did everything but the main quest line. There aren't any hidden time limits, so you can take advantage of those breathers.

Choices matter! More about this in the spoilers below, but just be aware that (a) not choosing to do something is also a choice, and could be considered the 'right' choice; (b) there are often gameplay benefits associated with making choices; and (c) many of these impact the story and the eventual ending.

Now, some complaints:

For the most part the KBM controls worked great, but it's very obvious that this game was designed to be console-friendly. One impact of this is that there is a fixed limit of 20 hard saves per game. The game never communicates this until you attempt to make your 21st manual save. To make matters worse, it seems to be impossible to delete saves: the menu says to press "Del" to remove one, but the Delete button does nothing and Backspace closes the menu. I eventually had to plug in an X-Box controller just to delete some old manual saves so I could create new ones! (You don't need manual saves, but this game is RPG-ish enough that I'm compelled to make them before major story beats.)

I'm not sure if this is an issue with my playthrough or the game as a whole, but the resource allocation seems wildly out of whack. Minerals are far, far more useful & less available than the others. I had a ton of Organic resources that never got used. Synthetics were pretty useless too. Exotics are limited early on, but they require an equal amount of Minerals, so those get stockpiled as well. It's possible that a less gun-heavy playthrough would have a different experience, though.

I was happy to see a lot of human NPCs showing up around the midpoint of the game; but they all tend to talk over each other, and pass on important information while a PA is blaring over them or you're getting an incoming call or in the middle of a firefight. In general the game has a bad tendency to overlay dialogues on top of each other, which is frustrating when the story is this good.

The zero-G segments were conceptually really cool, but also annoying and occasionally nauseating. I'm glad they were in the game, and also glad there weren't any more.

And I think that's it! The game was solid and never crashed for me. It was nicely difficult, with both resource management and combat tuned well. But the atmosphere and the story were definitely the high points for me.


This game is in a totally different continuity from System Shock and BioShock, and it's a fun one to explore. From what I can reconstruct, this is the story:

Things seem to start to diverge from our timeline in 1963, when the assassination of JFK fails. The US retains a strong focus on space exploration, as does the USSR. The two nations' rivalry eventually turns to cooperation as they realize that their joint investments in space put them far ahead of the rest of the world, and they embark on several joint missions: establishing permanent space stations, moon exploration, and so on. The Cold War deescalates, with the Gulf of Tonkin not pulling the US into Vietnam, and the USSR remains a viable entity well into the present of the 2030s.

The US and USSR realize that governments aren't best for administering space: there are difficult decisions that are politically unpopular but necessary to make. Control passes from the governments to the TransStar Corporation, which continues to operate the missions from the private sphere. In addition to the straight space work, TransStar pioneers many scientific breakthroughs, drastically extending longevity (JFK lives into the 2030s) and finding ways to manipulate power and gravity. One of their newest and most exciting inventions is the Neuromod: more or less equivalent to a skillsoft wetware in Shadowrun, a Neuromod allows transferring skills from one person to many others. So, a talented baseball player's neurons could be captured, and then others could install that to gain the same instinctual level of ball-playing capability.

That's all in the public history. The secret history is more sinister. Very early in the space era, we made contact with an alien life form that arrived in the solar system. Dubbed the Typhons, they do not seem capable of communication or reason, but have a wide array of deadly capabilities including transforming into other pieces of matter, mentally controlling humans, and manipulating elemental forces like fire and lightning. Almost all of TransStar's inventions are in fact repurposed from Typhon powers. Talos I, where the game takes place, is secretly a Typhon research facility: holding the organisms in quarantine and running experiments on them. This is incredibly dangerous work, and there have been outbreaks in the past where Typhons have slipped free and wreaked havoc. (Which is another great reason to do this work in space - when things go wrong, it's easier to clean up any messes when you don't have to worry about civilian casualties.)

You are Morgan Yu, the daughter or son of a powerful family in TransStar history and sibling to Alex, the CEO of Talos I. Early in the game, you learn that you have been repeatedly run through a simulation: you install new neuromods, take some tests, and experiment with typhon powers: levitation, explosions, etc. The neuromods are removed, causing you to lose your memories, and then you start over again. I'm still not 100% clear on the purpose of these experiments, but it seems to be trying to condition the human body and mind to adapt Typhon abilities, eventually creating superhumans who will be able to take on the Typhons and any other aliens in the galaxy.

Morgan has done this many times, and has created contingency plans: one early set before the first time she removed her neuromods, and then again during subsequent runs through the simulation. One early and frequent source of in-game confusion is the timing of these plans and their authorship: who is the "original" "you"? The plans are associated with various months: January advocates for shutting down the entire station if things go south, October for completing a moon-shot and uplifting humanity, December for simply abandoning the endless rat race and finding freedom. This touches on some cool and heady philosophical ideas; I found myself thinking of Dark City, as your position at the start of this game reflects the protagonist's position in that film.

