Back to basics.
You know how, in archeological digs, the deeper you go the older the fossils get? In a boy’s juvenile development, there are similar strata by which to carbon date one’s emotional maturity. The earliest stage, like the pre-cambrian era, is the age of the firetruck and choo-choo train. Next come dinosaurs and cowboys. Then fireworks, fireflies, and plain ol’ fire. At the upper levels are Victoria’s Secret catalogs, Led Zeppelin, and drawings of penises. Finally there are video games and Martians. Don’t ask me what comes next. I still believe.
[image1]But once you are safely past the penis drawing stage, or the count the train cars stage, then a glance backward is acceptable. Listening to “Stairway to Heaven” when it’s played on the radio: OK. Holding a ‘sprinkling for the May Queen’ in someone else’s shrubbery: unsettling.
And that’s why Turok’s ridiculous premise: playing Indian while killing dinosaurs in outer space works as a pretty good mash-up of childhood fantasy. This new take on the Nintendo 64’s watershed game may not leave as big a footprint, but it does unearth some old fossils and prop them up for target practice.
The new Turok is set in the future, on a distant planet populated by dinosaurs. Rather than the time-travel device of the earlier game, this Turok is firmly set in the science-fiction world of James Cameron’s Aliens. Beginning with the opening sequence, which is a pitch-perfect reproduction of Signourney Weaver’s introduction to the Colonial Marines, Turok tracks the tried-and-true action storyline.
Here, Joseph Turok is sent with a team of what might as well be Colonial Marines to capture rogue special ops agent Roland Kane. When the team crash lands on the planet where Kane is hiding, they find that he is in possession of a virtual army of bad guys. Plus, dinosaurs. If there’s a connection between Kane and all the dinosaurs, this reviewer didn’t catch it.
But besides that plot hole, there are few surprises in this straightforward story. The familiarity isn’t all bad. One-line zingers throughout the game ring as true as any in a Schwarzenegger or Stallone vehicle from the early 90s. And the voice-acting is a notch above mediocre. By now, not having Ron Perlman in a video game might be called innovative, but add Powers Boothe, Donnie Wahlberg, and some other B-list actors, and you’ve got a fantastic palette of ironically trenchant performances. Oh, Timothy Olyphant, how you’ve fallen!
[image2]Maybe the movie, ahem, "stars" come out when the studio backing the game is Disney. As Turok is Disney’s first venture into the “mature” section of the gaming aisle, they’ve disguised their name. It may actually be bankrolled by the monied mouse, but it might as well have been Midway or any other producer of middle-of-the-pack shooters.
That’s because Turok toes the generic line. There are long corridor-like levels, big predictable bosses, and lots of guns to clear them away with. In many ways, Turok, in being upgraded to special ops agent, has lost much of his prehistoric personality. Take away the dinosaurs, and you’re playing any other sci-fi shooter.
But the dinosaurs make a big difference. All the major players are here: the raptors, the herbivores, and T-Rex himself. The dinosaur A.I. is exceptional, especially in the case of the raptors who will divert your attention in the front in order to flank you from the side. The bigger dinosaurs shake the ground (and your aim) when they tromp around, and little chicken-sized dinosaurs will nip at your heels before you wring their necks.
Most of the dinosaurs, as well as the human opponents, can be dispatched with special melee attacks. The camera zooms out for these moves, able to take in all the brutality of Turok leg-sweeping, suplexing, and slicing open of dinosaur and human alike. These moves are fun to watch, but grow old since they all are triggered by the same button. Even worse, if you aren’t in range of the opponent, that same button causes you to perform a lame half-speed Norman Bates impersonation with your knife. It isn’t uncommon to be spinning in a tight circle with a raptor, raising your knife like it was the proverbial roof.
The best thing about the dinosaurs, though, is the ability to get them to attack your enemy or each other. Well placed flares will attract dinosaurs toward bad guys. Plant a flare on another dinosaur and watch them tear into each other. Waking up sleeping dinos and watching them feast on bad guys is genuine fun and a smart twist to what would otherwise be plodding gameplay.
[image3]Unfortunately, the game doesn’t have much more going for it. The graphics are mediocre, and distinguishing between some of the environment textures causes remarkable eye-strain. Pushing through waves of enemies is fairly standard, and though the dinosaurs are blessed with intelligence, their human counterparts are not. Enemy agents will pour out of their spawn points heedlessly. In one precious scene, they do so for about five minutes straight, walking out of their fortress and into the waiting mouth of a T-Rex. It’s like human Pez, and only funny the first time through.
But you’ll play that, and almost every other moment in the game, several times over since dying is much more common than the woefully sparse checkpoints. In fact, Turok is one of the more difficult shooters to come down the pipe. This primarily has to do with the omission of any aiming assist or “auto-aim.” A standard feature on console shooters (COD4, Halo 3, etc.) nowadays, going back to pure aiming is a jolt at first. Some may love the purist approach, but there is no doubt that it makes the game more difficult, especially for beginners.
What’s more, adjusting the aiming sensitivity doesn’t seem to help how jumpy the aiming feels. Nudging the analog stick, even at the lowest sensitivity setting, makes your aim leap. Maybe it was licking all those prehistoric jungle toads, but this game just feels twitchy.
Still the single-player has its moments, like creeping through bug-infested tunnels to the light flickering from your flamethrower or discovering the trick to taking down a giant subterranean sea creature. The voice-acting helps, and the familiar story, when satirical, is not half bad. But all that goes for nothing when it comes to the online game, which is weaker than a trilobite under a glacier.
Multiplayer matches are difficult to get into—matchmaking can take a long time—and are even worse to play in. The weapons are unbalanced and aiming is difficult, especially since it is possible to move almost as fast as the refresh rate. Many times, you will watch in horror as an enemy will run through your continuous fire to melee kill you from the front. The instant kill nature of the melee attacks make them seem unfair, especially since most of the guns seem woefully underpowered. Even worse, the melee kills can take so long, stealing kills in the middle of elaborate take-downs is common.
[image4]With the exception of three welcome co-op levels, the multiplayer options are slim and uninspired. Capture the Flag games fare the worst as there are no maps to orient you in the uniform jungle settings. A heads up display will point you in the right direction, but the arrow is less useful than any kind of marker would be. The maps are few, and it is common to find yourself playing on the same crappy map several times in a row.
Populating the multiplayer maps with dinosaurs was a neat idea—the dinosaurs will sometimes save you or screw you up randomly. But getting the dinosaurs to attack the right people, especially since the multiplayer game is played on the run, is nearly impossible. At best, they throw a monkey wrench in the gears of a machine that has bigger problems.
The single-player campaign manages to amuse despite its many shortcomings. The graphics are stale, the shooting is formulaic and difficult, and the story is as standard as a “dinosaurs in outer space” story can be. Still, the weapons have neat “secondary fire” options and dinosaurs are just a notch cooler than the alien monsters that they replace. It might be a rental, but it’s a rental to enjoy.
But it ain’t a keeper. The online game is more disappointing than comet-induced extinction, and there is no reason to play the single campaign twice.