[Warning: Potential story details and spoilers for Prey 2 ahead]
Those who were anticipating the planned sequel Prey 2 when it was first revealed with a memorable cinematic trailer at E3 2011 haven't had much good news of late, with the game being swept under the rug by publisher Bethesda, before being re-assigned to the newest offices of developer Arkane Studios, makers of Dishonored. That decision will be a questionable one up until the game is released, but prospective gamers now have a far better sense of what to expect from Prey 2, as its entire internal pitch has seemingly been leaked online.
It should be made clear that the decision to essentially take the game - which, according to one livid writer, was well on its way to being a strong experience - from Human Head Studios was not a smooth one for any involved. There were reports at the time that even Arkane was less than thrilled, essentially being "forced" to develop a new sequel to the original sci-fi shooter Prey, as opposed to the original franchise they had hoped.
According to a leaked internal design document (courtesy of AGB), the early claims that Arkane had been given the freedom to shape the game in whatever direction they wished appear accurate; and their goal of crafting a "spiritual successor" to System Shock 2 is one explicitly stated to all at the Arkane Austin studio. Unfortunately, it appears that the bounty hunter story chosen by Human Head - and the ties to the original game's hero - has been cast aside entirely.
According to the leaked document crediting high level concepts to Arkane Studios' CEO and creative director RaphaÃ«l Colantonio, the inspiration taken from System Shock 2 (itself a project that Irrational Games would craft BioShock in the image of years later) informs everything from level design to the RPG upgrades and mechanics. For the most part, the studio's vision for Prey 2 - codenamed 'Project Danielle' - sound much like the bulk of science-fiction RPGs on the market today.
Non-linear level design, variable story lines and replayability are all emphasized as priorities, along with the usual systems for upgrading combat abilities - melee, ranged, and psionic. Of course, there are intriguing points in the concept doc as well: for instance, the chance to augment the hero's own physiology by grafting alien DNA is alluded to, along with a need to handle hunger, radiation, and a need to sleep.
The ability to mutate one's DNA to be able to stick to walls or blend into surroundings shows an opportunity for gameplay not unlike that of Dishonored, but this is still just an initial concept. With classes titled Hacker, Fighter, Stealth and Psionic, the connection to the setting and design established by the System Shock series is blatantly clear. But even the story might connect to the franchise more than some expect.
If it wasn't already clear that Arkane would be scrapping much of the work already completed by Human Head, then the concepts given for potential stories should do the trick. The studio's creative director is clearly intent on not re-treading well-worn paths through modern science fiction. The first trailer for Prey 2 drew instant comparisons to the film Blade Runner, but Ridley Scott's futuristic neon city is one reference specifically pointed to as something to avoid.
In addition, alien designs are instructed to steer clear of Ridley Scott's Alien Xenomorph, and psychological terror is emphasized over M-rated violence and gore. But what will be the most interesting to fans of either Prey or System Shock lore will be the story ideas floated as possible routes for the team to take.
The document uses only placeholder artwork, but one story idea drops players into Bangkok, Thailand in the year 2072 - one month prior to System Shock. The (slightly amnesiac?) hero awakens in a rundown apartment outfitted with top-of-the-line weaponry, accompanied by an AI in the form of a young robotic girl. The presumed hitman soon emerges into an expansive scientific facility built on top of a crashed alien vessel, with the AI (named 'Danielle') soon merging with the systems to become a mission-giver, and an all-powerful entity in the base.
The spiritual ties to a possible origin story for SHODAN - the AI antagonist of the System Shock series - should be clear to any fan, with the game's closing act leading to the alien ship being destroyed, or jettisoned from Earth depending on the player's choices and actions. The other story concepts aren't quite as detailed, but do hinge on an alien mystery at their core.
The second story seed begins in an abandoned 1950s retro-future city, with the player being pursued by faceless men in black suits, eventually stumbling on alien architecture hidden beneath the surface. Taking visual inspiration from the likes of The Matrix, Dark City, Brazil and Metropolis, it's obvious Arkane kept their plans for the game's style and direction wide open to begin with.
The third story idea offers further insight into Arkane's thinking, placing the player into the role of a futuristic operative contacted by a mysterious woman known as 'Danielle Sho' who claims that the player's supervisors are not to be trusted. Eventually, the player is revealed to be in a massive experiment at the hands of human scientists, with only the mysterious woman's hacked advice and directions to help him escape. A fourth story idea follows a similar path, as human attempt to unlock an AI contained in a crashed alien ship, but would be set on a lush, tropical island.
These are all details from very early on in the conceptual stages of the game (the document still refers to the Xbox One and PS4 by their code names), but show that Arkane is looking to nearly every open-ended game release for inspiration regarding their next-gen entry in the Prey series. Fans of the original Prey will be disappointed to see little to absolutely no connection hinted at for the sequel, further raising the question of why Bethesda felt the Prey name carried so much clout in the modern gaming industry.
All things considered, we would be inclined to think that a brand new IP from the makers of Dishonored (likely set in a future world as a spiritual successor or prequel to System Shock 2) would attract more positive buzz than the sizable drama now surrounding the Prey 2 name. A strong game may overcome that stigma, but it's seeming more and more like Bethesda may have been better off letting Arkane start fresh.
We'll keep you up to date as more Prey 2 details are released, but don't count on any soon: the document lists a 2016 release for the game, so neither developer or publisher could be addressing rumors for some time. For now, which of the inspirations seem the most appealing to you: the mechanical/sci-fi elements of Deus Ex and System Shock 2, or the artistic and narrative elements of BioShock or Portal 2?
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.