Early Access Investigations – theHunter: Primal

I am a pretender to the throne of Robert Muldoon. Clutching a combat shotgun and stalking the jungles of Eden, I know she’s close. She’s a clever girl.

theHunter: Primal is the surprising follow-up to Expansive Worlds’ conventional but no less accomplished theHunter, or The Hunter. We’ve traded out terrestrial buck and company for something far more exciting, making my inner dino-nerd trill and the nostalgia klaxon blare in remembrance of early prehistoric hunting series Carnivores. If you ever trudged through those polygonally-austere affairs, you’d like the cut of theHunter: Primal’s jib. If you missed out, but the idea of stalking dinosaurs through the tropical topography of an alien world, read on.

Much like the original Carnivores, you’re jettisoned via drop-pod into the verdant domain of, at this stage, three distinct dinosaurs. Each iconic, the Triceratops, Utahraptor and Tyrannosaurus prove interesting and unique quarry for would-be hunters. Players start from scratch with nothing but a Palm Pilot, bow and lurid yellow pioneer threads that, as you would rightly expect, make one stand out like dog’s proverbials. From there, it’s a case of tracking dinosaurs and scavenging o’er hill and dale for gear crates. If resilient, you’ll survive long enough to accrue a number of beast-stopping firearms, as well as clothing that’ll help you blend into your surroundings. The quicker one ditches the hors d’oeuvre jumpsuits, the better.

Using a combination of sight and the Settlermate palm pilot, tracking dinosaurs involves finding evidence of their movement. Sections of footprints can be found, which dictate their direction. You can also get your Ellie Sattler on and find piles of scat, which – once scanned by the trusty Settlermate – can give you rough indication of size. These are then logged and you’re soft-locked to a particular trail. Come across another indicator of dinosaur movement and it’s also logged on the Settlermate map. The Settlermate also has a sound sensor that can be pinged, so any dinosaurs bellowing in the immediate vicinity leave a brief signature on the map. Given the lethality of the carnivores, tracking either the Rex or the Utahraptor is a tense experience. The trike is a different kind of beast to stalk, on account of its hefty frame and lumbering skittishness at the first sign of contact. It can bolt with alarming speed if startled, and put a great deal of distance between you and it in little time. Again, sound, footprints and droppings are the signposts through the undergrowth and the eventual kill. Or being killed.

Across Primal Eden, or Site C as I like to call it, the terrain is thick, often wooded and rarely ever flat. There are ruins of outposts scattered across the island, forming some long-abandoned toehold in a very lost world. Despite these structural blips forming interesting focal points, I found myself coming to know particular forests, ridges and valleys with as much familiarity. The inland swamps. The lava fields on the volcanic slope. The South-Eastern circular inlet and so on. After a while, I rarely used my Settlermate and instead, used the lay of the land to locate my position. Given the excess of gullies, hills, forests, plateaus and plains, there’s a great sense of satisfaction in simply looking about and knowing roughly where you are.

theHunter: Primal requires an online connection to play, even in single player. It’s a thorny proposition, but the developers do tout character and gear persistence across every session. Why that couldn’t be stored locally, I don’t know. However, this game is a joy to play online, either operating solo or teaming up with Roland Tembo and friends. With such a focus, and actually having others lurking about in the dense foliage and ranging the peaks, I daresay any quibbles regarding its always-online requirement are ameliorated. theHunter: Primal works best when you hear the distant rapport of a hunting rifle, or see the scrolling obituary of a pioneer now quietly digesting within a Rex. Knowing up to fifteen others are out there, tracking in groups and spotting from afar; the game is not fundamentally different, but enriched by the company of others.

Unlike the DayZs and H1Z1s of this world, or any other of this new breed of open-world survival genre, theHunter: Primal is lean. While we’re still dealing with something in Early Access, I don’t believe Expansive Worlds will bloat their project with the usual paradigm trappings. No inventories full of trash, nor crafting. This is a hunting game, and where the line between predator and prey is blurred and often reversed. Scavenged items are strictly business acquisitions, be they clothing, firearms, ammunition or items dedicated to the cause of survival and felling prehistoria.

It is this narrow focus that might theHunter: Primal’s make-or-break moment in the eyes of many gamers. It’s an easy sell for a particular type of gamer; ones who don’t mind the long breaks between action, who can appreciate the dedication to the concept of the hunt. The act of carefully traversing through the wilderness, often stopping simply to listen, is an antithetical concept in modern gaming. A weapon remaining unfired for long stretches of time is almost unfathomable. Here, it is undeniably refreshing.

We’ve got a few saurian irons in the fire in Early Access, as well as a few out in the wilds of full release. The Stomping Land has seemingly crashed and burned in a spectacle of in-fighting. Wave-based rags-to-riches-and-redemption in Orion: Prelude allows you to really get your Halo on against a tide of scaly beasts. The Primal Carnage multiplayer games bottle chaos in their asymmetric humans versus dinosaurs affair. You might even roll back to the hilarious Dino D-Day for a fix of fine farce. With the exception of The Stomping Land, dinosaur fans have been serviced rather well in the absence of decent Jurassic Park or Turok experiences.

However, dinosaurs in the aforementioned games are merely enemies; standby player characters or augmentations that simply happen to be saurian. This is different. In much the same way as I love the roaming, seemingly freeform web of life in STALKER, knowing that there are dinosaurs out there in the wilderness for me to discover is half the reason to indulge here. While they don’t yet lack that Zone-esque self-sustained interactivity – I’ve not seen any species in the vicinity of each other, let alone carnivores on the prowl for a trike – spotting and trailing each beast is enthralling. Perhaps it is the size of the map in relation to the spread of their roaming. Or the sound – particularly that of the Utahraptors.

The trill and bark of these lean pack-hunters is perfectly arranged, inflicting the right sense of anticipatory dread that you’d want from an encounter. I managed to track down a particular breed of shotgun before being set upon by a solo raptor, the climax to a haunting prelude of mysterious honks and snarls somewhere in the thickets. Unloading two barrels of buckshot into the creature, I felt a moment’s relief, before realising the sound had attracted its packmates and my remaining cartridge was spat high. Death came under a dark, monsoonal sky, where the rolling thunder coalesced with the chitter and snap of a hungry mob. No more glorious a death was had that day.

But Early Access does leave room for further development, and while this spiel is markedly positive, I would like to see a few more things added or tweaked. Having to initially scavenge a firearm is a touch contentious, so perhaps a toggle in the final release to allow pioneers to spawn with a gun of host-selected cailbre might be appreciated. There are still a number of bugs, with some clipping issues causing dinosaurs – especially old Rex – to hang on trees or go for a permanent swim. I’d also like to see more work done on dinosaur animation; the raptors need to lunge and sweep and flank, rather than making a stodgy beeline. Unlike a Rex, where charging at a player is understandable, a Utahraptor should dance. It’d be nice to also see a few more passes on walking animation over irregular and sloped terrain, as well as more attention to idling animation like bristling or snorting. Articulated neck movement for each dinosaur wouldn’t go astray, either, as the inflexibility of each creature in the upper body does echo the magnificent misfireTrespasser. Forget pioneer animation, I want every lizard in this game to be a benchmark going forward.

If I sound like an Alan Grant wannabe, it is most certainly because I am. theHunter: Primal is my kind of dinosaur game. Serious, deliberate, devoid of cheap thrills or gamey silliness. A game where the finger being off the trigger is as satisfying as squeezing it. Powerful prehistoric imagery borne of books and youthful fancy finally receives an outlet, and unless something goes horribly wrong between now and the day of full release, theHunter: Primal should be on continued rotation for a good while yet.