Forget Exoprimal's dinosaurs and evil AI, the real villains are its surprisingly capable bots
Hold onto your butts
After giving us an early glimpse of its unstoppable raptor hordes in a closed beta test last summer, Capcom recently let us loose with the opening hours of their upcoming dinosaur multiplayer shooter, Exoprimal. Its final release isn't far away now - its July 14th launch fast becoming the sole highlight of an otherwise desolate month - and I was excited to finally play the game that RPS vid bud Liam literally hasn't been able to stop talking about ever since he first clapped eyes (and his thumbs) on its somersaulting T-Rexes. (You should also read his excellent interview with the devs while you're at it, too).
I'll hold my hands up now and say I didn't get to play as much of Exoprimal as I would have liked, but the handful of missions I did play really are as daft and brilliant as Liam described last year. I won't waste time repeating its fundamentals (you can read them here), but the basic setup is thus: in a world plagued by dinosaurs that periodically pour out of strange portals for some reason, you play a rookie dino hunter that gets pulled into a time-looping wargame set up by your company's clearly psychotic AI called Leviathan. In order to gather valuable 'combat data' for its simulations to fight said dinosaur threat, Leviathan endlessly ropes you and other rookie exosuit wearers into deadly feats of speed and skill. It's a neat, if patently preposterous setup for its 5v5 PvP multiplayer missions, but the thing that struck me most wasn't its gloriously silly dinosaurs or Leviathan's perfectly pitched ham lines. It was its bot companions, because heck, they're great to play with, but absolute fiends if you're on the wrong side of them.
I should say, I am glad that the bots exist. Exoprimal does its best to match you with other players whenever you start a mission, but it will also fill in the blanks with AI-controlled teammates in a relatively timely fashion if it can't find anyone for you to play with - as I occasionally found during this preview period. There are no endless waiting rooms, no sudden dropouts back to menu screens because you happen to be playing on an empty server that day. It gets you into the action fast, whatever your final human player count is. A good first impression, then, and the presence of its bots also made me feel more confident about Exoprimal's longevity post-launch, too.
They're smart bots, too. They'll generally ensure that your team has a good mix of different classes and exosuit types on the field, and they're all dab hands at taking down the actually very stoppable raptor hordes that Leviathan beams in to munch on you. Sure, there's definitely a sense that you're still the clear MVP here, but they don't make you feel like you're doing all the heavy-lifting. That's important when missions typically run for 20-30 minutes at a time, and it would be a right old slog if they were always next to useless and you were effectively fending them off solo the entire time.
There is a 'but' to this, however. For as much as the bots are great to have on your own side, a full team of rival AI bots is a force to be reckoned with. They're so strong, in fact, that I actually never won a single match against them, which naturally became quite disheartening after a couple of consecutive rounds. You still, thankfully, gain experience and all that jazz if you lose, but not as much as if you win, which can make progress and levelling up feel sluggish and a little demotivating.
This isn't helped by Leviathan's alternately upbeat / intensely disappointed updates on how you're faring between mission points. You see, the general setup of Exoprimal's early missions - and indeed its primary Dino Survival mode as a whole - isn't your typical 5v5 deathmatch fare, but as a race against the other team. For the most part, you're competing in these missions separately, operating in the same map but invisible to the other side. If you're lagging behind, you'll occasionally see ghostly glimpses of your rivals congregating in the next mission spot ahead of you, but they'll quickly vanish once your next combat objective starts properly. You'll complete a handful of these little scenarios in each mission, but I always came to dread Leviathan's inevitable robotic sigh as he announced we were, yet again, performing more slowly than our rival bot team. They were always just a few seconds ahead of us, and we could never quite catch them or get out in front.
As the sole human player in this situation, this often made me feel like I was the extra deadweight, even though in the moment I felt like I was doing everything I could to hold the team together and get things done faster. And it's entirely possible that I was the deadweight here, too. In no way am I professing to be an Exoprimal master in any of this, but when you're putting your all into trying to tip the scales in your favour and it still isn't enough, it does make Exoprimal a tough beast to really enjoy.
The game does try and give the losing team a bit of a leg up in places. If you're really biffing it, you'll be granted control of your very own T-Rex, which you haul from a purple portal Bayonetta-style before Leviathan chucks you into the rival team's parallel mission to wreak havoc. This is Exoprimal at its silliest best, and the rush of charging into those enemy bots and slamming away their health bars so they have to spend more time respawning than zonking dinos was both intensely fun and cathartic. And yet. They were still never quite enough to claw back a lead.
I really hit my tipping point when missions reached their conclusion, too. In the final phase of each mission, each team is pitted against each other directly, with each side doing their best Overwatch Escort impression as they transport a fragile, dino catnip McGuffin to the centre of the arena before finally doing deadly battle with one other in the centre. And I'm not ashamed to say it, but I got absolutely rinsed whenever I came into contact with its AI bots, with the other side seeming to instantly decimate my team every single time.
As I said, I'm glad the bots exist, and part of me, at least, is pleased to see they're both competent allies and challenging opponents. I'm also curious to see how their dynamic changes once more human players are thrown into the mix as well. I'm well aware (also read: hope, pray) that playing with and against an all-bot squad isn't going to be representative of what Exoprimal's like at launch, and maybe a few extra meat sacks like myself on board will mean I actually start winning a few games rather than being minced by the machine all the time. But deep down, I do also think the bots are maybe a bit too hard as nails, and I wish they were a touch squidgier, please, Capcom, so I can feel a tiny bit better about myself. Here's hoping Exoprimal's full launch on July 14th will give me the somersaulting, tail-whipping T-Rex victory moments I've been craving.