Perhaps the most interesting thing about Prey is how much of its cleverness is wasted on me.
I knew from prior reporting that this game was different than standard games. I had heard of tales of fancy solutions to seemingly impossible situations. That “cheesing” encounters might even be necessary to survive. What I had not considered though, is how tunnel-visioned I had become on rote, formulaic solutions to cliched problems such that I had not even considered the possibility of trying something else.
The very first weapon you pick up is a wrench, which is about as tropy as you get. Then you get the GLOO gun. This is a weapon that deals no damage, but spits out expanding foam balls that can immobilize enemies, put out fires, seal flaming pipes, temporarily block arcing electrical panels, and become climbable platforms when it dries. The silenced pistol comes an hour or two later, and by then you will have encountered quite a few of the stronger enemy types with just a wrench and GLOO gun. The designers were very clearly trying to educate the player on all the myriad solutions to the problems they want you to solve.
Trouble is, I’ve been “trained” too well over the years.
It’s only well after the fact that I realize a better solution existed. For example, I walked into a room, and saw the windows sealed with GLOO foam. A note on the counter read “I sealed two Mimics in there, but there are casualties, so as many as eight.” I wrenched the foam out of the way, and used a combination of Wrench, Silenced Pistol, bullet-time, and panic to kill the half-dozen or so Mimics that popped out of the window.
After searching the now enemy-less room, I realized a few things. First, there was a broken turret in the hallway before this room. I could have repaired it, then set up the turret to cover the window. Second, there was a flammable oxygen pipe that run just under the window – which could have been shot to spray a jet of flame across the opening, catching the Mimics on fire. Third, I have Recycler Grenades, and could have just blown them all up. Instead, I chose the dumbest, most caveman solution possible and wasn’t overly punished for it.
Speaking of Recycler Grenades, these are items that basically convert everything within a certain radius into blocks of materials. And I do mean everything, furniture and enemies included. You can spend a lot of Neuromods (e.g. skill points) unlocking the ability to to lift ever-heavier items out of the way – and there are quite a few early rooms barricaded with heavy objects – or you can… just toss a Recycler Grenade at the obstruction and clear it instantly plus get some materials to make more grenades. This was not my own discovery, I had to read about it. It’s entirely possibly that I would not have even ever tried. That’s some goddamn 1984 doublethink shit, where you lack the language to even acknowledge your oppression.
To be clearer in my own language here, I am praising Prey. It’s just blowing my mind a bit that years of other, less clever games could essentially atrophy any out-of-the-box thinking. I even played Deus Ex back in the day, and I enjoyed all the sequels too. Part of me feels like Prey should punish more mundane gunplay more, or just forgo guns altogether.
At that point though, perhaps forced cleverness isn’t really cleverness at all.
Anyway, six hours in, Prey is an exceedingly unique experience with some really inventive scenarios. The existence of Mimic enemies cause you to really examine all the debris in a room, which can sometimes (and sometimes not, apparently) lead you to realize alternative solutions to an otherwise straight-forward enemy situation. The GLOO gun is pretty much the closest thing to the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2 that I have seen a game introduce in a decade. And damn near everything else is similarly polished and grokkable in surprising ways.
Pick this game up when you can. On sale, of course, but on the next one.
The Stealth Dilemma
As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.
So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?
Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.
Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.
As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.
There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.
The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.
Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.
And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?
It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 69
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Amoral cyberpunk FPS bastardizations
Syndicate is a FPS reboot of the 90’s series of the same name. As someone who never played the original series, I became interested after watching the trailer and was drawn towards the dystopian cyberpunk setting as a means of getting through my Deus Ex withdraw. Indeed, at first glance Syndicate has a lot in common with Deus Ex on a thematic level, although Syndicate never really goes any farther than reestablishing the rather brilliant lore of prior games. There are no deeper ramifications to your actions, or introspection on the nature of humanity, or much beyond entertaining gunplay, so… not really like Deus Ex at all.
The premise of the game is that you are Kilo, an Agent of a syndicate named Eurocorp, who just developed a highly-advanced neural implant that grants access to various powers. In this future, industrial sabotage takes on an incredibly literal meaning, with Agents of rival syndicates tasked with infiltrating R&D departments and basically killing/stealing ALL the things. During a mission to do exactly that, a conspiracy is uncovered, reinforcements arrive, boom boom, explosions, lens flare, boss fights, the end.
That sounds facetious, but plot is not at all Syndicate’s strong point.
What is particular strong however, is the gunplay. Syndicate does a great job of making you feel like you are running and gunning in a Matrix-esque movie, including having access to overpowered abilities without making you feel immortal. As the plot develops, you eventually gain access to three main “Breaches”: Suicide, Backfire, and Persuade. Suicide makes the targeted enemy shoot themselves in the head or pop a grenade if they are near others. Backfire causes enemies to fall down (possibly out of cover) and take additional damage for X seconds. Persuade makes an enemy fight on your side for X seconds, before shooting themselves at the end of the timer. Each of these abilities recharge only when you kill enemies, ensuring that you don’t just hide in cover until your cooldown comes back up.
What does recharge is the sort of bullet-time mode that you can use in a more traditional Max Payne/FEAR sense to dispatch foes. In fact, this bullet-time is incredibly important because you frequently face massive waves of enemies who are more than capable of mowing you down in seconds. As you progress, the enemies get smarter, tougher, and many start becoming immune to your Breaches altogether. Along the way, you will face rival Agents as proper boss fights, including extra-long HP bar and various gimmicks. While such boss fights were really out of place in a game like Deus Ex, for some reason they felt alright in Syndicate.
In any case, if you are like me and care more about whether it’s worth $9.99 or whatever than about how much the reboot ruins the spirit of the original games, I would say it entirely depends on how much enjoy cyberpunk settings. Syndicate looks great, it has a solid five hours of mindless fun, and you can almost pretend that there is an in-depth existential plot you are just Spacebaring through the whole time. Indeed, Syndicate has a lot more in common with Hard Reset than Deus Ex in that regard. Times aren’t what they used to be though, and whereas I would recommend Hard Reset at $10, I have a tough time recommending Syndicate at any anything higher than $5… and even then, only if you really dig cyberpunk games.