Quite a bit has been made of the shared DNA between the upcoming Prey and the Bioshock series. After spending time with the game, it's obvious that Prey’s developers Arkane Studios have been inspired, at least in part, by that legendary game and its sequel. Perhaps it’s not that surprising: take a look at Arkane’s previous projects, and you’ll see they collaborated with 2K Marin on design, animation, and art for Bioshock 2.
Arkane have been open about the similarities, even calling Prey a spiritual sequel to Bioshock’s granddaddy, System Shock (Raphaël Colantonio, one of Arkane’s co-founders, was a part of EA’s quality assurance team for System Shock in the early part of his career). But with the Bethesda drawing attention to the Bioshock comparison even in its own marketing, how similar are the two games, really? And could comparing this new game to what many consider to be an untouchable classic wind up being a surefire route to disappointing your audience?
Let’s go through the most obvious similarities and judge exactly how closely related Prey is to the Bioshock series.
One thing evident even from static screenshots of Prey is that this game is very much inspired by Bioshock’s visual style. The initial look of Prey’s setting, the moon-orbiting station Talos I, is dominated by a sleek, art-deco influenced aesthetic which can be seen in everything from the grand, opulent staircases, to the clean lines of protagonist Morgan’s Yu’s desk. While not identical in style to the more overtly period flavor of Bioshock’s deco-dominated Rapture, it still conjures up memories of exploring that unforgettable undersea dystopia. Now I’m not suggesting the Bioshock series has the monopoly on the deco art style in video games. But I think it is fair to say that there are few games that employ this look, so, when coupled with the other similarities I’ll detail, a comparison is only natural, especially when Bioshock’s setting is so embedded in the gaming culture.
Yes, Bioshock and its sequel had one of the most striking, impressively constructed environments ever to feature in a video game. But Prey doesn’t just take cues from that setting’s look. Rapture was a large but enclosed environment that the player explored in a somewhat freeform manner, unlocking new areas as they progressed in the story. Prey’s space station setting looks to be replicating this single location approach, with players’ directing their own exploration to a large extent, opening doors that lead to new areas off of previously unlocked ones and gradually revealing the extent of the setting as they go.
The Bioshock games are remembered as being strongly narrative-driven, and Prey looks to be taking this approach, too. In both Prey and Bioshock, the protagonist is partially led through the game’s main story by voices who communicate with him via his radio – voices whose stake in the overarching plot are far from entirely clear. In both games, the protagonist is exploring a location where a catastrophic series of events have taken place of which they have no prior knowledge of, and in both games, the player can gain a deeper understanding of what exactly went down by reading the material that can be found throughout the world. As with pretty much every other element on this list, these narrative similarities perhaps wouldn’t be enough to draw a comparison on their own but combined with everything else, they’re hard to ignore.
Where the Bioshock games have their Plasmids, genetic modifications that messed with your genetic makeup and gave you unique powers, Prey has its Neuromods, a potent technological advancement that lets you advance your skills through the memories of others. The effects of each of these game mechanics are quite different, but their procurement in-game is incredibly similar: find a canister, inject it into yourself, feel more powerful.
Prey allows you to tackle situations in a number of ways, and you can augment your play style by investing your acquired Neuromods in the particular skills that suit you. The Security side of the skill tree is where you improve your combat skills, whether you’re going gung-ho, or favor a stealthy approach. Here’s where you’ll find weapon damage bonuses and boosts to your overall health, as well as ways to make you less detectable to enemies, and a sneak attack bonus for damage done to enemies unaware of your presence. Scientist skills affect how capable you are at healing and your hacking prowess, while Engineer skills are more practical, governing stuff like how far you can throw and carry heavy objects, plus your repair effectiveness. These three game styles broadly mesh with the ways you can play Bioshock, although that game was notably less developed in how it employed its stealth mechanics, and this template was largely thrown out of the window for Bioshock 2.
Looking at the bigger picture and including the entirety of gaming in our comparison, it's clear that many of the elements common to both Prey and Bioshock aren’t just limited to those games, but have featured in other games too. So it’s perhaps not entirely fair, and a little reductive to say one game is lifting wholesale from the other.
Having said that, though, it’s fair to say there are definitely comparisons to be made here, due to a number of key elements in Prey that are so utterly reminiscent of Bioshock that comparison would have been made, whether attention was drawn to it or not. I do question, though, Bethesda’s marketing department and their decision to emphasize quotes from the media directing comparing Prey to Bioshock. They’re playing a dangerous game. They obviously feel the risk is worth the reward (i.e. the millions of Bioshock fans that will be tempted to buy Prey), but I’m wondering whether any game, even a particularly good one, can live up to those expectations. I’m hopeful that Prey will stand on its own merits as a great g game, but I’m also fearful that those buying the game are being conditioned to expect a very particular thing. This new game, even if it’s the best game this year or even turns out to be superior to Bioshock, could still never be Bioshock. It won’t matter how good it ends up being because it’ll end disappointing gamers anyway.