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Prey in Conclusion

I completed Prey over the weekend, after about 35 hours.

Prey_Material

I could craft 870 rounds of ammo, if I wanted. Or if it mattered.

The majority of my concerns were comically overblown. Prey does tally up your behavior during play, but it only merits a single line of commentary at the end, and didn’t tip the scales in any case. I got the “best” ending doing the sort of things one would expect to merit a best ending, and that was that. Feel free to take all the special powers you want, unless you are specifically going for the achievement for not doing so.

How do I feel overall? Disappointed.

There are parts of Prey that are amazing. The GLOO Gun is an amazing tool that remains useful for 99% of the game. You can spend a lot of Neuromods to augment your jumping capabilities… or you can create your own path pretty much wherever, and whenever you want. At the same time, the GLOO Gun “platforms” are just tricky enough to utilize that you never think that it’s required to progress. In other words, it feels like the designers threw it into the game as a toy to play with, rather than a central mechanic (e.g. Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2), and thus you feel clever every time you use it to bypass obstacles.

The set pieces and overall level design are top-notch as well. The environment is cohesive and dense, making you feel as though you are exploring a real place. There is a ton of backtracking, which gets pretty annoying by the end of the game, but it also doesn’t necessarily feel artificial. Yes, if you want to track Volunteers, go to the Volunteer terminal. Yes, if you want to do something with Neuromods, go to the Neuromod area (again).

Prey_Psychoscope

At least it’s not sepia-toned, but still… ugh.

Where the weakness starts creeping in is two-fold. First, the designers fell into the same design hole as Dishonored vis-a-vis “detective vision.” One of the marquee enemies you face in Prey are Mimics, which are capable of perfectly disguising themselves as chairs, coffee mugs, etc. After a few hours of exploring, you get a Psychoscope that will allow you to scan for Mimics. At this point, the rest of your gameplay experience will tunneled down a blurry circle, with buzzing in your ears.

Do you have to use the Psychoscope 24/7? No. It’s possible to pop it on to quickly glance through a room for Mimics, then turn it off. Hell, by the mid-game you likely have so many supplies and weapons that it won’t matter if you get ambushed by half a dozen at once. Nevertheless, you aren’t overtly punished for Psychoscoping the whole time… other than ruining the ambiance for yourself. Which, IMO, the is dev’s fault.

The other disappointing element is the ending.

Spoilers are below, but let me go ahead and create some more buffer.

Spoiler-Alert-Red

Last chance… okay.

This is basically Bioshock Infinite all over again. Not specifically with Alternate Universes, but in the fact that the devs thought they could take another of the most reviled, cliche plot devices in history and polish that turd till it gleamed.

Nope. Even a polished turd is still a turd.

The ending actually failed on multiple levels for me. First, it was essentially spoiled in-game around halfway through by completing a quest. I expected a bad ending for trying to bail from the station via escape pod without even doing anything, but wanted to “get it out of the way” so I could continue the correct way. What I wasn’t expecting was Alex’s words after the fade-to-black. Whoops!

Prey_Ending

Yeah, actually, that’s exactly what I’m thinking.

The second level of failure was using the “it’s all a dream” cliche, period. I have read some arguments that state this implementation actually made your simulated in-game actions matter, given the extra-special reveal. Nope, still doesn’t work for me. Just because I’m being evaluated on my simulated actions, doesn’t mean I view simulated actions with any particular regard – none of it actually happened. Maybe it’s “based on a true story” when it comes to Morgan, but if all my actions can be rebooted with the flick of a switch, I’d rather them not have occurred in the first place.

Which… they didn’t.

Finally, the ending actually ruined a lot of the nuance I had hitherto been impressed with. For the majority of the game, your one directive was blowing up the space station. Given that, the still-living crew were effective dead already… so why bother helping them out? Was it not more cruel to give them hope before killing them all? At the same time, I felt better easing their more immediate suffering, so they could relax and eventually accept their fate when the time came.

Oh, but hey! Now we have a sudden third solution that magically makes everything better, revealed in the final act! Those dilemmas aren’t really dilemmas anymore. And they never were anything but contrived, simulated scenarios in the first place to judge your empathy. Congrats on playing through the trolley problem – not metaphorically, but literally. Woo!

I’m sure the ending worked for some people, just as there are people who feel Bioshock Infinite is a real deep narrative instead of the total bullshit cop-out it is. The special, second reveal at the end of Prey was indeed surprising, and I guess novel in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, I did not feel any better about how none of what occurred actually did, nor did it apparently matter to the people of Earth. Hell, we still don’t even know what happened, or if anything is real. It could be simulations all the way down.

And that’s why the plot device is such bullshit. A sequel, assuming one ever exists, would have to have a radically different tone or go through a lot of effort to convince the player they weren’t being duped again. But I guess we won’t be seeing a sequel so none of it really matters.

Sort of like any of your actions in the game.

Marshmallow Test

I really wish game developers would just let us eat the damn marshmallows already.

If you have never heard of the test before:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University.[1] In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (Wiki)

I have been playing Prey lately, and noticed it does something similar. Over the course of gameplay, you accumulate a number of Neuromods, which are essentially skill points. At the beginning, you can only assign these points in “traditional” skills, such as hacking, increased weapon damage, more inventory space, and so on. A few more hours of gameplay later, you will be able to invest points in “alien” skills, like Kinetic Blast, short-term mind control, flame traps, etc. The game warns you though, that if you start gaining alien skills, the security system (e.g. turrets) in the space station will start registering you as an alien. It might also affect which ending you receive, although I have resisted looking at spoilers for that.

That is basically the marshmallow test. You can either be rewarded with fun new toys now… or you can abstain and be “rewarded” with a better ending later.

Prey is nowhere near the worst offender here. I have also been playing through the DLC of Dishonored off and on, and it’s a thousand times worse. In Dishonored, killing people (instead of knocking them out) increases the “chaos” of the city, which not only leads to a bad ending, it also makes the game harder by spawning swarms of rats that attack you on sight (and are immune to typical assassination skills). Which would be somewhat fine, if it were not for the fact that damn near 95% of the abilities and skills you unlock through gameplay revolve around killing people.

Life is full of delayed gratification. Most of us spend ~40 hours a week doing something we’d prefer not doing, in order to receive money weeks from now to finance the things we actually do want to do. Delaying our already-delayed gratification is some Inception-style nonsense.

Now, I do not necessarily have an issue with the best endings being difficult to achieve, or the existence of Achievements, or even just choice in general. What I have an issue with is a game that gives you a carrot and then beats you with a stick for eating it. The original Deus Ex made you choose between invisibility to humans and invisibility to robots. That’s a good choice! Note how the designers didn’t give you access to invisibility and then tell you there would be dire consequences to using it. That would be dumb.

Do not make your players choose between Fun and No Fun. Because some of them are dumb enough to choose No Fun, even when they hate marshmallows. Save us from ourselves.

Impression: Prey

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Prey is how much of its cleverness is wasted on me.

Prey_Mimic1

There’s a Mimic in here.

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.

Prey_Mimic2

As it turns out, no Mimic in here.

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.

Prey_Clever

At least four ways into this locked room, and I always choose the dumbest.

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.