A fighter pilot darts through a sea of cloud, guns down another plane, and weaves between flaming ships.
The year is 1943, the Second World War seethes on the Atlantic, and our young ace is in hot water. There are two bogies on his tail, and the back of his craft starts coughing up dark smoke. He’s out of time. Plummeting toward the ocean, he ejects. Then, nothing. Everything stops. His free fall has frozen, colour has bled from the world, and there is a blinding flash. The seconds resume their flow, and an enemy squadron looms toward him. Only, in place of the Luftwaffe is a formation of pteranodons, skirling and curling through the heavens. He really is out time.
This strange setup – as unguessable as openings get – is from Dino Stalker, a 2002 sequel to Dino Crisis. Or, rather, a re-splicing of the same genetic materials. The first game, from 1999, clawed at your nerves, which made sense, given that it was directed by Shinji Mikami, who saw the Cretaceous period as a good place for bad dreams. The first ten minutes were a masterclass in tension: trails of blood, sharp shadows, and nobody in sight. It felt like an hour before you saw your first set of fangs. As the games wore on, the developer, Capcom, grew less patient. The second game broke from horror in favour of action; the third game was set in space, thoroughly adrift in zero gravity; and Dino Stalker was a light gun shooter, less concerned with fright than with a steady reloading of thrills.
Now we have Exoprimal, not an official entry in the roster but a meditation on the same philosophical inquiries. Namely, “What does it mean to be human?,” and “What if dinosaurs chewed through the perimeter fences of time and space and leapt into our lives?” The game was revealed back in March, and the trailer starred a heroine with scarlet hair. This led many to assume that she was Regina, the fiercely capable figure at the heart of Dino Crisis – and thus to assume that Capcom was rebooting the cult series. Alas, this is not the case. Instead, we have an online multiplayer shooter, all about mech suits and rogue A.I. and interdimensional rifts. Call it a product of its time.
The plot of Exoprimal isn’t exactly indecipherable, but it is – unlike the hordes that hare through it – extinct-on-arrival; how can a story be fit to survive in a terrain such as this? There are cutscenes that play after you finish so many online matches, and in between blurts of exposition there are documents and audio diaries to listen to in static menus. (Good luck with that, if you’re playing and chatting with friends!) Trying to glean the narrative reminded me of that early moment in Jurassic Park, in which patient brushes pick and scrub at old bones, only for an indignant onlooker, when the full picture is revealed, to call it “a six-foot turkey.”
The adventure opens with a similar scene to the one that began Dino Stalker: an aircraft pulled through a portal and spat into a lizard-infested patch of history. The difference is that this craft is staffed by a crew of exofighters, brave (or maybe just bored) souls who strap themselves into suits of robotic armour and slay anything with scales. Note the abdominal slats and stainless muscles, plus the red and spongiform lining; our heroes aren’t so much buckling themselves into these machines as healing into them, as if they were open wounds. The lead art designer is Toshihiro Suzuki, and there is more than a touch of Yoji Shinkawa here, whose fibrous sketches for Metal Gear Solid are a masterful study in the mingling of flesh and metal. But where Shinkawa saw a fearful symmetry in that fusion, inking his designs with a sense of awful power, there is no such foreboding in Exoprimal. These are toys – brightly hued, encrusted with accessories, and poised to bruise the arch of your foot something awful.
Still, playing with them is fun enough. At launch, there is only the one mode, Dinosaur Survival, in which you work in a team of five, pitched against another team of five in a race. Both groups are tasked with what we might call aggressive re-fossilisation: mowing down throngs of beasts, from velociraptors to tyrannosaurus rexes, with cameos from all that you would expect. The stegosaurus, with its back-mounted dinner plates. Naturally, the pteranodons, who flock to any prehistoric project. That one, with the neck like a fold-out fan, that spits blinding tar. And it’s always nice to see a triceratops in a game – even if the extent of your interaction is feeding high-velocity ammunition into the satellite dish of its face.
This being a Capcom game, there is a satisfying click and rattle to the combat. Say what you will about Resident Evil: Resistance and Resident Evil Re:Verse – two shambling attempts at infecting that series with a strain of online multiplayer – but the act of shooting zombies remained a pleasure. In Exoprimal, you fire into the swathes, watching numbers pop and scatter. This may not sound like a worthwhile use of one’s afternoon, but kathunk a grenade into a thick clump of raptors, and you will soon see the benefit. Each exosuit has its own powers and is filed into a certain class (support, tank, assault, etc.); thus, building and balancing a team is key. My personal favourites were Deadeye, who packed the aforementioned grenade launcher, and Murasame, who wields a samurai sword the length of a surfboard and zips to and fro with grapple hook.
You can hop between suits on the fly, too, shifting your team strategy. Try a spell as Witchdoctor, who likes to cast health-boosting Wi-Fi hotspots for his teammates; then switch to Krieger, who lugs a minigun that heats to a melting orange hue. The problem with Exoprimal is partly what it is: disposable fun for a string of online matches, a prospect sweetened by its inclusion on Xbox Game Pass. Partly what it lacks: any depth or drama to haul you to the end credits. And mostly what it isn’t: Dino Crisis. This, of course, is a churlish and unfair view; we can, and should, only judge the games in front of us. But it’s a simple question of scarcity.
We have markedly few games that centre on dinosaurs. Jurassic World Evolution has us breeding and hatching them, whipping up enclosures and slotting them in next to coffee shops, hoping to sufficiently caffeinate ticket sales. Monster Hunter has us walloping the stuffing out of them or riding them like steeds. And here we blast them, as though they were no different to the rotting ranks of zombies that gnaw on any number of online team shooters. What we don’t have is a chance to be scared of them. That was the triumph of Mikami’s game. Like Spielberg, he knew that dinosaurs didn’t represent friends, helpers, or attractions. They represented our swift and grizzly demotion from the top of the food chain. Time has somehow forgotten that, and you would have thought that Capcom, of all studios, would be ideally positioned to deliver the reminder: Fear the six-foot turkeys!
Platform: PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
Release Date: Out Now