'Prey' review: You'll never be more afraid of a coffee cup

Daniel Howley

During my first two hours of playing the video game “Prey,” I spent more time shooting at coffee cups and trash cans than I did the malevolent aliens that attacked the space station I was sneaking around. No, this wasn’t part of my ongoing grudge with office supplies.

I was blasting and bashing discarded notes, plates, burned-out hard drives and cans of green tea, because on “Prey’s” massive Talos 1, they could actually be the very aliens hunting me.

These Mimics are just one of the various forms taken by the Typhon, the beings that have taken over the station. And the continuous fear that the health pack I’m reaching for will turn out to be one, coupled with the desolate feeling of a space station all but devoid of human life, permeates “Prey.” It is one of the most disturbing games of the year.

Still, “Prey” has its issues, including a story that barely holds it together long enough to keep you going to the game’s conclusion.

Welcome to Talos 1

“Prey’s” path to release has been a complicated one. The game was originally set to be a sequel to another game named “Prey” released back in 2006. That sequel, though, was eventually cancelled entirely before it hit the market.

Bethesda’s Arkane Studios, the developer behind “Dishonored” and “Dishonored 2” eventually came in to create the game now know as “Prey.”

But nothing in “Prey” requires you to know its history. The game exists in a universe all its own. One in which John F. Kennedy dodged the fateful shot that was supposed to take his life, resulting in a completely different timeline in which the U.S. and Russia help develop a massive space station that eventually becomes Talos 1.

‘Good morning, Morgan

If you’ve followed the lead-up to “Prey’s” release, you likely know that its first 30 or so minutes are a smokescreen for the real narrative. I’m not going to give away any spoilers if you’re coming into this review fresh, but it’s certainly a surprising twist.

You play as Morgan Yu — you choose whether you want to be a male or female at the beginning of the game — one of the heads of Talos 1. He essentially wakes up one day to realize the station is being overrun by the Typhon. And fighting them off is surprisingly difficult.

Arkane not only limits your firearms at the outset of the game, but the amount of ammo available to you throughout. I regularly found myself running low on rounds after nearly ever encounter with the Typhon. And with the aliens’ various abilities, including psychic, fire and electric-based attacks, you end up taking a ton of damage in short order.

Unfortunately, the Typhons’ character designs wore thin rather quickly. The spider-like Mimics and a handful of floating variations aside, the Typhon are largely humanoids made of black, wriggling goo.

Thankfully, the world of Talos 1 feels surprisingly alive despite its lack of human inhabitants. The station’s art deco meets distant future styling absolutely gorgeous. And while I inevitably backtracked through locations a few times, I always seemed to find a new nook I missed my first time through.

Piecing together the past

“Prey’s” backstory generally plays out through voice recorders and emails left behind by the station’s crew members. Piecing together their lives before the Typhon outbreak and their interpersonal relationships was one of the game’s biggest draws. I regularly found myself ignoring the main quest to complete a side mission and find out a particular character’s fate.

The environments also allowed for inventive, open-world-style exploration. I was able to access a previously locked area by bypassing a door and building a rudimentary ladder out of a kind of quick-drying cement called GOO.

Outside of the guns and grenades you’ll find strewn about Talos 1, Morgan also gets access to a variety of special abilities. You access these via a fairly large RPG-style skill tree that includes basic upgrades to your health, stamina and hacking capabilities, as well as paranormal skills that let you create fire mines or manipulate objects with your mind.

Unlocking each ability, though, requires you to spend resources called neuromods that are relatively hard to come by in the early part of the game.

Thankfully, Arkane built a system that allows you to create these neuromods, as well as health packs and ammunition. But you’ll need to collect junk throughout the station in order to recycle it and turn them into these objects, which takes time.

There’s some bad with the good

I enjoyed my time with “Prey,” though it does have some shortcomings. Gunplay can become stale over time, which almost made stealthily navigating Talos 1 more fun than blasting aliens in the face.

The story also never quite lives up to the lofty expectations it sets for itself in its first hour. It works enough to get you through to the end of the game, but I never felt any urgency to keep moving the main plot forward.

Where “Prey” succeeds is with its backstory and the fear you feel trying to decide if that coffee cup in front of you is really a coffee cup. If you’re looking for a shooter with a beautiful environment, decent story and open-world-style gameplay, pick up “Prey.”

Reviewed for the PlayStation 4

What’s hot: Open-world gameplay allows for inventive navigation; gorgeously stylized environments; a coffee cup will scare you

What’s not: Enemies blend together; gunplay can feel stale over time

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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