Prey: Mooncrash review: Expansion or not, this is one of 2018’s best and most unique games
Prey is one of 2017’s most underrated games, and as an expansion that makes Mooncrash an even more niche prospect, a game that will be played by a small subset of a small subset. Which is a shame, because strip away its “expansion” status and Mooncrash is one of the best, most innovative games of 2018. It’s Arkane’s masterpiece, a true testament to what a talented team can do with systems-first design.
Every Prey fan should play it. And those who haven’t yet become Prey fans? You should be.
Deus ex machina
Here’s the conceit: It’s Prey as a roguelike. You play as a KASMA Corp. technician, floating in orbit around the moon. Down on the lunar surface there’s been a disaster. The Pytheas Moonbase has gone dark, all occupants presumed dead.
Through some magical black box tech called the Datavault though, you can take over five survivors and play out their last moments in a simulation. Pretty huge suspension of disbelief, I know, albeit less if you finished Prey proper. (Did I mention? You should.)
Anyway, Mooncrash starts small. You’re given control of a single survivor, “The Volunteer,” or Andrius Alekna, an experiment test subject with an affinity for the Typhon aliens and their psychic powers. This first run is also limited to a small subsection of the Pytheas Moonbase, and a fairly linear one at that.
And it plays like Prey. Everything that made Prey a great System Shock throwback—multiple solutions to every problem, encouraging creativity on the player’s part, and the oppressive atmosphere of a space station in distress—that’s all here again. Exploring Pytheas is a delight, the familiar mix of art deco and industrial designs that made the main game’s Talos I space station so fascinating.
You’re directed to try and find one of the remaining escape pods. Along the way you’ll collect familiar weapons (pistol, shotgun), read scattered notes detailing the base’s final days, and come under attack by Mimics pretending to be rocks and other debris.
The challenge ramps up slightly as you go, and there’s a good chance you won’t survive this first run. The biggest hurdle? Not blowing yourself up, probably. Careful—those red barrels have a longer range than you think sometimes.
Die, and the simulation “resets.” Here’s where Mooncrash really starts to get interesting, as you carry over any skills you unlocked last time, and also have access to any Fabrication Plans you gathered. Killing enemies or achieving objectives earns you “Sim Points,” and these can be spent between runs. A shotgun, for instance, costs 750 points.
So you head back into the simulation with a shotgun. Now it’s much more likely you’ll make it to the end intact. Do so, trigger the escape pod, and you’ll unlock the second survivor: The Engineer.
And I know I already said this once, but now Mooncrash gets even more interesting. At this point, the simulation resets only when both characters either escape or die. Also, a whole new section of Pytheas unlocks, including the Crew Quarters and a labyrinthine mining area.
Oh, and the longer you stay in the simulation, the more dangerous it gets. It’s called “Corruption.” For every 20 minutes or so you explore, the enemies go up one level in power. Stay too long, and the simulation “crashes” and resets again.
In Prey proper, as with any systems-heavy game of this kind, there’s a tendency to find a pattern and exploit it. For me, it was the wrench for Mimics, the silenced pistol for Phantoms, the shotgun for anything larger, and the EMP Charge for robots. I also invested heavily in any stealth-centric skills, and barely touched Typhon powers.
In Mooncrash, you don’t have those luxuries. It’s a game of improvisation. Because the simulation resets only when all your characters are finished, you’ll come to doors that can only be hacked open, and only one character is good at hacking. You’ll find machines that need repairing, and only one character is good with repairs.
These elements are persistent across a set of runs, so if you use the hacking character first and come back to that room later, the door will open. If not, it won’t. And it applies to all the items too. If you strip a corpse clean with your first character, those items are still gone when you come back with the next.
It turns the entire Pytheas Moonbase into a chess game, except you’re playing chess against yourself. “Okay, I’ll leave these shotgun shells here because I don’t even have a shotgun in The Volunteer’s loadout, but The Engineer can use them later.” “I’ve already got two health packs, I guess I can leave this one for later.” “Hm…do I really need this pistol ammo?”
Over and over, and the fun is in realizing that yes, you did indeed need that pistol ammo. These games are prone to letting players fall back on familiar patterns. Mooncrash breaks that cycle because you’re always short on resources—on ammo, on health packs, on armor, or even just on time itself.
That last bit is the part that’s been hardest to adjust to, as someone who strip-mined every room in Prey proper. The Corruption meter sits in the top-right corner, always creeping upward. Do you really want to spend time exploring the crew quarters, in hopes of netting better gear? Or do you beeline for the objective and plan to swing back later?
Mooncrash even lets the player govern time itself, to an extent. Killing off the most powerful enemies nets you an item that lowers the Corruption level temporarily, forcing another risk/reward analysis—can I spare the shotgun shells now if it means facing easier enemies later?
It’s all about discovering the most efficient way to achieve your goals with the tools available. That is, in theory, what Prey as a whole is about—but you always have a surplus of tools, and so the constraints aren’t nearly as obvious. Mooncrash is a tour de force because every decision is a hard decision. There’s a constant give-and-take, and even the lowliest item left for a future run could end up making the difference between escape and failure.
And it just gets more complicated the longer you play. Two survivors becomes three, and then four, and finally five. Trying to manage five separate successful runs through Pytheas, leaving enough items so even the easiest of them all can end happily? It takes a lot of planning, and a lot of restraint.
I liked Prey a lot—enough so that it made it onto our Best of 2017 list. It’s an excellent homage to System Shock.
But I love Mooncrash, and I’ve never played anything like it. It feels familiar, has the same skills and weapons and so on as Prey, but is an almost infinitely replayable puzzle. The player never gets to feel comfortable, there’s no “hand of the creator” at work the way there so often is in games of this style. You can’t rely on finding the item you need at just the right moment, and even if you do—well, there’s a good chance you already took it the last time you came through.
It’s fantastic, and so wonderfully unique. Indie developers have done roguelike to death, but it’s rare to see the same ideas crop up in bigger-budget games—and even rarer to see them paired with a story-driven experience. Mooncrash only works because Prey is already so geared toward improvisation, toward giving the player a hundred options to open a simple door.
You should play Prey, sure—but you should definitely play Mooncrash. “Expansion” is selling it short.