At the very start of the game, the typhons break free from confinement. The researchers had been unsure whether Typhons were intelligent or merely instinctual, but it quickly becomes very clear that they are in fact extremely cunning and have been preparing their assault for a long time. You are suffering from in-game amnesia, placing your character's knowledge in line with your own, catching up on your personal history as you try to grasp what's happening around you and plot a path forward. Everyone on the station knows you, but you don't remember anyone except your brother.

As noted above, there are many choices to make in the game, many of which seem to be strictly gameplay but do in fact have implications for your character and, potentially, the story. There are two spheres of abilities to acquire, with one set of skills labeled Human (hacking, running, guns, repairing, stealth, etc.), and another set of skills dubbed Typhon (mind control, morphing, pyrokinesis, etc.). In my game I strictly stuck to the Human skills, which the game eventually noted and remarked on. If you install too many Typhon mods, the station's automated defense systems will start to identify you as a Typhon and try to kill you (unless you hack or destroy them); other Typhon organisms like the Nightmare may become better attuned to your location if you seem sufficiently Typhon.

The mechanics of Prey are very traditional for this type of game: go to a place, find a thing, that will unlock another place, etc. Thematically, it started to get a lot more compelling for me once I entered the Crew Quarters, where you start to find living survivors. Now the game isn't so much about shooting aliens: it's about rescuing humans from alien control, trying to find survivors and give them a fighting chance of survival.


Because of the System Shock heritage, I'd been prepared for a twist. The first twist comes about 5-10 minutes into the game and didn't seem likely to be the only one. My mind kept running with possibilities: was January tricking me? Maybe Alex was really January. I even doubted the videos of myself that I saw: you can fake Danielle Sho's voice, so who's to say that that's really "my" voice?

It becomes a lot more clear that something is up when you try the December ending, which is available relatively early in the game. Alex says something like "Such a disappointment. Let's try again." I was now pretty sure that all the events of this game were a simulation, not real. But what was the nature of the simulation, and to what end?

The most likely possibility seemed to be that the Typhons were running things. Either they had already won and this was some sort of macabre torture, "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" style; or they are trying to manipulate Morgan to reveal some information or perform some action that will benefit them, perhaps allowing them to truly escape quarantine or establish contact with their point of origin. (One of the many things that I love about this game is that the first thing you experience is a "simulation" that is actually "real": Not just a VR thing or direct neural experience, but an elaborate system of moving backdrops and actors convincing you that you're somewhere other than where you truly are. Could typhons be mimicking the operators and humans, and manipulating you to carry out their goals on the real Talos?)

Despite my suspicions about what was going on, I relentlessly pursued a "good" path, to the best of my ability. In no particular order:

I neither freed nor harvested the prisoner in Psychotronics. I couldn't articulate my reasoning in-game, but basically I felt that I as an individual was unqualified to make such a weighty decision. It sounds like he deserves justice, but that justice should be carried out by society as a whole, not a random lady with a wrench. This seems to eventually be an even kinder route than freeing him, as he's still safe in his chamber at the end of the game.

I rescued all of the humans I could find, which required reloading a couple of times in the Crew Quarters.

Apparently you can kill January! Or not summon her! That's wild, I assumed she was essential to the game. I kept her around until the very last scene, though.

I chose to detonate the previously-scheduled shuttle heading towards Earth. That's one of the harder decisions, but as I saw it, the risk was just too great. Additional information gathered later in the game seemed to reinforce that, as it becomes clear that the Typhon had already widely spread and were likely on board the shuttle.

I rescued the doctor from the shipping container and did his side-quests, though I was ambivalent about his enthusiasm for Alex.

I helped the security chief and other survivors in the Cargo Bay, bringing power back up and helping them fight off a wave of Typhons and secure the zone.

I saved my ex-girlfriend; the timer on this quest is ridiculous, like two hours long, how could you not save her?!

(Quick side note: Prey very much seems to be a successor to System Shock rather than Bioshock, and is filled with nice little nods to the older game, like the "Looking Glass" technology for 3D video recordings. But this one particular visual is totally an homage to Bioshock's ADAM syringe.)

I made contact with Danielle Sho and tracked down "Mitchell" to his escape pod, but incapacitated him with a stun gun rather than kill him.

I attempted to rescue the fake employees during the Dahl incursion, then saved the real employees by repairing the air supply. I incapacitated Dahl and cooperated in wiping his memory.

In the endgame, I saved Alex from suffocation. I followed both the heart-of-coral / nullwave mod fabrication quest line and the power plant detonation quests, setting up both before getting to the bridge. On the bridge, I heard out Alex and January until Alex shot her, then reloaded, then stunned Alex just before he shoots her.

