I couldn’t get Destiny 2’s Gambit mode out of my head as I hopped into a brief closed beta test for Exoprimal, an upcoming online shooter from Capcom, also known as the maker of the inexplicably unrelated Dino Crisis. I’m grateful to Gambit for not only demonstrating the normally theoretical limits of my patience, but also for training me to identify horribly imbalanced PvPvE games. It’s not just that Exoprimal’s opening bit is functionally identical to Gambit – two teams blow raspberries at each other from opposing platforms while waiting for a lovable dickhead to teleport them to hell – but that it, too, is routinely dragged down by PvP. There is fun to be found in any game that lets you kickflip a T-Rex, but I worry Exoprimal’s competitive side is so rancid it’ll spoil the whole game.
Left 4 Dinosaur
The premise for Exoprimal is every bit as campy as I’d hoped. You’re an over-eager agent working for Aibius, a company apparently Doing Science by hurling mecha soldiers at hordes of dinosaurs which literally appear out of thin air at the command of Leviathan, a plainly villainous artificial intelligence. That “science” boils down to two teams of five players competing – and sometimes collaborating – to kill dinosaurs like velociraptors, T-Rexes, and triceratops as fast as possible.
The beta had four mech suits to choose from: two DPS Assault suits named Deadeye and Zephyr, the Tank Roadblock, and a Support healer called the Witchdoctor. You can swap suits whenever you want, but as multiplayer custom dictates, nobody ever wanted to tank or heal despite on-screen warnings about team class diversity, so I spent a fair bit of time with Roadblock and Witchdoctor. That said, when I was on an Assault suit, I preferred the range focus of Deadeye to the melee attacks of Zephyr. Given the choice, I’d rather shoot a T-Rex from a distance than get in biting range.
I could customize my loadout with one adjustable bit of gear – the choice of a small heal, a leap ability, or a piercing laser – and deploy cover with collectible barricades, but my kit was largely set by my choice of exosuit. As we’ve established, Deadeye shoots stuff and Zephyr stabs stuff. Roadblock can draw enemy attention, put up a big shield like Overwatch’s Reinhardt, and use it to bash dino skulls in. Witchdoctor can zap allies with a ranged heal, drop a big AoE heal, and paralyze monsters with a pretty wimpy-feeling stun gun.
Every suit has its niche, but everyone on the team is on dino-killing duty first and foremost, which leads us to the game modes. My first match was basically a series of horde encounters. Leviathan would lead us to one part of a destroyed city, spawn in a bunch of dinosaurs, and tell us to kill ’em as fast as we can. Sometimes we’d have a vehicle to escort or defend, other times we were just trying not to get eaten. The goal was to clear encounters faster than the other team, which was going through the same route in another match loosely overlaid with ours, with phantoms of enemy players popping up like time trial ghosts in racing games. No real PvP, just kill dinos faster. Competitive PvE. Left 4 Dino with a timer.
Here’s an evaluation that’ll blow your mind: killing a zillion dinosaurs with an assault rifle is good, video game fun. Velociraptors are the grunt units of Exoprimal, and they pour out of the map like scarabs out of sand mounds in The Mummy. They’re fun to chew through and fall like tissue paper, but the horde is threatening enough that using abilities efficiently is important when you’re trying to clear a path to more dangerous targets like explosive or acid-spitting neosaurs. Dodging a charging triceratops or T-Rex while wading through a veritable pool of raptors sounds exciting on paper and it works pretty well here. Abilities and guns are punchy, the movement’s pretty smooth – though the jump is oddly short – and the game ran great on my PC.
Get me out
The problems started in match two, which began with more horde mode stuff and a T-Rex fight, but ended with the most ill-advised PvP mode I’ve encountered in some time. The goal of this mode is to collect 100 energy cartridges before the other team, except the enemy team is very much a part of the match here. You can kill enemy players to steal their cartridges and slow down their progress, so PvP quickly becomes essential – and just as quickly becomes a slog.
This mode is so flawed and deeply unfun that I don’t know where to begin. First of all, these exosuits don’t feel built or balanced for head-on PvP. The abilities and roles that bring Exoprimal’s PvE to life just don’t work well in this environment; everything is either hilariously overpowered or completely useless. Secondly, the core objective of the mode boils down to picking up trash at designated trash zones. Zones pop in with a certain amount of cartridges around, and once you pick them up or enough time passes, it will fade out and a new zone will appear somewhere else. As an objective this is a pretty good one for community service, but it’s dramatically less good for an action multiplayer game.
The biggest problem of all is that none of this has anything to do with killing a zillion dinosaurs. That’s what I signed up for, Exoprimal! It’s what you promised me. But now the dinosaurs are just a distraction; background noise to be ignored so that terrible PvP can take the stage. Hell, you’re encouraged not to kill a zillion dinosaurs in this mode. That’s time that could be spent picking up trash, you fool. You absolute buffoon. Stop having fun and get those cartridges.
How do you build a dino shooter and then tell players not to shoot dinos? That’s cruel and unusual. That’s like cooking a delicious meal right in front of someone and then telling them to eat the plate. I don’t want to eat the plate, Exoprimal, and I don’t want to pick up trash either. I had infinitely more fun in the normal horde modes, not to mention the 10-man mode where our teams combined forces to kill a giga T-Rex before we ran out of time or revives.
The mere possibility of playing that PvP mode again – and it came up twice within my first four, randomly matched games – completely kills my desire to ever revisit this game as-is. Nothing about Exoprimal struck me as gotta-play-more electrifying, but the PvE was pretty solid for such an early and limited beta. It was fun. Shooting dinosaurs is fun, and now you can do it with four friends in mech suits. Terrific. More of that, please. And racing against another team is fine, but let me opt out of the direct PvP, dramatically overhaul it, or don’t even bother.