The recent DLC release for Prey gives me an opportunity to shower praise on a game that I listed amongst my very best of 2017. Arkane studio’s Prey is actually the game that first got me seriously thinking about writing and making videos about games. I wanted to do a video talking about how I’d never played a game so good that starts so bad and while I obviously never got around to making that video I now, at least, get a chance to devote some time to the game anyway.
Arkane Studio’s immersive Deus-Shock-Ex like horror sim Prey remains criminally underplayed and underappreciated. There are a variety of reasons for that, not least being Bethesda’s unforgivable, anti consumer and ultimately ludicrously self defeating policy of not giving out early copies of games to reviewers. The policy effectively assures that less reviews will be written and the ones that are will be written by people who haven’t necessarily played the whole game. Because getting a review up fast is the difference between making money or getting almost no page views, reviewers are under pressure to get their copy out as quickly as possible. Sometimes this works in a games favor, like when reviewers inexplicably gave Destiny 2 excellent reviews. Probably because the games fatal flaws don’t become glaringly obvious until you reach the end game.
Yet sometimes this works against the game, as it did for Prey. Prey was a game confusingly named for a once beloved title it has nothing to do with and it’s made by a studio best known for a niche stealth franchise. The game had a terrible beta that was plagued by an input lag issue that made combat almost unplayable and on top of all that the game starts VERY slowly. Prey follows up one of the best intro sequences in gaming history by packing it’s shittiest 6 hours right up front. For those unaccustomed to the genre it can take hours to finally really get a grip on what the game does so well.
Prey is an interactive sim in an FPS’ clothing. Combat is optional and, until you start upgrading abilities and weapons, often quite frustrating. It’s not until you’ve unlocked the entire space station and fully gotten used to the joy of navigating dense, expertly crafted levels that the beauty and freedom of Prey are fully realized. I’m not sure if that’s a result of the game being quite different than anything else currently on the market or if the developers failed in pacing the game properly but either way: if you played only 6-10 hours of Prey you would have a completely different opinion than someone who played 60-80 hours. I’ve never played a game that went from being bitterly disappointing to amazing over the course of a few hours.
So today we’re going to take a look at Prey’s new DLC which completely changes almost everything about the games structure while, amazingly, basically perfecting everything that made the base game so good. There will be no spoilers in this piece so feel free to read even if you plan on playing the expansion. If you like the piece please don’t hesistate to check out my Pliny The Welder YouTube channel or find @Plinythewelder on twitter.
What’s In The Box
So lets start by explaining exactly what you get for your $19.99 in Prey Mooncrash. Where the base game found the player spending dozens and dozens of hours backtracking through a sprawling map while uncovering a good but not great story, Mooncrash is a game that, hypothetically, is played in hour or two bites. I say hypothetically because I spent like seven hours playing when I first booted it up because I kept trying just one more run.
One more run you say? Yes. Mooncrash is a rogue like mode for Prey. When I first heard that I kind of recoiled. Everything I loved about Prey was the very slow, very deliberate, tension filled pace and exploration. Prey was at it’s best when you ended up spending hours fully immersed, slowly working your way through the station. By cutting that experience up it into small discrete runs wouldn’t that rip out everything I loved and end up focused more on combat?
Well, in short, no. Somehow, not only does this switch in modes with much less focus on overarching narrative not ruin Prey, it perfects it. In order to provide a good idea of whether this is for you we’re going to have to go over exactly how Mooncrash works. What the basic gamely loop is, how the difficulty is balanced, and how the mechanics all fit together. Then we’ll briefly discuss the level design, art direction and just how cool and gutsy this release actually is before we finally give it a score. Here we go.
Mooncrash Mechanics Vs Story: What Do You Do?
Prey is an immersive sim in the vein of Deus Ex or System Shock and like those games, narrative is very much a focus. It’s story was the driving force behind much of the gameplay and exploration. And while Mooncrash is not a story based campaign DLC that doesn’t mean it’s completely lacking a narrative. A great deal of Prey’s overall narrative was conveyed through top notch environmental storytelling with the lore of the universe fleshed out in very compelling audio logs and email terminals. Lots of games do this of course but Prey did it as well as any other. And in that respect, Mooncrash picks up where the base game left off. With an entirely new map to explore and loads of text and audio logs to discover Mooncrash tells the story of a subsidiary operation of Trans Star that’s nominally doing helium 3 extraction on the moon but also, secretly doing “volunteer” typhon research as well.
