In space, people eat a whole lot of lemons. Everywhere you go aboard the derelict Talos I space station you find discarded citrus peels, a cavalcade of zesty collectibles that you can gather up and convert into more useful materials.
Prey is, very surprisingly, a game that’s largely about scavenging through bins for assorted bits of tat. It’s a systems-driven and maze-like shooter in which your pockets are routinely stuffed full of udon noodles, old bits of wire and half-chewed cigars. You are a kind of space womble, stranded in high orbit around Earth, rooting through mountains of trash to find the spare parts you need to 3D print a new kind of gun.
Minecraft has been no small inspiration to Arkane Studios, whose most recent output, Dishonored 2, revelled in precisely this kind of options-based, anything-goes, open world design. You’re free to move about and explore the research station, tackling quests in whichever order and however you please. Progress is limited by your ability to bypass locked doors and to sneak around or defeat the gloopy alien enemies that infest the facility. As you play you enhance your abilities with Neuromods – the game’s pseudo-sciencey stand-in for magic – which grant you funky powers.
The silliest but most useful of these powers allows you to turn into almost any item you see. So you can readily transform into a desk lamp, or turn into a bottle to roll around and infiltrate any nearby, bottle-sized openings. You could even become a lemon, if the mood took you, and bob about doing lemony things. It’s a patently ridiculous superpower, and one that frequently allows you to circumvent entire chunks of the station, bypassing doors that you’d otherwise have to hack or find keycards for.
But the entire game is built in this way. The sprawling and frequently beautiful art deco space station is porous, criss-crossed by a web of service tunnels and access shafts designed to be ferreted around inside. One of the earliest weapons you find fires a quick-setting gloop that can be used to immobilise enemies, but can also be spread up walls to form makeshift staircases.
Prey is a game that invites you off-piste, up into its hidden crawlspaces and far flung crew quarters. And the rewards for exploration are new equipment and skills, blueprints for new tools and weapons, and all of the detritus required to build them.
There are some problems with combat. The most common (and unavoidable) type of enemy is a big spider that must be smashed to death by flailing at it with a wrench, which quickly becomes absolutely no fun at all. Prey is generally a tough game too, with punishingly sharp difficulty spikes discouraging you from pressing too far in directions you’re not yet supposed to be exploring.
Push through these issues and Prey is a brilliant and smart game, that takes cues from classics as diverse as System Shock and Deus Ex, while introducing some frankly bizarre ideas of its own. The mashup works, and the result is an inventive and surprising game that rewards ingenuity, and lets you become a sentient teacup.