When is a sequel not a sequel? Seemingly, the answer is when it's Prey, the follow up to the 2006 game of the same name, yet to which it otherwise bears no relation. Now developed by the team behind last year's disappointing stealth 'em up, Dishonoured 2, it's fair to say the developers were left with some big shoes to fill - as one of the first, and most original shooters on the Xbox 360, Prey was a real stand out on the console, with some genuinely inventive gameplay, and a killer intro. Ditching the Native Americans, portals, and intergalactic sphincters, this is a Prey of a very different kind - and while it has its very own killer intro (which we won't spoil for you), it's a game that hasn't come out quite as well.
The story here takes place aboard the Talos 1, where a group of scientists have been conducting some research on a mysterious alien race known as the Typhon. Mostly black, pulsating, spider like creatures that appear to be made out of dark matter intestines, the Typhon hold several special powers - not least of which is the ability to shape shift into any inanimate object (and you can probably see where this is going). Turns out the aliens aren't big fans of being probed themselves - and so one day, they break loose, over-running the station, killing the vast majority of the crew, and ending up posing a real danger to humanity. Waking up to find yourself aboard the ship, it's up to you to find out what's going on aboard the Talos 1, and do what you can to put an end to the Typhon's reign of terror.
But as we mentioned earlier, while it may have the same name, this Prey is a rather different type of game. While the original was a pretty happy go lucky shooter, this is a game that's set much more in the Dishonoured mould, with a ramped up difficulty level to suit. As a thoroughly horror themed shooter, all the standard tropes are present and correct here - there's a sadistically small amount of ammo to be found, precious few health packs, and enemies that are much stronger, and that do much more damage than you could ever dream of, lurking around ever corner. Despite having four different difficulty levels, it still doesn't feel like there's enough - even on easy, you'll find yourself staring down a game over screen in only a few hits.
Another departure from the original Prey is the game's new structure. Rather than funnelling you down a series of levels, this is instead a much more open game - at least to an extent. While you're free to explore the sprawling corridors of the dingy space station, you can only ever stray a little bit off the beaten path before you come face to face with a locked door, which can usually only be opened with a key card. Ah yes, key cards - the reason for Prey's very existence. Seemingly going into a complete lock down as soon as the Typhon escaped, almost every door you come up against will initially be locked - and the key card you'll need to open it can be literally anywhere in (or even outside) the ship itself. As most can't be hacked - and there's often no obvious other way around - you'll find yourself having to go on a wild goose chase through the entire ship, as you comb the bowels of the beast searching for the elusive key.
One of the best things about the original Prey was its inventiveness - a game that did portals before Portal, it was a game that challenged you to play each level differently, throwing puzzles that were fairly simple, yet still enjoyable, at you on a regular basis. While this Prey isn't quite as inventive, it at least still has its moments. The fact the game's main enemies can shapeshift into inanimate objects automatically lends the game a really tense atmosphere, as you wander the corridors looking for anything that looks slightly out of place, assuming the Typhon haven't yet mastered the techniques of feng shui.
One of the first guns you get, the handily acronymed GLOO gun, is also at the centre of most of the game's coolest moments. Able to fire blobs of, well, glue, not only can the gun be used to slow down your enemies - but it also comes in incredibly handy for getting around the ship too. If any pipes have been breached and are spewing fire into the corridor, a handy shot with the GLOO gun will seal it right up; if you can't reach a platform, just fire it at a wall to create a makeshift staircase; and if you've got an entire room that's sprung a leak, just head outside on a low gravity space walk, and use your GLOO gun to patch up the damage.
Yet not everywhere you go on the Talos 1 will be grim and dark. At times, the game actually ends up looking like a sci-fi version of BioShock, with art deco architecture you'll want to pause and admire. The only problem is, although it may sometimes look like BioShock, it never feels anywhere near as good. For starters, the story here takes much more of a back seat - whether it's a random AI intelligence, or your own brother talking to you over your headset, far too much of the dialogue feels forced and unnatural. After all, why would your bro be giving you charisma free lectures over your headset, only to hang up before you've even had time to reply? Even the side quests never really manage to capture your interest, as you squint to read the emails you find on weirdly blurry terminals around the station, and end up solving the quests more by chance than because you were actually trying to do anything.
It's not just the weirdly dull atmosphere that lets Prey down though - sadly, there's a lot of seriously bad design decisions here too. First, for a game that wants to force you into stealth on a regular basis, why on Earth does it make the top and bottom of your screen fade to black when you're crouched? I don't know about you, but if you squat now, do you naturally start squinting? Right - me neither. If anything, you'd open them wider if you were trying to sneak up on someone, as you tried to "keep your eyes peeled"! Yet this is a big problem here, because not only does it make the game artificially harder, it also doesn't half make your head hurt after a while - basically tricking your brain into thinking you've got your eyes half shut, there's nothing like crouching on this (or Dishonoured) to give you a proper headache.
Far more worrying, though, is what happens when you find an enemy. With the aforementioned mimicks being shapeshifters, there'd ordinarily be no warning when there's an enemy around - but luckily, Prey has an early warning system. If there's ever an enemy even remotely nearby, the game will actively fiddle with the contrast, turning it way up in the background and blurring everything, causing the vast majority of the game to become a muddy, murky, black mess, into which the muddy, murky, black enemies can simply fade away. Makes sense? Of course it doesn't - in fact, it all but breaks the game - but somehow, this has made it through to the finished product. So not only does the game have enemies that can shapeshift, not only can the vast majority of your foes kill you in only a couple of hits, but the game actually deliberately makes the screen go dark and blurry as soon as an enemy comes near, disguising any motion, and making so you can't actually see to defend yourself and fight back. Fair? Nope - and in all honesty, we have no idea how this made it through to the final release, because it absolutely cripples the game when you need it to work the most.
Here's a few before enemy and after (or rather, during enemy attack) screens to show what we're talking about:
And here's after:
Lucky the Typhon was against the brightest bit of wood in the room, or you'd stand no chance of seeing it. Here's another before:
And another after:
Can you see it? Just about... And finally, two more Typhon encounters:
Bleurgh. And as silly as it may seem, this daft decision really puts a massive downer on Prey, as it makes the whole game feel like it's actively working against you. It might make more sense if this only happened when there were alien enemies around, but it even dims/blurs/fiddles with the contrast on screen when there's robotic enemies around too. Instead, this is a monumentally daft "feature" that puts style over sense at the expense of gameplay, and really drags the game down.
In all, then, despite its prolonged development (or perhaps because of it), Prey has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. It's sad, because with the original game being so special - and with the sequel in development we saw at gamescom a few years back also looking rather swish, we were honestly expecting great things from this. Instead, what we've got a game that feels cobbled together, that's named after Prey yet has nothing to do with it, and that's lacking its soul, its characters, its sense of story, and most of all, its fun. While you can spend a good few hours wandering the ship, it won't take long before it all starts to feel a little bit bland - and perhaps that's the biggest disappointment of all about Prey.