I have been playing Prey’s ambitious Mooncrash DLC obsessively lately. Oh, sure, I know I am the target audience here, as the world’s number one Prey fan. Along with Rob, I called Prey my Game of the Year last year. It beat out stiff competition for its ambitious storytelling, impressive level design, and truly deep approach to immersive sim mechanics.
Mooncrash has all of the above, and a real dedication to that last aspect, adding layer upon layer of interaction. It knows exactly what worked about the main game and serves it up on a psuedo-rougelite platter, allowing you to enter a “simulation” of the Transtar corporation’s Pytheas moonbase as five different characters, all with their own strengths, weaknesses, and rich backstories to explore.
The whole game is served in a narrative shell starring you as a hacker who is entering VR reconstructions of the moonbase to try to figure out what the hell happened on Pytheas. You load in (as one of those characters) and try to escape, using the tools and means you find along the way. There are three majors sections of the moonbase, and a hub “crater” with weak lunar gravity.
There are a couple big catches. For one thing, you're under time pressure: The longer you stay in the simulation, the more corrupted and difficult the simulation becomes as enemies get tougher and more numerous. So if your first character in the sim takes too long escaping, the second character will inherit a much tougher challenge. Trying to get all five crew out on a single playthrough is a stiff challenge.
While item drops and enemy placements are reset after you've either escaped or perished with your last character, your character upgrades are persistent. Your weak, rookie psychic from your first simulation will have some badass powers by their third or fourth run inside the sim. You'll also unlock weapons, abilities, and buffs (“chipsets,” in the game’s parlance) so you can come in stronger each time.
For a price, of course. Everything you do—from finding chipsets or weapons or deceased crew members and their emails, all the way to successfully escaping or completing story missions—gives you points. You can use them to customize your loadout before hopping back into the simulation. I’m fond of buying an advanced, silenced pistol and going in with plenty of recycler charges, because lord, Mooncrash ain’t easy. And the nicer things aren’t cheap, meaning you have to play somewhat conservatively at first.
I have most of the characters unlocked, and I’m working on Security Officer Vijay Bhatia’s story mission. Like all starter runs, I began in a supply closet on one side of the lunar crater. Bhatia is a soldier, with a tech tree that favors combat and survival abilities.
On my way to the central base complex, I encountered the massive, deadly “moon shark” in the main crater. I fed it recycler charges (really good grenades that break everything in their blast radius down into crafting elements). The moon shark eventually broke down into its atomic component parts, which was a bounty that'd be able to use to craft new supplies and weapons at a fabricator station! Then I killed a few phantoms and entered the crew annex, which has living facilities for folks who live and work on the moon—it’s complete with a gym (and lunar basketball team!), crew cafeterias and bunks, and, like the Crew Quarters in the base game, it's a treasure trove of stories and character details. With all his weapons and combat skills, Bhatia made short work of the enemies he encountered there.
That’s where I started my story mission, wherein Bhatia has to try and track down a possible spy, not long after receiving tragic news from home. So I made my way back across the crater and its many obstacles for the next mission marker, for a lead on the spy.
There, I found out what said spy was up to, but also got poisoned—and in my haste to sprint to the location with the antidote, I didn’t notice a massive piece of machinery warming up and… poor Vijay Bhatia got caught in the works and perished.
Simulation over. Lost a lot of points on that one. It also reset the entire simulation, which is where Mooncrash can be at its most clever or most frustrating.
Mooncrash will change key variables on you on a whim (sometimes, facilities won’t have power, or they’ll feature environmental hazards you have to deal with). It sucks to spend big on a killer loadout, only to eat shit on something carelessly. And that time pressure I mentioned up top does get in the way of having lots of exploration time—at least, on runs where you are trying to get lots of objectives done. But every time, I’ve gotten right back in, determined to positively ruin whatever did me in the last time. I’m learning. And my toolset now is wildly expanded.
And this is where Mooncrash shines the brightest (alongside its level design and story content, which are up to par with Prey). The tools at your disposal, spread across each character, are varied and incredibly fun to mess with. Just thinking about the possibilities makes my eyes go big with excitement. I can repair machinery with Joan, and make a small army of turrets to do enemies in with. I can use Riley Yu’s typhon abilities to turn into tiny objects and sneak through holes in walls as, say, a coffee cup or pair of headphones, or resurrect phantoms from dead bodies to do my bidding.
And just because you’re playing as five different characters with five general areas of specialization doesn’t mean you’re limited in your approach to problem-solving as any individual. No, I can’t do what the main game offered, and construct a super-powered Morgan Yu here, who can do literally everything the game has to offer at once (a small sampling: hacking, mega-strength, the full suite of typhon abilities, etc.). But being clever with the GLOO cannon or the Nerf-style gun will always go a long way. As in the main game, there are several valid approaches to any given problem, not just a couple of main tech trees, Deus Ex style.
I’m not knocking the Deus Ex series, but that style tends to lock you into different general paths—via a tech tree that supports stealth, guns blazing, or hacking approaches. But you really need to invest in one of those approaches, with, maybe, a bit of dabbling in the others. And its levels are designed around this: there are a couple of ways to deal with a given problem, say, gaining access to a restricted area.
Prey always let you interact with its intricate environments and systems in myriad ways, from the obvious (shoot the alien in the face) to the less so. It lets you break it—in fact, it’s positively thrilled to have you break it, teasing possibilities with everything that isn’t nailed down to the floor. It’s always been a game about toolsets and managing problems and solutions at your own pace, and it rewards creativity at every corner. And it’s a game where every element you see—down to the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant props—can be a useful tool to mastering your environment.
I mentioned Riley’s ability to morph into other objects and creatures, good for the classic “break a window and slip through the crack as a coffee cup.” But you can also throw objects—Bhatia can upgrade his strength ability to the point where he can throw tables and bookcases at enemies or obstacles. Anyone can make use of an oxygen tank to create an explosion, especially near pipes (possibly starting a major fire, melting enemies in its midst.) Or GLOO cannon their way to climbing near the ceilings, passing by obstacles closer to the floor. Or throw props around as a distraction and stealthily make their way around a corner.
Mooncrash gives you tons of incentives to explore new toys, or revisit old ones in unexpected ways. It’s the ultimate, expressive toybox of an immersive sim, situated, again, in beautifully crafted levels that support the narrative and the mechanical interactions equally well.
It is a fantastic addition to a game that already has a place in my all-time favorites list, and even if this is the very last we’ll see of Prey, or the big-budget immersive sim for awhile, I’m very glad Arkane has gone out on a bang.