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Pre-review: Prey

There is every indication that there will not be pre-release reviews for Arkane’s Prey.

Continuing a policy instituted last fall with Dishonored 2, publisher Bethesda will probably not distribute review copies of the upcoming sci-fi horror title prior to its release worldwide on Friday, May 5.

Even immediately following release, you may have to wait — based on conversations I’ve had with the developers in March and April, you can expect a Prey playthrough to take 20-40 hours, depending on how deep you want to dive into Talos-I.

I think this continues to be a bad move on Bethesda’s part. I don’t think holding review copies has ever helped a game, especially one that could use all the exposure it could possibly get. And I think it’s especially unfortunate for Prey, because based on what I’ve played so far, it could be something really uncommonly cool. With that in mind, here are my thoughts based on the several hours I’ve played with the game so far. This isn’t a review, exactly — I haven’t played enough to be declarative about the game with any finality. But it’s not not a review either.

Prey has one of the strongest openings I’ve played in a game in years. It immediately asks questions and sows doubt, planting the seeds of a mystery I am fully invested in unraveling. There are ideas in place that games can be uniquely suited to exploring — concepts of perception, of self, of whether your experience is your own. Just talking about the foundation it lays is exciting, and I’m not ashamed to admit how rare this is for me.

Listen, I’ve been doing this for a while.

Still, I don’t know where it goes, or if Prey actually does anything with the themes it plays with early on. An intro as effective as Prey’s writes a hefty check, and the question is whether it has the bank account to cash it. I’ve played three or so hours of it, out of what will likely take me 40, and that’s just not enough of a sample to make a substantive judgment.

Arkane’s track record of late is pretty exceptional in this regard, which makes me feel a bit more at ease. I think that Prey’s narrative and writing will be good, if not great. But I don’t know if it will stay good.

Likewise, I’ve played enough of Prey to have a decent idea of how its basic systems work, and how its challenges are structured. Going back to February, when I first played some of the game:

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.

Exploration and skill choices will play a key component in Prey — I can tell that much already. In just the few hours I’ve played so far, I’ve encountered many sections of Talos that are completely cut off without the right tools, spaces that are optional but reveal more about the crew and exactly what happened.

That last part is important — the main reason I’m so interested in Prey is to find out exactly what went down on Talos, and what the ultimate consequences of the experiments happening on the station will be. The gameplay has been fine so far, but it’s by far the most familiar element of it. Comparisons to BioShock are inevitable, courtesy of the wrench and various other skills that somewhat resemble plasmids from Irrational’s series.

There are practical differences, mind. The open space of Talos and the web of mysteries and investigations that criss cross the station suggest a space that will feel more structurally organic than the clear level layout of other games sharing Prey’s DNA — even Arkane’s own Dishonored series is broken up into more digestible chunks. The scope of Prey feels more tantalizingly daunting.

The issue with a game of this scope is how much it has to maintain in order to pull off its ambitions. Prey is reaching very far, and it’s too soon to tell if its grasp can match.

We expect to receive Prey late next week. It launches on May 5. Our review will come some time after. For the impatient, you can play a demo of the game’s opening hour now.

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