Hands-on: Prey's Mooncrash DLC experiment sacrifices story for action

Bethesda announced an array of new content for Prey at their E3 showcase event, including new game modes and an upcoming VR experience, but the most substantial of the new additions is Mooncrash, a DLC pack available now for $19.99. Mooncrash takes the game in an unexpectedly roguelike direction, offering an "infinitely replayable" moon escape simulation starring a new character.

I am a fan of Prey, and think the game world and mechanics are definitely interesting enough to deserve expansion via DLC. After playing Mooncrash for about a half-hour at Bethesda's showcase event, though, I think it may end up appealing only to a narrow slice of core game's fans.

Live. Die. Adapt. Escape!

In Mooncrash you play a character in the Prey world who puts on a simulation helmet and dives into the virtual shoes of another character, in a realistic digital simulation of a moonbase overrun with the game's typhon aliens. Playing a character who is turn controlling a second digital avatar is an extremely Prey thing to do (this game loves exploring levels of identity and making players question what is real), and is a good way to bring the game's narrative reality into line with the gameplay's focus on repeated runs and deaths.

You'll unlock multiple characters to play as in Mooncrash, each with their own strengths and ability trees, as well as their own specific story goals. You start in the role of a prisoner with some dormant typhon abilities you can unlock (provided you survive long enough to find the required supplies), but will eventually be able to play as a shotgun-toting security officer, an engineer, and even a custodian.

More challenge, more power, much faster

What stood out right from the start of my hands-on experience was that Mooncrash is going to be much more challenging than the core Prey experience. The moment I stepped outside the game's opening room I was attacked by five thermal-damage-enhanced mimics, and was left at just 11 health before I managed to squash them all with my wrench, the only weapon I had. I was nearly dead, less than two minutes into my run.

I made my way across the surface of the moon (with the expected low gravity and extra-high jumps) before hitting a gate which would only open when I had killed all the mimics hiding in the area, which it kindly highlighted in red for me. I soon had a pistol, a shotgun, several different throwable weapons, and a harmless Nerf gun, and I was in the center of a large domed area with seemingly dozens of possible areas to explore arrayed around me.

Mooncrash is Prey in fast forward, throwing more weapons and enemies at you in the first ten minutes you play than you encounter in the first hour of the base game. I fought a dozen mimics, four phantoms, and ran through a room infested with a weaver and the explosive cystoids, all in a single brief demo.

Where the core Prey campaign made each enemy feel scary and significant in its own way, with gradual, carefully crafted introductions of each new foe, Mooncrash is clearly intended for players for whom the novelty of the typhon has worn a bit thin. It all feels much more arcade-y and action-focused in a way that I don't think every Prey fan will enjoy.

Serious replay value

The enemies and environments of Mooncrash will be randomized each time you play, which is a pretty smart direction to take a game like Prey, at least from a certain perspective. Games like Prey and Arkane's Dishonored, along with the System Shock and BioShock games that inspired them, offer players an enormous variety of ways to play, but they are also strongly story-driven. And though these games often offer narrative choices and different endings to reward repeat playthroughs, how many players actually take that route, and really commit to full second playthroughs of 20+ hour games?

What happens more often, in my experience, is that you play through a game like Prey once, with a set of abilities you like. You get a sense of how the game could be different if you had a different suite of abilities...but you never actually dive back in for that full second playthrough. Or you do, but because you already know how so much of the action and narrative will unfold, the experience just isn't exciting enough to hold your attention that second time.

But now with Mooncrash, you have an experience designed specifically for players to tackle again and again, finally experiencing the enormous variety of gameplay that Prey has to offer. You'll actually get a chance to try a melee-only run, or a fully stealth experience, or a playthrough where you go pure typhon or pure human without having to sink a dozen hours into a narrative you've already seen. Rather than a DLC addition that gives you more of the same, Mooncrash dares to make some fundamental changes to the kind of game Prey is, for better and for worse.

The price of procedural generation

The problem with turning Prey into a roguelike powered by procedural generation is that, for all you gain in replay value, you're losing the intelligent sci-fi storytelling that was a large part of what made the original work, for those players who enjoyed it. Prey on a timer, with items and enemies randomly distributed rather than intentionally placed, is a very different kind of game. It's a game that some portion of Prey's fanbase will enjoy, and that speedrunners could love, but it feels like it's missing a lot of the best stuff about Prey by focusing on speed and action, rather than exploration, story, and narrative.

Mooncrash reminds me a lot of the stylish Breach mode we saw in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Both are modes designed to place diverse gameplay front and center, with mechanics at work encourging players to actually try out the different weapons and abilities that so many of us ignore during our single playthroughs of a game's story mode. If the reason you like games like Deus Ex and Prey is their carefully crafted narratives and elaborate worldbuilding, these action-focused modes will feel lacking. But for those who have already gotten what they need from the core story experiences and just want a good reason to go back again and again to try out different weapons and abilities, experiences like Mooncrash could be just what you are craving.

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