The concept of virtual worlds has been a staple in science fiction since the dawning of the computer age. Today’s top PC and console games provide one realization of this concept, especially when executed in first-person format. And there are plenty of genre-specific virtual worlds to choose from – sword-and-sorcery kingdoms, post-apocalyptic wastelands, Victorian steampunk palaces....
“Prey” ($59.99, rated M), the latest first-person shooter from developer Arkane Studios and publisher Bethesda Softworks, is a state-of-the-art example of virtual world building – science-fiction style. The game is designed to be a totally immersive experience that transports the player to another place and time entirely. When you’re really locked in with a game like this, your brain is effectively transported for hours at a time. For all cognitive purposes, you’ve entered a virtual world.
The place and time, in this instance, is the sprawling space station Talos One in the year 2035. The player assumes the role of Morgan Yu – you can choose to be either male or female – a researcher recruited to help study the Typhon, an alien race imprisoned in orbital quarantine.
After the first scripted scenes unfold, you’re on your own to explore the space station, which has been overrun by the aliens, naturally. In video games, space stations are always overrun by aliens.
Talos One is an intriguing virtual space. Built over the course of several generations, the complex incorporates varying architectural styles, from loopy Art Deco to Soviet-style Brutalism. (The game imagines an alternate history where the space race went a different direction entirely.) Half the fun of this game comes from just looking around.
You’ll want to look carefully, too – for extremely practical purposes. Among the many Typhon aliens you’ll encounter are Mimics, which can adopt the visual form of anything at all. Just as you’re admiring the interior design, the bookshelf might morph into a flapping, flying space manta with razor-sharp tentacles. The enemies aboard Talos One are varied and lethal, and you’ll run into some other human survivors, too. Or are they human? Yeah, good luck figuring all that out.
“Prey” sustains a marvelous surface tension of paranoia as you move through the stations and piece together the mystery of the catastrophe. You definitely want to avoid spoilers with this one. The story takes some thrilling turns toward the end, folding in new takes on old sci-fi tropes like genetic engineering, cybernetic implants and, yes, virtual realities.
In terms of gameplay, “Prey” combines first-person shooter combat with substantial open-world, RPG and survivor horror elements. Like the similarly structured “Dishonored” games, “Prey” lets you earn both advanced weapons and superhuman abilities, which can be combined for devastating effects. Individual sequences are designed so that you can take advantage of local resources – piecing together tools or hacking terminals – then devise your own tactical approach.
The game offers four difficulty levels, but I recommend sticking to the easier options if you’re just in it for the story. The shooter elements get a little frantic for my taste. Besides, this is a story worth living through to the very end. And your choices as the protagonist will reverberate throughout this virtual world. The reasons are too spoiler-y to get into, but suffice it to say you’ll want to carefully consider matters of allegiance – to your colleagues, to your mission and to your species.