Everything’s been done before. If you think you made something totally original, don’t worry: you haven’t. You’re just don’t know who did it before you yet.
Prey (reviewed here) launched last year to tepid response from critics and players (save for a few). It was Bioshock in space, but with an Art Deco SF aesthetic and cool monsters who were nonetheless way too repetitive. The visuals were gorgeous, the station a fully realized fictional environment (much better than Bioshock itself, which felt like Disneyland-under-the-sea, not an actual place, and even better than Dead Space, the previous title holder for “Most Authentically Realized Fictional Environment”), and the zero-g sections were incredible and eye-opening.
Announced and launched back in June of this year, fully 14 months after the original was released, Prey: Mooncrash is a $20 add-on for the space survival horror game. Set on the surface of the moon, the Rogue-like (one is tempted to say “Dark Souls-like”, but one is in no way an ignorant games journalist, so one will refrain) features randomized monsters, environmental hazards, loot, and so forth. You try, you die, you try again.
Mooncrash also shares several game play elements with two other game expansions that have similar settings: Borderlands 3, aka Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (an expansion pack masquerading as a full game) and Far Cry 5’s “Lost on Mars” DLC. All three feature low gravity (meaning higher jumps and slower drops), jet packs of varying degrees of usefulness, and tunneling monsters that can pop up anywhere. Mooncrash and “Lost on Mars” in particular revel in their Dune-like mechanics for attracting the subterranean player-killers, only there’s no way to walk without rhythm: you step on the sand, you will attract the worm. (Borderlands 3 could care less: it throws all its monsters at you all the time, because stealth is for losers not man enough to play a real game.)
Mooncrash is in many ways a frustrating experience. Clearly meant for the hardcore crowd, it cares not a whit for players who aren’t into bruising and sometimes unfair obstacles, combat, and challenges. If you can’t roll with getting rolled over, you’re not their kind of player. The game’s obstacles are introduced gradually, matching your progress through the overgame (skill increases carry over from one life to the next, as does the currency you accumulate (“Sim Points”), which you can spend on additional starting ammo, health packs, and so forth), and a “corruption” mechanic gradually increases the difficulty within the current life, meaning the longer you take the more and tougher enemies there are, and if you take too long, the “simulation” resets and that’s it for that life. It’s a brutal game of resource management: you have to shepherd five characters to escape, and bullets you pick up as one character won’t be there for the next. Hoover everything up, and none of the other characters will have any of the resources they need to survive. It’s a giant puzzle, and only dedication and repetition will enable success in solving it.
In contrast, Borderlands 3 (one is not typing out the entire silly name of this game every time one references it) is a straightforward expansion of Borderlands 2 (reviewed here). Other than the elements listed above (low-G, etc.), an oxygen depletion mechanic (something missing from the other two expansions), and the usual run-of-the-mill expansion pack features (new enemy types, new weapons, new weapon effects, etc.), it plays nearly exactly the same as its sequel predecessor, for which it is a prequel of. The biggest changes are better use of Eridium, I mean Moonstone, more ways to use money, and the Grinder (which lets you trash old gear in return for upgraded gear).
Other than those it’s the same old thing: you get missions, you wander back and forth across the same areas a couple of times killing everything (because it’s already trying to kill you), and picking up rarity-color-coded loot (basically a demented Diablo 2 randomized loot system). You turn in completed quests for XP and other benefits, level your dude up, and head out to walk across the same terrain (and occasionally new terrain), killing everything looking at you funny. It’s straightforward and brutal, verging on repetitive and boring, and only saved by the game’s sense of humor and “unique” visual aesthetic.
“Lost on Mars” is Far Cry, complete with guns to get and upgrade, fast-travel points to activate, enemies to kill, gear and currency to loot, and towers you need to climb to activate, so you can be filled in on local points of interest. True, Far Cry 5 (reviewed here) eliminated climbable towers (much to my sorrow), but “Mars” brought them back, and their higher and more vertiginous than ever before (requiring the use of the afore-mentioned jetpack to climb). The main enemies throughout the first part of the game are hostile aliens, including the sand-diggers, monster queens, and what I can only assume are Cliff Racers accidentally imported from Morrowind and set free to torment the player, again. And again. And again. (That “again, again, again, again, again, again” goes for the rest of the expansion as well.) Despite that, it’s Far Cry and either you like it or you don’t.
Switching between these games is an eerie experience, because much of the gameplay is so different from any other game, and yet so similar to each other. (Not that strategies directly translate from one game to the other, much the pity.) I won’t go so far as to say that people who like one will like the others—they’re not that similar, and each expansion has more in common with its base game than each other—but they’re definitely eerily alike.
Playing one, then shifting to another invokes an experience I can best describe as video game deja vu, the sense that I’ve done something very much, but not entirely, like this before. I’m on the fence as to whether that’s a good thing or not, but one thing I do know:
These three expansions prove my contention at the top: Everything’s been done before, so stop worrying about being original and start worrying about being good.