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Exoprimal review - a surprisingly rich blend of dino-killing and team vs team

Tyrannosaurus mechs.

While crafted from familiar pieces, Capcom's latest shooter is an enjoyable combination of mechs, dinosaurs and general silliness.

Over the past 20 years, video game developers have treated us to many cautionary AI stories with which to prise apart and comprehend today's burgeoning ChatGPTapocalypse. There's ECHO, with its baroque maze of surveillance chambers that spawn clones based on the player's activities. There's Observation, in which you are the AI - an eerie and thoughtful portrayal of a space station computer trying to figure itself out, while saving a human crew from abduction. And now there's Exoprimal, in which AI is a huge, glowing dude called Leviathan who upends big, steaming mugs of dinosaurs over maps and yells at you to massacre them so it can guzzle up your combat data and craft a better mech suit.

It's the algorithm-jinxed End of History you haven't been waiting for: ancient and futuristic pop signifiers biting and blasting each other over a single, endlessly repeating day on a tropical Bond villain-style island base, which exists outside the matches as a sort of "information pizza" of unlockable backstory documents, featuring words like "vortexer" and Much Ado about rogue timelines. It's also quite a decent shooter, offering up some fun mech classes and blending PvP with PvE in an engrossing way, though probably not worth the £55 it's currently asking on Steam. Gamepassers, rejoice! Here's another solid B-lister for your collection.

The trick to both enjoying and mastering Exoprimal is realising that it's not a fight, but a race. Each match sees teams of five players running from waypoint to waypoint, completing small objectives that consist initially of wave defence battles against the dinos, who are conjured from floating blobs of purple energy. The game's 10 mech suits, aka exosuits, come in DPS, healer and tank categories familiar from countless other hero shooters, notably Overwatch. There's Roadblock, who can throw up a shield for others to cower behind, Vigilant, who's got a hybrid sniper rifle you can charge up in scoped view or rapid-fire from the hip, and Skywave, a staff-wielding medic who can glide. Each exosuit has a couple of special abilities, a slowly ripening ultimate that, say, freezes time within an area or calls in artillery, a generic item such as a health kit, and slots for three stat modifiers.

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Victory over the dinosaurs is assured, even if you rock up with a team of excitable glass cannons and a single, world-weary Witchdoctor: you've got infinite respawns in the majority of modes, after all. The trouble is that there's another team working their way along their own chain of objectives in a separate instance. In one of Exoprimal's more inspired touches, you'll glimpse these parallel-universe Jurass-kickers as red phantoms while moving between mission areas. It's an opportunity to speedread their team composition, and get a sense of how they're faring against comparable threats - oops, that Roadblock hasn't seen the triceratops rumbling down the alley behind it, and oh dear, that darting Zephyr is struggling to pick off those wily pachycephalosauri.

Your real goal here is to reach the end of the chain before the other team does, with Leviathan serving as both mission command and match commentator, letting you know when you're ahead. Completing all the objectives initiates a second phase in which you might have to fight some tougher wave battles, escort a smashable data cube to an upload point, or gather scattered energy packets, to name a few of the gametypes that are gradually added to Exoprimal's core Wargame mode as you progress the story. The twist in the second phase is that teams can see and fight each other, with certain classes like the Vigilant coming into their own as player-killers. There's also a special map power-up, the Dominator, that lets you possess and run rampage as one of the bigger reptiles. You're more likely to get a Dominator if you're lagging behind: they're an extremely blunt way of stalling the other team and ensuring a close finish, a Mario Kart blue shell with enormous feet and fangs.

An escort mission in Exoprimal, with one player holding up a big shield to protect the player's healer exosuit from dinosaurs ahead.
A fight with a T-Rex in Exoprimal.
Image credit: Capcom/Eurogamer

Once you realise that Exoprimal is fundamentally a race, it transforms how you think about the otherwise unremarkable act of slaughtering retro lizards. Played as a pure PVE game, Exoprimal would be a formulaic co-op shooter whose entertainment value is at least 60 percent Friday night voicechat banter. But the subliminal competitive element tightens the fittings and lends the enemies a complexity I'm not sure they wholly deserve. You're not simply thinking about how to kill them, but how to do so quickly, with terrain layouts and spawn patterns that often make setting up a killzone tricky.

