The Hunter Primal: Fighting with your lizard brain in a prehistoric world - Games Weekly

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Hunter Primal: Fighting with your lizard brain in a prehistoric world

Running won’t work. Oh, the functionality for it is fine, but The Hunter: Primal discourages making swift movements by spawning dinosaurs behind you when you do. Pack hunters and Tyrannosaurus rex aren’t just drawn to your trampling feet, they’re born of them. It’s the sort of quirk expected in an Early Access title, particularly the spit and-glue survival and hunting sims that now run rampant in Steam’s storefront of works in-progress. Here, however, it’s hard to tell whether a draconian penalty for jogging is suspect coding or a statement of intent.

Primal is a prehistoric standalone spin-off of The Hunter, a free-to-play bloodsport sim and acquired taste. The Hunter is berated and praised in equal measure for its great empty wilderness that’s designed for steady tracking instead of slaughter. Expansive Worlds is proud of this authenticity and confident that its specialist audience wants more, only this time with Triceratops instead of turkeys. That’s based partly on the strength of staff feeling, and partly due to popular demand.

“When I took over Expansive Worlds,” CEO Pim Holfve says, “I started going through old feedback to see what The Hunter players wanted, and every so often dinosaurs popped up. Our game designer, Björn [Öjlert], was saying that dinosaurs are going to be the new zombies, and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. Whatever.’ But when we released The Hunter on Steam this summer, [dinosaurs] became the third-most-asked-for feature.”

Holfve expects Primal to leave Early Access around March, but development will continue for as long as interest exists. Already Primal Eden, on which you’re dumped to hunt dinosaurs, is convincingly Cretaceous. The extreme detail of DayZ’s Chernarus is lacking, but plant life flourishes, and the island is vast, bolstering the sense of isolation.

Set off into the distance, and there’s a good chance you will be eaten. If you sprint, you’ll be eaten. If you edge too hastily around a T rex, you’ll be eaten. If your gun sounds, flee but not too fast, or you will be eaten. The player’s fragility sets the pace. Only the daring cross Primal Eden at more than a crawl, and hours are spent shuffling between random loot crates, as marked by a PDA, in the hope of finding a serviceable weapon.

“I know the big drive right now is shooting dinosaurs,” Holfve says, “but it seems like a lot of people are enjoying how hard it is to survive. It’s also something that’s going to be up to the community in the end: how much they want the survival part and how much they want to shoot dinosaurs.”

‘Survival’ is a term used loosely. Hunger and thirst meters are out, the presence of Utahraptors being enough to keep life in check. A cursory glance at Primal’s Steam forum suggests support for the decision among a community of purists who brook no distraction from the hunt, but Primal Eden is a sparse place, devoid of minute-to-minute objectives. You wander at random and, if you can avoid ingestion, will eventually stumble on glowing footprints that mark the passage of prey. Creep along the length of the trail and your reward for being patient is the upper hand over the beast that left it.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, because it is a lot of waiting, and it is a lot of walking”
What follows is a moment of powerful tension, enough to alleviate the mental fatigue that comes with spells of schlepping through ferns: your quarry stops and takes in the air, and you have seconds to fire. The feeling can be heightened when coordinating with up to 16 friends, which is all but obligatory for T rex hunting, because even if you fail bring it down in a volley, it can’t eat everyone at once.

“I got my hunting licence last year,” Holfve says. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, because it is a lot of waiting, and it is a lot of walking, but the contrast of nothing happening for 20 minutes, and all of a sudden having a few seconds to decide whether to take a shot we see that as an extremely positive experience.”

On a Venn diagram, Primal exists where DayZ overlaps Train Simulator. It has taken pointers from survival successes, and comes at a time when interest in open-ended games is peaking, but it’s still an enthusiast’s pursuit, designed by people with hunting licences for fellow hobbyists. It’s hard to imagine Primal reaching the audiences of DayZ or Rust, but it doesn’t have to, or aspire to. Dinosaur hunting brings variety to a small, staid niche, and in that regard an open line to its devotees through Early Access will serve Primal far better than closed doors. This is bespoke development, and it’s helping to keep a community from extinction.

Got schooled 
Steam pundits aren’t the only community Expansive Worlds supports: The Hunter’s first T rex before this spin-off had been conceived was created by an intern from a Swedish game design school. Many among Expansive Worlds’ staff sit on educational advisory boards, taking pains to build ties with the next generation of developers. “They are really well prepared to start working in a studio,” Holfve says, “and they’re being productive from week two at least. They’ve got all these fantastic ideas that us old farts have stopped thinking up.” It was the enthusiasm with which interns set about modding The Hunter that convinced the EW team that primal was worth pursuing.

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