The Hunter: Primal
At its worst, The Hunter: Primal lets you win knife fights with Utahraptors. Standing taller than a man, these intelligent pack hunters are unable to turn faster than you can strafe. They rotate on the spot, displaced cries looping as you wound them with a hail of weightless blows, then sprint off in a spasmodic zigzag to confound tracking. But in a twist unexplained by palaeontology, a fleeing raptor might launch you 50ft skywards, allowing gravity to accomplish what hooked claws could not. By offering a melee weapon as your sole starting gear, Primal exposes severe deficiencies in its AI, animation, audio design and aspirations to being a believable dinosaur-hunting sim. Getting up close to the reptiles kills the illusion of tense, skilful stalking and reveals a game as unlikely to appeal to hunting enthusiasts as it is gung-ho Jurassic Park day-trippers.
Unleashed via Early Access in December, Primal has made comparatively rapid progress to full release, the trade-off being minimal improvements over the beta: the dinosaur roster has been expanded to include the dog-sized Velociraptor and colossal Quetzalcoatlus, and player deployment is preceded by a much-needed item shop in which you can spend points earned through successful kills. However, the structure of the game remains unchanged, despite feeling like a proof-of-concept. Assuming you have no points to trade for weapons, you’re dumped on Primal Eden with a map fragment and an improvised machete. Hunt what you please; don’t get eaten. That’s all there is to it.
Small- to medium-sized dinosaurs are no match for the knife, even in numbers, but should you want to take on a Triceratops, T rex or Quetzalcoatlus, you’ll need the firearms that are spawned at random in the settlements scattered throughout the vast wilderness. It is mostly chance as to whether you survive long enough to reach an effective weapon: drop into the arse-end of nowhere and before you can even think about hunting, you’re faced with an hours-long trek in a direction that may have a settlement, that may contain a good gun, and that may come with an appreciable quantity of ammunition. This is far from a simulation: a real hunt requires foreknowledge of prey, the right equipment and the proper ammunition. Imagine if Euro Truck Simulator made you walk your deliveries until you stumbled on an unguarded lorry in a lay-by.
The randomness is made more galling since your inventory is dropped upon death. Should you eventually secure a weapon but be unlucky enough to become supper for a T rex before slaying any lesser reptiles, you’re back where you began with no points to spend on starting gear in the spawn menu. Even if you did leave small lizard devastation in your wake, the weapons available for purchase are level-gated, the newbie given access only to the stupendously ineffective bow – die once more and the points that went into it were wasted. Items can be retrieved from the site of your corpse, but again getting there is contingent on your spawn point and the disposition of the dinosaurs on the way your belongings (airborne Quetzalcoatli are fond of dropping people for an instant kill). Getting started is exhausting, and the opening hours will suffocate ambitions to unlock 50 ranks’ worth of guns. When development was in full swing, dinosaur tracking was a contentious issue. Following footsteps and droppings through ferny wilds for a single shot at a Triceratops that then bolts and starts the whole chase again is, for many, slow and insipid. But that much Primal does right: its target audience revels in the patience that precedes an all-or-nothing pull of the trigger. Creeping through prehistoric forests, meadows and coastlines without spooking prey and struggling to align vital organs down sights holds some of the authenticity Expansive Worlds intended to capture.
While it often feels as if Primal Eden was painted in batch instead of hand-crafted, the underbrush itself is responsible for the intensity of those chases that work as intended. Primordial ferns and grasses cloak the ground so thickly that you’d expect all but the highestend GPUs would be begging for death, yet Primal’s vegetation barely touches the framerate and is integral in disrupting sight lines and concealing predators. It’s close and foreboding, compounded by cacophonous insectoid droning, avian chatter and the cries of unseen dinosaurs – you can sense eyes on your organs.
When threats come at you, it falls apart. Audio cues give the position of the source inaccurately, causing momentary confusion as to where a hungry raptor is, and that easily means the difference between a kill and a restart without weapons. As social creatures, raptors communicate incessantly, but their cawing is devoid of animation – get within melee range and it feels as if squawks emanate from a soundboard taped to a flank.
Everything essentially functions, which is more than can be said of some games emerging from Steam Early Access, but The Hunter: Primal is blighted by an allround roughness that speaks of a game that needed longer to incubate: the player pain tell sounds like it was shouted too close to the microphone; button prompts persist when actions are impossible; the draw distance for dinosaurs is too short. Expansive Worlds entered Early Access with the raw concept for either an immersive hunting sim or a dinosaur shooter, but Primal hasn’t matured into either one. The hunter will be baffled by the crude introductory hours spent without means to hunt, while thrill-seekers will be disappointed by extended treks across Eden. Though Primal has been padded out with new dinosaurs, it’s an incomplete skeleton, and it’s a pity that it has exited development before it was fully evolved.
Imagine if Euro Truck Simulator made you walk your deliveries about until you stumbled on an unguarded lorry in a lay-by