Packs of velociraptors need to be herded together for efficient disposal, whether by positioning yourself above chokepoints between you and the spawn, or using crowd control skills like the Skywave's gravbomb. Larger predators such as the spined and plated ankylosaurus or the carnotaurus (a Kiddy Menu T-rex) need to be locked down by a tank so that DPS players can flank and shoot their vulnerable spots. Permit the horde of uppity fossils to disperse across the arena, and you'll lose precious moments chasing each individual reptile down. From this perspective, the worst enemies in Exoprimal aren't the tyrannosaurs but the flying pteranodons, who are easy to miss and quickly spread out once they're in play. If you really want to earn the undying love of your team, I recommend nailing the timing for catching out a pteranodon flock as they exit spawn.

All this gets much fiddlier in the second phase. The dinosaurs arrive in greater numbers and from more awkward angles, their advance broken up by intervening wreckage - and then there's that enemy player circling around your position to cheekily use your Data Cube as cover, while they shoot you in the back. Based on 30 or so matches, Exoprimal doesn't have much depth as a PvP game: there isn't the same inter-class chemistry you find in Overwatch, with elementary gambits such as camping and playing a tank with a pocket healer carrying the day. But it's a fun challenge both to spot an enemy player before they deal any major damage, and decide when you can afford to split up and harry the opposing team.

A later battle from Exoprimal, with the player gliding above an area defended by forcefields.
Image credit: Capcom/Eurogamer

The other trick to enjoying Exoprimal is appreciating how it evolves. It's definitely quite a one-tricky-stegosaur right now, but that core Wargames mode houses plenty of surprises, with Leviathan adding new objective types and tougher, more fantastical dinosaurs as you unlock and level up stat mods and items - endowing your healer with a forceshield, perhaps, or reconfiguring your tank's chaingun to spin up a little bit faster.

There are also story-specific battles in which characters invade or meddle with the AI, forcing it to improvise, and sometimes tipping Exoprimal's whole premise upside down. It's the kind of lategame gotcha you rarely encounter in season-pass games, which tend to peg out everything unambiguously for the buyer. Speaking of which, there are microtransactable character skins, paintjobs and lootboxes aplenty here, a tidal wave of tat that is predictably charmless but doesn't really interfere with the workings of the game, beyond clogging up the menus.

The same is broadly true of the plot, which mostly consists of cutscenes and audio diaries aboard your dropship in which a vigorously acted multi-ethnic crew debate Leviathan's objectives, while your mute customisable protagonist chills out in the background. The performances are entertaining, but the writers clearly know they're just filling time in the lobby - there's a multiple-episode gag about everybody wanting the same screwdriver - and the cinematics have an irritating habit of replaying lore docs for clues.

Leviathian, your chief adversary and host in Exoprimal - an AI who portrays itself as a giant humanoid being.
A cutscene from Exoprimal, showing a nerdy side character and a robot pal shaking hands.
Image credit: Capcom/Eurogamer

As a whole, Exoprimal benefits from what I call the Capcom effect - a lesser cousin of the legendary Nintendo effect, referring to a certain, distinctive balance of engaging, plausible physics and stylised, whimsical animation that makes the whole thing feel quietly joyous. You see it in Monster Hunter characters striking a Mr Universe pose whenever they heal, and in the way Street Fighter looks like a painting but hits like a wrecking ball. The exosuits - whose proportions and flourishes call to mind Transformers as much as they do Capcom's old Lost Planet series - have a lovely swagger to them which makes up for their familiarity as combat classes. The roller-blading Nimbus dances when firing its pistols, while the hulking Murasame takes a step when swinging its sword, allowing you to slide about the room during a combo.

It's a sight for saur eyes, but not quite enough to make Exoprimal essential. There's real cleverness to the PvPvE balance, and to how Leviathan modifies that one, core mode as the game unfolds, but after 15 hours, it still feels like an exercise in reshuffling well-worn pieces. I don't think it earns that blockbuster price tag. As a subscription game, though, Exoprimal is dino-mite.

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