Throughout the game, I was leaning towards "blow it all up" as the best ending. Since that's the first direction you get from January, I was on the lookout for a twist, but all the alternatives seemed easier and riskier, more selfish. Very late in the game, it got a lot more compelling to pursue the escape plan, and I mulled over the risks. Dahl had left Earth after the typhon invasion, so his craft would have been clean when it arrived: was I confident it was still clean now? None of the prospective passengers were carrying any typhons, right? I initially just wanted to leave that door open to see what happened, but as the time grew closer I became more confident in that approach. January herself expresses that, as I had no typhon mods, I did not pose a threat to Earth.

One frustration I had heading into the final minutes of the game is that, well, you just don't know. You're asked to make weighty decisions that affect your life, the lives of your friends, and potentially all life on Earth, and you just aren't sure what's going on. Does the shuttle carry no risk, or a small risk? Can I trust January? Is any of this even real?

Whatever. I'd worked hard for this, and was going to try and get a happy ending. I activated the self-destruct, smashed January (at her not-too-subtle suggestion), and made it to the exit shuttle with several minutes to spare. (Again, I'm a big fan of the generous time limits in this game.) I chatted with the major NPC passengers, checked the crew manifest for the back cargo area, and took off! There's a relatively short ending that seems to show debris, presumably from the exploding space station, as your shuttle returns to Earth. And then the credits roll.

And then THAT happens.

I was digging the ending already, but my esteem of it shot up dramatically during and after that final scene. It gets me on personal and a philosophical level. First of all, it does feel good to have my choices recognized and honored, getting a sense that this does matter.

The dialogue is also really fascinating: at one point someone (I think Alex?) says something like "Of course we can't judge its motivations," which is something that I think a lot about when designing and playing and writing about video games. You can tell what a player did, but even in a text-heavy RPG with vast dialogue menus, you can't definitively know why. In a sense, Alex and the operators are in the role of game developers, peering at a player's decision trees and murmuring "Does this mean that they're trying to be a good person? Or not?" It was such an honoring and validation of the ambiguity and complexity I'd been intermittently struggling with during the game, turning those very same things from challenges into features.

Likewise, it was a trip to go back through my old screenshots and piece some stuff together. There are a couple of points throughout the game where you have sort of blackout visions, seeing scenes and voices that aren't really there. At the time I had thought that these were flashbacks to when your neuromod was installed for the first time, or perhaps when it was removed. The conversation snatches you can hear are definitely sinister. Now that I know what I'm looking for, though, I can see that these weren't glimpses across time, but across realities: the shock of the neuromod is briefly piercing the veil, letting you see outside the simulation for a few seconds, witnessing the operators witnessing you.

One of several reasons why I opted to destroy the station was because of "Will Mitchell"'s final message: as I was heading towards the bridge, he called and rambled about a vision he had had of the Earth conquered, the human race destroyed. He seems to have had a premonition of the events on board Talos, and for some reason the Typhon seem to be frightened of him. I figured that his vision was more likely the consequence of me activating the nullwave transmitter than of me blowing it all up, so I blew it all up. Of course, we eventually learn that not only was Will Mitchell not Will Mitchell, he also wasn't Luka Golubkin, he wasn't real at all. So, what's that all about? There are several possibilities, all of which are fun. The simulation might have been based on the real Luka Golubkin: it's interesting to imagine that the original Morgan Yu heard the same warning, decided to activate the transmitter, and brought about destruction. Or he could have been voiced by one of the Operators, creating one of those nuanced and difficult choices permeating the game (kill the murderer? trust the liar?). It's also fun to think that he might be one of those characters in fiction like Deadpool or Kilgore Trout who are aware that they're fictional characters, and thus have higher insights than the people around them who do not.

One final thought: the D&D stuff was great fun. I love piecing together all the rhythms of the campaign and the group dynamic over emails, character sheets, audio logs and more. The final reward was pretty cool, too.


It was quite a shift to play Prey after so long in Minecraft: switching to more realistic visuals, modern controls, voice acting and more. Prey isn't at all a sandbox, but it does offer a pleasing degree of freedom: in character progression, in exploration, pursuing quests and making decisions. Once I started thinking about it as System Shock 3 it suddenly had a very high standard to live up to, and it managed to hit that high bar.

There's apparently a New Game + mode, which I'm mildly curious about. I've also received a personal recommendation for the Moonbase expansion: it's apparently a roguelike, which I'm having a very hard time imagining with this game but which is definitely an intriguing idea! The game proper ends kind of wonderfully: it perfectly sets up a sequel, but at the same time I'd be fully satisfied if this is the end of the story. It's hard to ask for more!

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