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An hour with Prey

How do you write about a game you think people should experience without knowing too much? Very carefully.

I’m supposed to write about Prey, but I don’t know if you should read anything about it. In fact, after playing the first hour last week, I wish that I hadn’t.

This isn’t a bad thing.

The modern hype cycle for games pre-release is exhaustive. For the most low-key of AAA releases, there’s not a lot of room left for secrets or big reveals. It’s not unusual for trailers to show footage from a game’s ending, weeks or even months before that game comes out.

I don’t know that this kind of exposure would ruin Prey. But having ignored as much as I possibly could about the game since its announcement prior to playing that first hour, I do think there’s something special happening in Arkane’s newest game that may not hit as cleanly or as sharply as it did for me going in blind.

So here’s what you need to know about Prey, without knowing enough to take that edge off.

Outside of a sort of introductory area of the game, Prey is largely an open, explorable space that you can move about at will, hazards notwithstanding. From a basic gameplay perspective, I was surprised — perhaps because I’ve been avoiding too much information about the game — at how much Prey resembles first-person action adventure games like the BioShock series. In a way this isn’t surprising, as there are a few BioShock veterans working on the game, but Prey also shares an inspirational lineage in the System Shock games and its developer Looking Glass, and, later, Ion Storm.

Prey is entirely different subject matter than Arkane’s other flagship franchise, Dishonored. Where Dishonored is a “whalepunk” world of palace intrigue and assassination, Prey takes place on a space station in the midst of a catastrophe. But in its philosophy, Prey and Dishonored are mining the same origins in the late ’90s-early ’00s PC gaming renaissance powered by the Thief, Shock and Deus Ex games from Looking Glass and Ion Storm. Dishonored obviously borrows from Thief and Deus Ex. Prey borrows from the other half of the Venn diagram.

In practice, this manifests in a number of ways. There’s a real sci-fi haunted house thing going on in Prey, and as Morgan Yu — whether male or female, which the game has you decide when you begin the game — your survival is contingent on unraveling the mystery of Talos I. There’s a lot of disconcerting imagery that set me on my heels almost immediately in Prey, and it’s not hard to draw a line between Shodan’s efforts to disturb and derail the protagonist in System Shock and the Very Bad Shit happening aboard Talos I. The similarities don’t stop there, but I don’t want to get into it too much.

As you explore Talos I, you’ll find Neuromod tech which enables access to a host of cybernetically augmented special powers, from hacking to immense feats of physical strength. This is being billed in a marketing-speak friendly manner as “play your way,” which is ... a thing, honestly. It was even in the build of the game I played. But bullet points notwithstanding, Prey’s skill system seems tailored to discovery and experimentation in a way that even in my short amount of time with the game felt rewarding. When I took early points of hacking, I was excited to finagle my way into spaces that would otherwise be cut off, but I felt that sweet twinge of loss when I saw broken doors and access points that I couldn’t bypass because I didn’t take the repair skill.

Aside from the genre-standard supply caches hidden behind hackable doors or inside broken-but-repairable machines, the skills you can take seem to have a pronounced effect on the way you navigate the world and how effectively you can avoid combat, which, in my time with the game, seems like something you might want and/or need to do. There are weapons, and fighting is one option, but ammunition for the guns you’ll find is initially scarce and seemed poorly suited to the threats you’ll face — especially when they may not initially appear to be threats.

I’m talking around things you may know if you’ve seen trailers for Prey, but in my hour with the game even once I knew the basic parameters of the way Talos I’s infestation functions, it managed to surprise me more than once (and I’m sure the Arkane and Bethesda staff there had a pretty good laugh at me jumping in my chair). Prey does a great job early on in managing the terror of the unknown with the brief catharsis of beating the living crap out of the unknown with a large industrial wrench.

It’s hard to know just yet how much that is or isn’t the point. Part of me hopes that Prey doesn’t want fighting to feel like a good option, where exploring and avoidance is encouraged. I don’t know if that’s how things will shake out. But I have hope that however it does shake out, that Prey will maintain the dysphoria and suspense that it holds onto so consistently in that first hour.

There’s more that I’m not saying here, other games that Prey made me think of, ways in which it is particularly successful that are surprising. But I’m not going to talk about them, because there’s something intense and effective about that first hour that you’ll lose if you read too much about it. And I hope that Bethesda and Arkane find a way to get people interested that doesn’t squander much of what Prey’s opening gets so right.

Prey is out on PC, PS4 and Xbox One on May 5, 2017.