Much of the same shenanigans that were occuring on Talos 1 have been occurring here on the moon. The text and audio logs are well written and acted while convincingly capturing the banality of evil. These logs explore a diverse set of believable people (all of them dead now of course) who inhabited the moon base at the time of the typhon infestation. The station is littered with interesting characters and learning the story of their heartbreaking end keeps the audio logs and emails interesting. The base game as well as the DLC lean heavy into their corrupt and heartless corporation them. But that theme has always worked for me because...well
...this for instance.
I guess if you’re the CEO of Monsanto you might feel differently. And in that case you probably have a yacht and aren’t reading this. So fuck you....
Hugh Grant? Huh.
Fuck off Hugh Grant! The evil corporation story theme, while used often still works for me. That’s what I’m getting at here.
Like the first game, your mission is to simply escape from a station ravaged by a typhon infestation that has killed almost everyone. It’s the same basic story but where the base game had you spending hours piecing everything together to figure out the how’s and why’s of the disaster, Mooncrash basically does away with all that in favor of some interesting characters but very little in the way of grand overarching story beats. It’s an example of narrative over plot.
While there is quite a bit of story to uncover during the gameplay, narrative this time around is not a central focus. Mooncrash is a rogue like game but it’s one that pushes the genre in an interesting new direction by fusing it with Arkane’s well honed style. It’s the kind of genre blending that could easily have gone awry but it works so incredibly well here that I was left immediately wanting more. When I hear “roguelike” one of the first things that comes to mind is “preocedurally generated map.” Arkane has been rightly lavished in praise for their detailed, handcrafted level design more than anything else in their games. By taking the carefully crafted levels and fusing them with randomness elsewhere in the design Arkane has created something truly innovative in Mooncrash. A next leap for the genre that, after playing it, seems so logical and obvious it’s amazing nobody got there first.
Items, enemies, obstacles and environmental hazards will be randomly generated throughout the map making each run different. With Arkane’s famous player freedom, a great amount of items and tools to use and perfectly balanced survival elements thrown in, there is a staggering amount of gameplay depth on offer here. More than I can possibly explain (though I’m going to give it a shot anyway).
You will start the game with a single character before unlocking four more that you control successively in each run. The ultimate goal of the game is to get all five characters off of the moon in one run. To make things difficult there are, of course, only five WAYS to get off the moon.
So the game revolves around using each character’s unique skills and abilities to flee in a way that leaves the other characters ways that they can also escape. This is quite a bit more difficult than it sounds as certain escape routes require you to perform multiple actions with different characters. For instance there’s one escape route that requires hacking a terminal. But the character you might need to escape through that route doesn’t have hacking as a skill. Or you might end up with a character perfectly set up to take the shuttle out except they aren’t able to fly a shuttle.
Unlocking each character requires specific actions. And each character has a story arc that requires even more specific actions. Each time you unlock one of these characters the game gets more complex and difficult. Getting one character off of the moon from any of the five methods is easy enough. Getting two is a bit harder. Escaping with three gets quite complex and so on.
When you unlock a character they are completely stock models that require you to upgrade them with neuromods which, thankfully, carry over from run to run meaning that, like all the best rogue likes, even failed runs produce tangible progression.
The moment to moment gameplay here is heavily focused on careful exploration and scavenging with a healthy does of crafting tossed in. Taking a page from loot based RPG’s Arkane has added item quality and durability to it’s loot system. Weapons and suit upgrade chips come in common form all the way up to elite with the standard gray to green to blue to orange color scheme. The better items have significant gameplay advantages that makes seeing the orange glow behind an item a rush of joy. But you will never be totally overpowered because guns degrade fairly quickly with use and can be broken or stolen by enemies a system that serves not only to keep the player power in check but also to give duplicate items a purpose and incentivize more exploration.
And because you’ll be playing ALL five characters in a run, picking up everything you see isn’t an optimal strategy. Items don’t respawn after the initial map population. So if you take that second sweet ass elite shotgun because the one you have equipped is down to 22% and escape in the pod? Well that shotgun is now gone, and useless for the next person who needs to escape.
