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Primal Carnage Review – Early Days

Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat. If you’ve been waiting your entire life for a game that lets you take control of a Tyrannosaurus and eat humans with abandon, and if you think that £10 is a fairly negligible sum of money for letting you fulfil this dream, then… well, I won’t be too hurt if you stop reading right now and immediately buy Primal Carnage. It’s a game which currently suffers from some serious faults and you should probably hear about them first, but if you’ve got that particular itch, I can’t think of anything that’ll better scratch it.

For those of you who are still here, let’s get one other thing straight: I don’t particularly like dinosaurs. I was never obsessed with them as a kid. I didn’t draw pictures of velociraptors hunting down a stegosaurus (and not just because one lived 75 million years before the other, although I probably would have enjoyed upsetting my classmates by pointing that out). I didn’t even enjoy Jurassic Park. Dinosaurs kinda bore me.

Now that I’ve alienated pretty much everyone that might be reading this: hello! I’m glad you’re still here. Let’s talk about Primal Carnage in a bit more detail, eh?

The short way of describing Primal Carnage is to say that it’s Jurassic Park as an asymmetrical, multiplayer-only, class-based, team deathmatch game, which doesn’t actually seem that short now that I come to type it out. A team of humans take on a team of dinosaurs in thickly vegetated maps. Each side has five classes to pick from. The humans shoot at the dinosaurs, while the dinosaurs try to eat the humans. Right now, this is literally the entire game.

Each class has its own specialties, with little to no crossover. On the human side, for instance, the shotgun-wielding Pathfinder can hurl flares that blind nearby dinosaurs, while the Trapper’s netgun can slow bigger dinosaurs and completely entangle smaller ones, setting them up for an instant kill with his knife. The dinosaurs focus more on up-close carnage, but they’re no slouches when it comes to the special abilities either – the Novaraptor can pounce on humans in a manner very similar to Left 4 Dead‘s Hunter, while the Pteranodon can let out an ear-piercing screech, marking nearby humans for ground-based dinosaurs.

With the exceptions of the Carnotaurus and the ground-shakingly huge Tyrannosaurus, the dinos generally need to stay in cover and approach humans unseen or they’ll be picked off long before they can get close enough to do any damage. Probably for the best that each map is carpeted with shrubs, trees, ferns, tall grass, and all sorts of other bits of leafy cover, then – which can make the rather open maps feel a bit claustrophobic when you’re trampling through the undergrowth as a human.

It’s worth noting that the game looks astonishing. The dinosaur models and textures are nothing short of wonderful, and the animators have done a job worthy of applause. The vegetation looks lush and inviting, and it sways gently in the tropical breeze. Of course, it also sways when a Dilophosaurus is racing through it, leading to plenty of “did that move unnaturally or am I imagining it” moments which may or may not precede a horde of dinosaurs suddenly appearing behind you.

Speaking of which, Primal Carnage is a game which delivers plenty of heart-stopping moments that can very, very easily turn into stories, and yes, this sentence is a thinly-veiled justification for telling you one. The human team (myself included) had decided to hole up in a clearing on the basis that we’d be able to see the lizard aggressors before they got too close. Before long, all hell broke loose: dinosaurs burst through the treeline, and we were barely keeping them from overwhelming us. I got involved in a protracted battle with a Novaraptor that had taken a particular dislike to me; I backpedalled madly while firing in its general direction, and it was doing its damnedest to not be shot. Finally – finally – I took it down… and realised that my team were on the other side of the clearing, moving further away from me, and shooting at something behind me. I turned around at the exact moment a Tyrannosaurus’ head lunged at me.

If I liked Jurassic Park, I suppose this is where I’d make a “clever girl” joke.

For all of the little triumphs, though… oh, bugger it; one more story before we get all serious and down on the game. The Pteranodon (which flies) can lift people in its claws, and then either drop them from a great height or just into the nearest ravine. A group of humans were holed up on a rock bridge, because of the high visibility afforded by the complete lack of vegetation. I alerted my teammates to their location with a roar, then waited for the humans to start shooting at the sudden wall of scales and teeth. Once they were suitably distracted I swooped down, picked someone up, flew about three feet, and dropped him into the chasm. Then again. Then again. It’s hard to beat that sort of satisfaction.

Where was I? Oh yes. For all the little triumphs, though, Primal Carnage has a number of serious problems. First and foremost is that almost every match devolves into a huge crush of dinosaurs charging into a huge crush of humans; humans are very, very easy to pick off on their own, so they stick together, and dinosaurs really have no way of splitting them up. As such, rather than sneaking around the map as a Novaraptor, picking off errant humans, you mostly just find yourself charging at a huge line of people. There’s room for nuance in there – you can sneak around behind them, or wait for a Dilophosaurus to blind a group with its spit, or keep an eye out for players running off to heal or get more ammo – but one way or another, it’s going to devolve into every dinosaur charging at every human, which loses its allure quite quickly.

The second problem is that games feels less like a competitive match and more like a big playground, which is occasionally broken up by a scoreboard that for some reason proclaims VICTORY even if you’re on the losing team. I’ve yet to play on a server with actual map rotation (although most of the servers appear to be located in the States, so my server choices are somewhat limited by ping) and there’s no HUD indication of team score or remaining time. There are never any situations where there’s pressure because both teams are close to winning. Nobody appears to pay any attention to the score. It’s just dinosaurs fighting humans on the same map, endlessly, swapping sides every 5-10 minutes.

The third problem is a lack of content. At the time of writing, the game has a grand total of one game mode – team deathmatch – and five maps. Much as the maps are pretty, and generally rather well-designed, they still devolve into dinosaurs charging at a big group of humans.

These three problems really kill the game for me; despite how enjoyable its individual elements are, after a few hours of play, I really have little desire to go back in. The ray of light is that the team have promised to fix the third problem with free DLC – including an objective-based mode – and this will hopefully fix the other two in one fell swoop. With proper objective play, a victory will hopefully feel a bit more meaningful, and humans might be forced to split up a bit more, leading to a greater set of strategies for both sides.

I’m not all that keen on recommending titles based on what’s apparently coming rather than what’s there, though, which leaves us in a bit of a quandry. Primal Carnage is a well-assembled game, but it really is still early on in its lifecycle (with the developers fixing and adjusting things as the community brings them up) and in some ways it feels a bit more like a highly-functional and highly-polished beta than a proper release. It’s got a lot of potential, but right now it just feels far too bare-bones.

So let’s put it like this: if you really, really want to swallow people whole as a Tyrannosaurus, or drop people into chasms as a Pteranodon, then you’ll get a good few hours of enjoyment out of this and you’re unlikely to regret the £10 it costs. But if you’re more like me and you haven’t spent the last two decades dreaming of being able to do these things in a game, then I’d suggest holding off until we see the quality of the promised DLC. Fun as Primal Carnage is, its current charms will wear thin rather quickly if you’re not completely in love with the theme.