Prey Is Haunted by the Ghosts of Its Influences

Standing on the shoulders of giants doesn't always afford you a view into the future. Why Prey didn't capture the magic of its predecessors.

Early into my first playthrough of Prey, I found myself dwelling on mundane positives.

“Those intro credits sure are slick.”

“Look at all the stuff you can pick up!”

“Can you imagine if someone from 1994 could see this game?”

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Eventually, I gave myself a mental slap in the face and demanded that I come to my senses. Why was I so hung up on these arbitrary qualities? In the search for that answer, I suddenly called into question why, exactly, my mind referenced 1994 as opposed to a more distant past date.

It occurred to me that 1994 was the year that System Shock was released. I vaguely recall playing System Shock around that time and having the same reaction as some of the game’s harshest critics:

“What is this? This isn’t Doom!”

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Another frustratingly mundane observation, perhaps, but an observation which speaks to why System Shock wasn’t exactly a blockbuster hit upon its release. In 1994, many gamers still saw the first-person genre as an outlet for high-speed violent action fantasies. System Shock’s methodical take on what the first-person genre could achieve was a little ahead of its time.

There were some, though, that recognized System Shock as a brilliant leap forward for first-person gaming, PC gaming, and gaming in general. These forward-thinking individuals cited System Shock’s blend of storytelling, role-playing, and action as an intoxicating concoction that would become the toast of the industry some day.

Their praise was strengthened by the shouts of the original System Shock’s detractors when System Shock 2 released in 1999. This was a different game for a different time. Half-Life had shown millions there was more to first-person gaming than just shooting, and the improvements that developers Looking Glass and Irrational implemented in System Shock 2 made it that much easier to appreciate the obviously brilliant aspects of the overall experience.

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As the year 2000 rolled around, critics and gamers everywhere felt confident that System Shock 2 would surely come to represent the dawn of a bright new day for game design and the genre the System Shock series helped pioneer.

Only that didn’t quite happen, and Prey is a frustrating reminder of that fact.

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That isn’t to say Prey is a bad game. It isn’t. Once you get past Prey’s narratively brilliant, but interactively restrained opening, the game slowly finds its form. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that from a level design and narrative standpoint, Prey is the best example of this style of game that I’ve experienced since System Shock 2 and 2000’s Deus Ex, one of my favorite games of all time.

A statement like that should yield a great deal of power, but its effect is diminished in this instance by the repetitiveness of that assertion. You’ve likely heard everyone who has played Prey compare the game to System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and BioShock. At a certain point, you probably found yourself wishing that we could all just leave the past behind and judge Prey on its own merits.

It’s true that it sometimes feels impossible to talk about this particular genre without invoking the Shock games, and it’s been that way for years now. It’s enough to make you think that the genre hasn’t advanced since System Shock 2 alerted everyone to the potential of this style in 1999.

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For the longest time, the most compelling argument against that possibility has been the artistic merit of titles in this lineage and how difficult it is to make an entry in this genre that is worthy of being compared to its innovators.

This isn’t the Madden franchise, which proudly tweaks its winning formula every year. These early first-person games are known for their compelling stories, which delve deep into the soul of humanity, levels that reward adventurous players with the thrill of discovery, and role-playing mechanics that extend beyond stats and allow you truly build a character through your actions. 

Yet, there is a banality to Prey that is decidedly uncharacteristic of games that belong to this lineage. In System Shock 2, you were haunted by the ghosts of former crew members whose bodies were crudely strewn about their intergalactic grave. In Prey, you are haunted by the ghost of the game’s many influences.

The same can be said of many games which adhere to the conventions of any popular style, but in the case of Prey, the familiarities breed an excess of contempt. Prey is the first game of this type to feel like a celebration of the genre rather than an attempt to advance its design in some meaningful way.

To a degree, its celebration of the Shock series and all subsequent contemporaries is a welcome one. The Deus Ex franchise is on hiatus, BioShock is likely permanently finished, and System Shock 3 is still at least a year away. There are no other games that offer this style of adventure on the market, and this is a style of game that deserves to exist.

Rather than remind you of the good times, however, Prey has a tendency to use the past to dig itself further into a rut like a lover staring at a picture of their ex. The situation is similar to another celebratory game released recently, Yooka-Laylee. Both games adhere to a pedigree so closely that they even go so far as to echo the faults of their formula.

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In the case of Prey, this fatal fondness is most evident in the game’s often unsatisfying combat, a carry-over from the controversial BioShock: Infinite and the Achilles heel of this format since System Shock. Much like in Infinite, you rarely feel like these combat sequences actually matter. Developer Arkane Studios tries to spice up these battles by including mimics – creatures that can assume the form of any object – but they are a far cry from the game-changing presence of specialty foes like BioShock‘s Big Daddies. Combat has always been a secondary feature in these titles, but that old arbitrary feeling is all the more noticeable when it is set atop the mountain of genre conventions that Prey relies on.

While Prey’s flattery isn’t as blatant as Yooka-Laylee’s, it is sometimes more frustrating for the simple fact that Prey is standing on the shoulders of a series of games that were tragically cut at the knees. A mix of licensing issues, low-sales, and in-fighting turned every revolutionary game that clearly influenced Prey into either a dead franchise or a series struggling to reclaim relevance.

Prey is the remnant of these revolutions, and you can’t help but resent the game a little for how it reminds you that the success of games like Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and BioShock ultimately added up to equal Prey. Across the board, Prey‘s greatest qualities rank somewhere below the games which influenced it. Prey‘s isolated space station environment is incredibly well-made but fails to maintain that feeling of constant dread which helped turn System Shock 2 into a great horror game. Prey‘s upgrades are interesting, but don’t add real variety to the combat system the same way that the upgrades in Deus Ex and even Arkane’s own Dishonored do. The plot echoes the musings of BioShock, but ultimately has little new to say.

Prey may be a good game, but it is tasked with carrying on the legacy of its infamous influences and instead struggles to simply continue their good work by exclaiming, “Look, games like these are incredible works that still deserve a chance.”

Perhaps that’s why I feel this seemingly bizarre desire to show this game to someone from 1994. They are the gamers that would take one look at Prey and easily buy into the illusion that System Shock was so innovative that AAA developers are still working to further its advances over 20 years later.

We know the truth, however. We know that Prey is an admirable, but ultimately fleeting attempt to keep this style of game design alive at a time when it is beginning to feel like the gaming world is willing to simply accept that a revitalization of this concept once every several years is the most we can hope for.

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Matt Byrd is a staff writer.