Certain characters are able to repair weapons but others will need to continually scavenge to stay armed. The system is perfectly balanced to make scavenging and looting essential and when combined with the survival elements we’ll get to in a bit it helps to create a perfect risk reward exploration gameplay loop.
I mentioned that neuromod upgrades carry over between runs. Over time you’ll have to upgrade each characters skills to make it possible for them to use certain escape methods or simply make it easier for them to survive or escape more quickly. But the carryover progression isn’t just between runs but WITHIN each run as the game features a score system that allows you to buy items for each character before their escape attempt begins. There are a huge amount of items and all of them have a concrete and important gameplay purpose.
Every successful action will reward you with “sim points”, the currency that can be used before each character starts their attempt. At the start of the game you’ll only have access to a silenced pistol and ammo but in each run you’ll find blueprints. Each found schematic allows for that item to be purchased at the start of the run.
This mechanic means that the more you explore and fight the more currency you earn for the next crew member in your run. This might seem like an overpowered system but it’s perfectly balanced by the final gameplay mechanic on offer.
As you play and time passes something called “corruption” builds up. In gameplay terms it’s basically like a boss enrage timer. There are five corruption levels and each time one is hit all of the previously cleared enemies will re spawn in more powerful varieties and new enemy spawns will be much more dangerous. It perfectly recreates what the base game had which is more and more dangerous enemies appearing over time. If the corruption bar fills all the way up on level fivethe game is over. This puts a hard cap on how long a run can last unless you use a particular item you can find or craft that drains the corruption bar but they are relatively rare and expensive which makes finding them on a typhon corpse all the more satisfying. You almost certainly wont ever see corruption level five however. You’ll likely be killed before that happens.
So while slowly exploring and looting every nook and cranny is important for character upgrades and to find items to make the escape easier, taking too long makes the game harder and harder. As such the entire game is finding the most efficient balance between looting and escaping.
One final great little feature is because you are playing each character in chronological order if one of your crew members died over flowing with materials, loot and weapons the next character can find their corpse and take that stuff. OR if you were particularly lucky on a run just before you escape you can put all of your stuff in a container or on a corpse and retrieve it all with the next crew member.
If you happen to pass an item that is crucial for leaving with the escape pod you can stash is somewhere easy for your next run. O r if you noticed on your first escape that the shuttle is guarded by a bunch of fire typhons you can make certain to purchase several of the burn cure items for the character you plan on using the shuttle with. Overtime a truly tremendous amount of items and information needs to be memorized. So much so I’ve taken to jotting down notes about what I left where.
Each discrete run is fun just on it’s own because the levels are gorgeous and fantastically designed but the cumulative depth of attempting a perfect extraction is daunting. I haven’t even unlocked the fifth character yet and just getting 3 of them off the moon is extremely difficult. I imagine all 5 must be quite hard indeed. But while it’s hard the consistent progression system, constant tension and extremely fun gameplay mean it’s never truly frustrating. Deaths almost always occur because you made a bad decision. Combat is not, and was not, Prey’s focus. It can be somewhat fun at it’s best but it’s better to think of this as a strategy game. Prey doesn’t give the player the tools to just tear through enemies by being good at a shooter. Prey and Mooncrash are not FPS games. They are immersive survival horror sims that happen to have guns and a first person perspective. Each enemy encounter is a balance of time and resources and often the best thing to do is simply sneak by or flee.
The base game of Prey suffered from an ability to level up so much that it became possible to slaughter most everything but the time and resource mechanics in Mooncrash pretty much solve that problem. Even if you are able to slaughter everything in your path you’re still on a strict time limit. It works amazingly well at truly driving home the games SIM nature. You’re just trying to get off the moon as quickly and safely as possible. If you aren’t DAMN sure you can easily and cheaply kill an enemy you probably shouldn’t even try.
