Version tested: Xbox 360
With former publisher Acclaim long since bust and memories of Turok: Evolution as few as they ever were favourable, Touchstone Games' 2008 Turok gets the benefit of a fresh start, even if Propaganda Games' narrative rebuild is anything but: space marines shot down on a hostile planet, anyone? As Joseph Turok, a Native American black-ops knife specialist new to his unit, you're tasked with hunting down Roland Kane, of whose Wolf Pack unit you were once part.
After a few middling cut-scenes and a brief button tutorial dressed up as a flight through a spaceship under fire, you're dumped in the jungle. An Unreal Engine 3-powered first-person shooter with some stealthy knife-kill bits, Turok pits you against Kane's endless army of fascist goons in fancy dress and the rather more savage indigenous population of velociraptors, tyrannosaurs and other grumpy lizards. The dinos are the more versatile of your enemies - harder to spot than the humans and prone to spawning behind you (sorry, "flanking"), they move quickly and unpredictably, pouncing from trees and rocky crevices, and filling the air with grunts and growls that advertise each new area's expected enmity.
To tackle them, you have an arsenal of meaty weapons, including shotgun, assault, pulse and sniper rifles, and eventually a flamethrower, but Turok's best weapons are his knife and bow. The latter is both silent and devastating, given time to aim, but the knife is the more exciting, allowing you to sneak through the visual cover of long-grass to dispatch the goons, or even dinos. Yes, you can stealth-kill raptors, leaping onto their backs to slit their throats (quite why Muldoon didn't think of this...), or plunge the knife into their heads as they move toward you. Anything that lives can be melee-killed if you tug the right-trigger button when prompted (including unsuspecting herbivores - harsh), and the cut-away third-person animation is a gruesome reward reminiscent of Gears of War's chainsaw bayonet slayings, or the counter-attacks in Assassin's Creed. Propaganda also fords the bloody river between mid-to-long-range projectile engagement and knifey throat-slitting with the occasional QTE button-mash - allowing you to fight off raptor mauls by matching randomised prompts for waggling the analogue stick or hammering the triggers.
You can also use the dinos to your advantage. They're dangerous, but once you grow in confidence you can clear a valley of raptors with nothing but the knife, while Kane's rifle-packing minions are more withering in their attacks, forcing you to keep your distance for fear of getting stuck reloading in their midst. Fortunately, the dinos seem to have a thing for flares, which your shotgun packs as alt-fire, allowing you to turn the terrible lizards on whoever's annoying you, man or dino. Resist the urge to announce yourself with bullets as you enter an area, stock up on flares, equip the bow, and keep the knife on standby as you crouch through the undergrowth, and you can cause all sorts of damage with a minimum use of ammunition. Propaganda regularly opts for broad, multi-tiered terrain with lots of grass, hollowed out logs and other points of cover for the game's set-piece encounters, so there's often lots of room and plenty of options for patient hunters.
The visuals can be very cartoon-like - chunky, big-nosed characters with endless scars, too many identikit moss-covered trees, grass that dances randomly to simulate wind, and ragdoll bodies for man and lizard that spasm endlessly post-mortem - but Propaganda does a good job with dense foliage and dino audio to build up a hostile atmosphere, and there's an appreciable effort on the developer's part to change and escalate, not just with more enemies, but with regular set-pieces, like the descent along a sniper-covered ridge into crumbling ruins, a cat-and-mouse battle with a suitably gigantic tyrannosaurus rex, and the introduction of new beasts, like the tree-climbing lurker, which looks a bit like an iguana and moves and acts like a panther with its tail on fire.
There's a desire to fall back on the knife, bow and shotgun, but the level design encourages you to use the rest of your arsenal, like the one-hit-kill sniper rifle, the RPG, the pulse rifle and the flamethrower, until you're often sad to have to leave one behind, which is a good sign for a shooter. Dual-wielding is another option, which robs you of the ability to look down the sights with the left trigger, but compensates with, well, two guns. The two or three minutes after you grab the first pair of shotguns, fighting raptors in the dark, are seriously meaty.
For all that's good on paper, though, the novelty of stabbing dinos is little more than that, and the satisfaction of a knife-kill is often spoilt by the game's clumsy timing, right-trigger prompts coming half a second before or after you expect them, leaving you to wait for a limp knife-flapping animation to finish before you can try again, and of course leaving you open to mauling. The cut-away third-person kill routines often spin you around too, and environments are densely detailed but repetitive in a way that often robs you of your bearings. Meanwhile the analogue aiming can be cumbersome, with dead-zone and turn acceleration issues that leave you struggling to pin down erratic enemies.
The biggest problem, though, is checkpointing, which is either bad or cynical depending on your point of view. Too often you're forced back a good five minutes or further through tough encounters, and just as often because the game threw someone in behind you or denied you a knife kill due to its own inconsistent timing. This kind of death is particularly stinging when the game is in the grip of one of its less imaginative bits, which are all too frequent. An early example - a slow elevator ascent under fire from multiple enemies, complete with having to get off halfway up to restart the lift mechanism as enemies rush out of nearby blast-doors on cue - is typical of this: bad design compounding dull design, over and over again. And while having the screen blur to illustrate your health (it clears up again if you can stay out of trouble) seems like a sensible alternative to hit-points, not being able to see when you're trying to locate the enemy that you hadn't spotted obviously just exacerbates the problem.
It also takes itself much too seriously. When Gears of War brought us chainsaw bayonets, flapping piranha bats and ketchup geyser jugulars, it was almost knowingly absurd. Turok is a similar game in one sense: the Nazi stormtroopers, the hard-men stereotypes and "I don't trust you, man" banter straight out of Aliens, and - for goodness sake - running up to prehistoric eight-foot predators with razor-sharp teeth and claws, jumping on their backs and riding them around to stab them in the head. It didn't occur to anybody that this was, you know, rather funny? Playing it straight feels like a huge misjudgement. Where are the one-liners; the "I like to keep this handy for close encounters"? It's not silly enough about how silly it's being, and as a result when the absurdity gives way to inadequacy, you're not in the mood to laugh it off.
It's not just the checkpointing (although god damn, chaps!), or the lack of signposting in repetitive environments, or the boss fights that end when you succeed by chance or get booted back to the checkpoint before the preceding raptor/goon-hunt. The problem throughout is that the quality is so inconsistent. At times you're stalking happily through an atmospheric, competent shooter with some novel elements (like Rambo taking out state troopers with poo-sticks), but within seconds you're flinging the pad down in disgust as the difficulty spikes, or the controls jam up, or someone spawns behind you, or an explosive barrel gets thrown off a cliff onto your head. You die too often on account of things that aren't your fault, and succeed too often on account of things you barely meant or understood.
If you fancy a break, you can head online with deathmatch, team deathmatch, a couple of CTF variants or a small number of four-player co-op maps, and there are some nice touches here, making good use of AI dinosaurs and knifing. A huge number of the Xbox 360's Achievements are given over to online play (including the infamous team-killing Grab Bag Achievement, which still seems to be in place at the time of writing), and we had no trouble finding or playing games. Gears and Call of Duty 4 are more satisfying and nuanced, but you can't fault Propaganda for neglecting the multiplayer side of Turok.
Overall though, you can't really give it too much credit either. Turok is at its best when you slow down and make use of your surroundings and arsenal. The reason it loses so many points is that it can be at its absolute worst ten seconds later, and that while its lows are paralysingly dreadful, its peaks are never much more than competent, or fleeting novelties spoilt by cliché, repetition or sloppiness.
6 / 10