The easy comparisons to Bioshock keep a-comin' in Prey, the long-languishing title from developer Arkane Studios (known for the Dishonored series) and publisher Bethesda. Like Irrational Games' brilliant underwater/above the clouds adventures, you are thrust into absurd circumstances in an absurd location, this time as Dr. Morgan Yu, a director working on the Transtar Corporation's massive space station, Talos-1, which hangs in the darkness someplace between Earth and the moon. Here, incredible scientific leaps are made through neuromods (a needle-based genetic re-coder so absurdly like Bioshock's Eve that one almost wonders if they even tried for something different beyond "This one goes in your eyeball instead of your arm!") which allow users to do anything from shield themselves or blast psychic energy or even learn to play piano like a master. Of course, the latter is more like fuel for the narrative, which is ultimately and sadly lacking.
Aboard Talos-1, something has gone horribly wrong. A hostile alien species known as the Typhon have infested the behemoth station and, through their ability to mimic everyday objects, control electronics with their alien minds or take over and physically manipulate the surviving humans, they're out to … do something. See, it's never quite explained what their deal is, though notes and emails found throughout Talos-1 paint a picture of a species not so much evil as just trying to get by. Huh.
Anyway, you've gotta stop them because maybe they'll eat Earth or something. There's just one snag: The co-director of Talos-1 (your brother Alex) seemingly wants to stop you, but there's probably more to it than you realize or something. As with Bioshock, the concepts of morality and objectivism are explored, though in a less conspicuous manner. Even Talos-1's massive interiors are reminiscent of the po-mo Rapture aesthetic, though admittedly more like the 1960s version of future science. In the end, it's more helpful to think of Prey like Dishonored-meets-Bioshock in space: A silent protagonist thrust into an upside down world must use his wits, stealth and minimal resources to topple the bad guys. Prey even goes so far as to replicate the whale charms found in Dishonored: Passive abilities such as extra damage, increased abilities, etc. are imbued here through what are called chipsets, which can be installed in your suit or the psychoscope, which a piece of tech that is basically—get this—the same damn thing as the research camera in Bioshock. Utilizing the psychoscope to scan enemies unlocks and strengthens alien abilities gained by using the aforementioned neuromods. It's objectively cool and adds depth, but one does wonder if meetings were held at Arkane during which they resolved themselves to the obvious similarities. And though the original Prey from 2006 may have claim to the wrench-as-weapon thing, Bioshock will forever be etched in gamers' minds for it.
Prey does shine in its structure and mechanics, but story elements seem ill-explored. It's wise to read all emails and/or notes and tackle all side quests, as the main storyline is as simple as they come without them. This is especially disappointing given the outrageously strong storytelling of the Dishonored series, though they leaned on fleshing things out through found writing to a certain degree there as well. Still, Arkane's skills lie more in the realm of building rich, dream-like worlds, and despite a narrative that seems rushed, they do manage to make back-tracking seem less like a chore and more like a happy necessity. This is not entirely unlike Metroid gameplay wherein players must unlock a tool or ability to revisit locked areas later, and it might have been completely fine were it not for absurdly long and common load times during area transitions and, on more than one occasion, game-crashing moments with too many onscreen enemies or a poorly timed press of the menu button.
Combat is another story altogether, as enemies become more of a time-eating nuisance than challenging wrinkle. Smaller Typhon known as mimics move in a way that passes interesting to reside someplace near annoying, even with cool tech like the GLOO Cannon which fires quickly-solidifying goo meant to slow or halt enemies. One can also build platforms with this item, allowing access to seemingly unreachable areas.
Corrupted helper robots straight-up suck. They've got a weird frame and are hard to kill under the best of circumstances. Telepaths, which generally float there being weird, are a drag as well, taking massive amounts of damage and doling out more than enough of their own. And don't even get us started on the aptly-named Nightmares, which roam the halls being huge and attack with such ferocity that it's best to just avoid them outright. Phantoms are basically hijacked humans, and the dilemma found in killing them presents moral quandaries every time. Later in the game you can free these people, though it seems hardly as fun as blasting them with a shotgun. Arkane does seem to like the idea of light vs. dark, at least from a subtle vantage. And though Dishonored contained hints of this with various choices that led to either light or dark outcomes, Prey stays more objective; it's really up to the player to decide how they'd feel about allowing a scientist to suffocate in space or not helping a sick employee get her meds. There are many examples of seemingly small choices such as this, though by the time one reaches the climax, they're more like fun little things to consider about oneself rather than game-changer.
Thankfully, the recycling/fabricating resources gameplay loop is actually quite fun. Anything you can carry can be broken down into its core elements and then used to create weapons, healing items, ammunition, neuromods and more. There's even a grenade that creates a singularity, breaking down anything that is sucked inside. Useable resources are spread out brilliantly, and though there will be sections that find the player stressfully low on items, the resourceful will always find a means to fabricate help.
In the end, it comes down to what games one has enjoyed in the past. If you have nostalgia for the likes of Bioshock or Dishonored, your spaceship has come in. The shortcomings are fairly common, though not insurmountable, and the final product more than makes up for them. Prey is fun. Perhaps mindless at times, but fun nonetheless. Can a game with such obvious inspirations carve its own niche, or is it forever doomed to comparison and, ultimately, inability to live up to its sources? Prey may not reinvent the wheel, and it may fall victim to its own issues, but damn if it isn't cool and weird, unsettling and bleak, interesting and absolutely playable. With multiple branching outcomes, some pretty cool tech and abilities, it's also pretty much our best bet for triple-A fun for the next little bit. Stupid summer gaming doldrums—what're are we supposed to do? Go outside? Boo!