Released in 2006, the original Prey was a successful, if not terribly original, science fiction first person shooter. Eleven years and one canceled sequel later, publisher Bethesda is rebooting the franchise with Arkane Studios, known for the Dishonored series, taking development duties. While Arkane’s involvement has piqued some gamers’ interest (myself and Devin Valdivia included), the entirely new science fiction universe and redesigned gameplay have made it difficult for the game to generate true public excitement. In order to turn this around just before the game’s May 5th release date, Bethesda released a demo covering the game’s opening hour.
Successful demos give players a taste of what they can expect from the full game so that they will then go out and buy it. I went into the Prey demo looking for a reason to buy the game. I love Dishonored and was more than intrigued to see Arkane’s world-building ability and open-ended design philosophy applied to a new science fiction universe, yet I found their stamp oddly lacking where I most expected it.
The story was by far the most engaging thing about Prey’s demo. An unexpected reveal close to the start calls into question the role that you thought you were playing and this introduces new themes to a story that otherwise seemed prone to predictability. The overarching narrative of a character struggling to survive in a mysterious and hostile place is not exactly new, but Prey provides enough of a spin so that it promises not to feel like a complete retread, even as it utilizes common story tropes.
As one might expect from a few cursory looks, there is a heavy dose of SystemShock/Bioshock injected into the atmosphere of Talos-1, the moon orbiting space station players are stranded on. Where Bioshock excelled at making a player feel unsettled rather than truly afraid, however, Prey goes for a more direct atmosphere of horror. Playing the first hour of Prey is anxiety-inducing. Yet, as someone who doesn’t enjoy horror, I found myself much more accepting of the constant tension than I initially expected. While these surprises kept me engaged with the demo I kept looking for something more, something to show me the spark of Prey’s creative identity that I could expect from the full game.
I expected to find this in the gameplay, yet this turns out to be the stickiest part of the demo, in particular the game’s controls. They function much the same as they do in Dishonored, but where these slower-paced controls were serviceable for Dishonored’s methodical gameplay, they feel stiff in Prey. Combat is more frantic than in Dishonored due in part to the abundance of small, skittering enemies, as well as the general atmosphere of horror in which quick, sharp, and precise actions are necessary. I frequently felt like I was fighting with the unintuitive controls, a sensation that undermines the otherwise engaging story and setting. This is not the kind of feeling you want from a demo.
I can’t help thinking that this was the wrong kind of demo to put out for Prey. The game’s story and setting were already strong points in its favor, they didn’t need to be extolled here. Prey’s demo needed to show off the gameplay, how Arkane could apply the design philosophy that was so well realized in Dishonored to this new environment, but I saw precious little of this. Players should have been shown a more visceral and complete sense of how they would interact with the game world. There are hints of an engaging combat system here but just barely. The demo doesn’t achieve a sense of rhythm as players move quickly from world-building/tutorials to basic gameplay. This prevented me from seeing whatever was supposed to make me need this game.
Prey’s demo did not change my attitude towards the game. It didn’t undermine my interest, but it also didn’t make me want to pre-order it, something the demo so clearly wants the player to do. Even after playing an hour of the game I remain as cautiously optimistic as when I entered. In my mind, that means this demo is a failure.