On top of all that gameplay depth Mooncrash has light, but effective survival elements. No, you won’t starve to death or die of thirst if you don’t keep an eye on some survival bars. Eating is beneficial but not mandatory. Food will give you a quite helpful well fed bonus. And there are numerous status effects like, concussion, hemorrhage, broken bones, radiation poisoning and burns that result from either not being careful or from getting surprised by powerful enemies. Each of these status effects can be cured by items but the items are rare. If you don’t have any burn cure in your inventory maybe you should think twice before attempting to fight the fire typhons. IF you get the hemorrhage debuff you’ll take damage from jumping, sprinting or climbing. So unless you have the appropriate item to cure that you’ll now need to move slowly and be very careful. All of these debuffs create interesting decisions. Do I go back to the fabricator and try to make the radiation pills and risk getting into another fight or do I just try and push on and hope I can make it to the escape pod without dying?
I’m shocked and impressed by how damn perfectly all of these mechanics mesh together and are balanced. I generally don’t like survival elements in games. But this, in my opinion, is survival done right. Not annoying busywork but rather a system that confronts the player with actual, difficult decisions.
Randomness... In Moderation
Prey is an amazing example of how just a tiny bit of randomness laid on top of ridiculously deep gameplay systems and a judicious amount of player freedom can combine to change how a game plays out. In Mooncrash you will start each run with the same characters. Those characters will have the same goal each time. But the crazy amount of variables will thwart your best laid plans time and time again. Plan on taking the volunteer straight to the shuttle? Great plan. Until you realize a door you thought would be open isn’t. OR that the elevator you planned on using is broken and only one character currently has the skill to repair it. SO now you’ll have to try something else while switching to having the character who can repair the elevator escape through the shuttle. Maybe the third character will stumble upon a crucial item for one of the escape methods and she might have the time to quickly run through an area she already cleared to stash it in an easily accessible place for the next crew member. Your fourth character might need to take the tram only to find that the power is out so you’ll think “wait. I know I saw one of those batteries with the second guy. It was in the gym I think.”
At the start of a run you might have looked at the radiation cure and thought..”hmm...what are the odds I’ll ACTUALLY need that on this run? Wouldn’t I be better off buying some chip sets and neuromods while saving more money for the next character who isn’t as strong yet?” And sure enough the room you have to pass through on the way to a terminal will get you irradiated 5 minutes in meaning you’ve got to track all the way through a dangerous area to craft the rad pills wasting precious time and resources. These small, little choices and changes snowball with each character you start up. And the pressure and tension rises as each moment passes and you watch the corruption meter go up and up. As each character backtracks through the map meeting obstacles they either can’t handle or that another character is better able to handle the complexity of the game continually rises. Is it better to use your second character to run and hack that terminal and quickly escape right at the start and save your combat specialist for the later stage? Or should you use the combat guy second, kill everhing heading up to the tram so that your squishy character has a clear run to the shuttle if everything plays out right?
And of course, again, all of your great plans go to shit pretty quickly. There are layers upon layers of complex interactions that leave me marveling that it even works at all. So many small changes are possible it’s an amazing feat that all of the large objectives still have solutions. But Mooncrash, like the base game, gives the player so many tools and options that there is always a solution. It may not be easy, or convenient. Hell you might not even remember it was there. But it was there. It’s like a symphony of gameplay systems all working in a huge messy open ended sea of possible outcomes. It’s glorious. Game devs tend to use randomness as either an artificial time sink or as a crappy punishment mechanic. Rare is the game that uses randomness as a central mechanic of the gameplay and have it work so well.
And there’s one more thing I think I should mention before we talk about graphics and performance and then wrap up.
In my games of the year video I mentioned that one of the major problems with Prey is that the Typhon design isn’t terribly scary or interesting and from a pure art design angle I stand by that. But something amazing happens when you add permadeath mechanics to the fold.
Suddenly those typhon that aren’t at all that scary looking are REALLY fucking scary. Because death means failure here you will quickly have a healthy fear of almost all of the typhons you come into contact with. And the particularly strong ones will fill you with true dread. In the base game you’d see one of the hulking telepaths and be like, well fuck it. I can probably kill them with the shotgun and then use my 731 med kits to heal the damage I’ll take. And if I die? So what. In Mooncrash a room of 4 typhons will have you smashing the duck button and slowly creeping behind a desk. Prey works best as a horror sim. And the base game was at it’s best when you were creeping through spooky darkened rooms. But even at it’s best the base game never truly scared you because death only meant reloading a save from 3 and half minutes ago. You almost had to role play to really experience what the game had to offer.
It’s only now, in this release, that Prey’s horror side actually works. Even the smallest enemies are able to fuck up all of your carefully thought out plans. And watching the corruption meter fill up as you all too slowly creep through a room is incredibly tense. When one of the large dangerous typhons sees you your heartbeat will race as you flee like a madman trying to get through a door and smash the lock button before it attacks. And crouching in that room listening and waiting for it to wander off before sneaking out to be back on your way is exactly the kind of real organic, tension the base game never quite achieved.
Mooncrash uses the same assets, same level and enemy art direction and succeeds where the base game failed. Which made me realize something. Actually scaring the player can’t be accomplished through only graphics or sound or art direction. Those things are important of course but they aren’t enough. Jump scares don’t actually lead to any kind of lasting player fright. Tense or terrifying gameplay moments that organically arise out of dangerous situations do more to scare the player than all the gore in the world.
Mooncrash is the horror experience Prey was designed to deliver. The horror is IN the gameplay mechanics. IT took this release for me to realize what was missing in base game.
Visuals, Performance and odds and ends: It looks so good
So I bought Prey on PS4 when it launched. I don’t even remember why and when PC screen grabs started appearing very soon after release I regretted buying on console. I happen to like this mode so damn much I’m seriously considering buying the game on PC as well but for now everything here is about the PS4 Slim version of the game.
Prey looks great. It looks quite a bit better on PC but even on the Ps4 it’s a gorgeous game. The lighting is beautiful though I recommend turning down the brightness a little so that the flashlight becomes more necessary than it currently is at default settings. The game runs smooth and the level and art direction is just perfect. There’s nothing particularly fancy or different but rather just solid execution. The moonbase, like the base games Talos 1 FEELS real. IT feels lived in. Corpse locations tell a story. The levels feel like places real people lived and worked and died. Nothing here will take you out of the game, which is obviuosly very important for a game that’s main draw is immersion. And you will come across a whole bunch of beautiful art direction that, if you weren’t desperately short of time, is cool enough to make you stop and stare for a bit.
I’ve experienced one bug, the first time I actually got all 5 crew members off the moon on the final attempt the game got stuck in a loading screen. I freaked out but it was fine. It saved exactly where I was. (That’s huge in a high pressure game like this) and unlike some roguelikes that insist you play in a single sitting, Arkane was good enough to create a save and quit feature so that you don’t lose any progress if you need to come back later.
Like all other arcane games the level design here is amongst the best in the business with insanely dense and vertically interactive levels all with multiple ways to achieve different objectives. There have already been several times that I’ve discovered something I’d missed and thought to myself “how the hell did I miss that pipe up there before”.
The map isn’t huge but it isn’t small. It’s basically perfectly sized. There is an awful lot to keep in your mind as it is here so any bigger would have been completely unmanageable. At least for me. I find myself straining to remember where I put something or to remember exactly how two areas connect. But the more you play the more you become accustomed to the layout. I expect the game will remain fresh for as long as it takes you to create a perfect representation of the map in your head.
The way points also work very well here. Maps and way points can ruin games if implemented poorly. Too helpful and you’re barely playing the game. Not helpful enough and you’re constantly frustrated running around in circles.. Mooncrash strikes a perfect balance in this regard. The large global map shows how areas connect and the mini map shows you important points of interest but not any specific information on what dangers are in the way or any specific information beyond “there’s two rooms connected to this room” It ends up giving you a general idea of where to head but never stoops to putting a glowing path on the floor. This is extremely important in a game like this.
The game map is too big to throw players to the wolves but too detailed a map would take away much of the exploration the game relies on. Prey and now Mooncrash put a lot of trust into the player. Arkane has created a deep complex web of mechanics and level design and had the balls to give very little actual direction instead trusting the player to figure it all out. IT can be daunting at first but ultimately the game shines as a result. I implore you to resist any temptation you may have to look something up. What at first might seem a opaque becomes clear just by playing. Prey doesn’t bury you in tootips or helpful hints. It occasionally will give you a gentle nudge but Arkane knows that figuring out the games secret and puzzles IS the game. It’s a crucial part of the design that’s easy to overlook but needs to be praised all the same. Too many games don’t trust or respect their players intelligence these days. In a year where bungie launched a sequel that eliminated the choice pick what subclass perks you use because they didn’t want players to ever pick the wrong build playing and figuring out a deep web of mechanics is incredibly refreshing.
None of the playable spaces here are boring or bland. Great sound design, level design and art direction combine to create the tension that the gameplay deserves. I love the aesthetic of Prey just as I love the aesthetic of Dishonored. Holy shit. Actually this mode would work amazing in dishonored too. Damn. Anyway. Yeah it all runs great and looks beautiful. If you haven’t bought it I’d recommend PC. The base game has a great graphical and lighting mod that supposedly makes it extra creepy. But if you are a console player everything runs and looks great.
All that said there is one tremendously important problem with both the base game and especially with this DLC in particular. The loading screens between areas are absurdly, unacceptably long. So long I ended up timing them. They average about a minute and a half. I had a couple take a full 2 minutes and they never took less than a full minute. Now that might not seem all that bad. We can wait a minute right? For a game this good isn’t that a small little nitpick? Well, no. No it’s not.
Unfortunately Mooncrash reprises a near game breaking flaw from the base game. In the final act the loading screens completely destroy the games pace, directly working against the tone and feel the narrative and gameplay are reaching for. Once you get good you’ll be going back and forth between zones frequently. Certain tasks require you to go to 3 or 4 different zones. I had a run where I had had to run and quickly get a thing only to run back out. I ran for 40 seconds, minute and half loading screen. 3 mintues snkeaking back, loading screen. 30 seconds getting to the next zone, loading screen. This is extremely immersion breaking. And it just slows the game down and breaks all the amzing tension that has built up. It’s a real problem. One that desperately needs to be fixed for the next game. It hurts the experience and takes you out of the world that Arkane has so carefull crafted.Wrapping UP
So I waited to buy this because what I’d heard about it (not story focused, survival elements, rogue like) didn’t sound anything like what the base game was. I regret that so hard now. Mooncrash isn’t like the base game. Its the base game PERFECTED. THIS is the experience I believe Arkane was trying to create with Prey all along. I give them tremendous praise for having the creativity and the guts to create and release this.
It would have been so damn easy to just make a story based expansion. Just set it on the moon. Have the same basic story with a 6 hour campaign sell it for 15 bucks to people like me who liked the game and wanted more and call it a day. Instead Arkane went back and completely reimagined the core of their gameplay loop. This is basically a completely new gam and there is easily enough here to have charged $40 and called it a standalone release.
For $20 if you already own Prey it’s a steal. Something truly fresh, unique and innovative. It perfectly distills and perfects everything that worked in the base game while fixing the things that didn’t. Unlike the base game there aren’t 6 shitty hours before you get to use cool tools. And it doesn’t drag in the middle for 12 hours or so. Each play session is tense right from go and just gets more an more intense as you continue.
As a DLC it’s a 10 out of 10. One of the very best DLC’s I have ever bought and a piece of software that makes something like the Curse of Osiris look like an actual scam. And even if this was it’s own standalone game at a $40 price tage I might grade it higher than Prey itself. Value is a funny thing nowadays. $20. I literally cannot take my kids to Wendy for less than 35 bucks. And that’s if I leave my wife in the car. (Don’t worry about her. I crack the windows) The more important question, as always remains, Is this worth your time? Absolutely.
I’m sure this will be overlooked and underplayed too because Bethesda seems uninterested in promoting this game like it does it’s own. But hell yes. Prey Mooncrash is a fucking triumph. It joins the Witcher 3's expansions as the rare DLC that’s good enough to stand on it’s own. Mooncrash is good enough that if you didn’t like Prey you should try it. And if you haven’t bought Prey you might even consider playing this first. And if you did like Prey? You’ll like this even more. This DLC needs people to buy it. Developers that trust the intelligence of their players need to be rewarded. I can’t recommend this enough.
Pliny The Welder would love if you followed him on twitter. On that platform he is know as...Pliny The Welder. He’d be tickled pink if you checked out his YouTube channel. You can find that by googling “Pliny the Welder YouTube”. Don’t actually tickle him though as he considers that nonconsensual abuse. He’s also in the market for new couches and maybe a nice area rug. Faux Persian. Or, rather, Faux Faux Persian. He’s on a budget and rugs don’t buy themselves.