You know how some game franchises get better with age, like a fine wine, while others rot and stagnate? Well, the Turok series is a good example of the latter case. It started as a fairly groundbreaking FPS on the N64, and pushed the graphical and gameplay boundaries of the console with its sequels. The series started to lose steam, however, and eventually petered out in the rather mediocre Turok Evolution. Its parent company, Acclaim, made some poor decisions (some involving a really bad BMX game) and went bankrupt in 2004. Disney of all companies purchased the Turok license, and under the Touchstone name, had developer Propaganda Games build a new game. So, did the series’ long and tortured rebirth prove worthwhile? Well, it depends on how strict your definition of Turok is.
The newest Turok is a franchise reboot in every sense of the term, right down to its simple, straightforward title (kind of like “Rocky Balboa,” “Rambo,” and that new “Star Trek” thing). The old continuity, about the time-traveling Tal’set, is nowhere to be seen. The new hero is Joseph Turok, a distant descendant of Tal’set, who is on a mission to find and kill his old commander, Kane. Kane has gone rogue and has set up camp on a distant planet, and Turok is advisor to a marine strike team sent to end Kane’s plans. Minutes after the marines thaw out of cryo-sleep and gear up, their ship is attacked from orbit and crash-lands on the planet below. This opening sequence sets up Turok’s basic abilities, like climbing, dodging, and prying doors.
The intro also establishes just how pretty the game is, pretty in a drab gray, muscle-bound and dented metal sort of way. The characters are clearly the star of the game’s graphical buffet, featuring some of the best modeling, texturing and animation on the 360 to date. Turok is rendered on Epic’s Unreal 3 engine, and as far as character models go, Propaganda’s effort rivals Epic’s own Gears of War. I actually prefer the visual style of Turok and his sullen marine allies to the improbably bulky Marcus Fenix and crew; Turok’s characters just looked a little more believable.
Gears does have Turok beat on environmental design, if only by a bit. The jungle planet that Turok crashes on is breathtaking from a distance, easily as good looking as Halo 3’s opening level. Once you get closer, the flaws start to appear. A few of the textures aren’t as high res as they should be. Turok also expresses one of the Unreal 3 engine’s technical issues: environments will be rendered with very ugly low res texturing for a few seconds, and then once the memory catches up, resolution will increase dramatically. This happened to me on more than one occasion, but it was only a minor problem, and not nearly as prevalent as it was in Bioshock. The levels themselves are suitably attractive jungle and cave settings, aside from the occasional military base, which are dull and boring in comparison to the organic jungle.
Then again, the jungles have Turok’s signature dinosaurs to liven them up. Propaganda made the Turok series’ unifying thread a pervasive element in the new game, and graphically, they did a great job of it too. Each of the different species—T Rex, raptors, dilophosaurs—is modeled, normal mapped and animated beautifully. Some of them even use group tactics, particularly the raptors. The dinos look so cool and move so realistically, you almost feel bad strangling them and driving a knife through their scaly noggins. Almost. My only complaint is the lack of variety; there are plenty of carnivores vying to feast on your flesh, but the developers excluded the equally cool (and dangerous) herbivores. They may not eat meat, but a stegosaurus or triceratops could be pretty terrifying if you pissed it off. And there were no epic, scripted battles between a T-Rex and a similarly massive plant eater.
My single complaint with the visuals is the lack of red. The older Turok games were rather liberal when tossing around the blood and gore, but the new game has toned it down. It’s plenty bloody when you’re eviscerating dinos, but shooting or stabbing a human results in yellow sparks and not much else. The human guards are all encased in thick metallic armor, which might explain the lack of blood, but in the end it feels more like you’re fighting humanoid robots than actual organic beings.
On the whole Turok looks great and is a fine example of what the Unreal 3 engine can do, but on the gameplay side of things it’s about as white bread as an FPS can get. The environments, while gorgeous, are almost completely linear. This makes their otherwise attractive visuals run together and grow stale. In addition, the whole “ecosystem” theme that was promised is largely unfulfilled. Dinos scurry around in the swaying grass and climb trees, but you only ever get one big, breathtaking panoramic view of the jungle as a living environment. The rest of the game is natural corridors constrained by mossy cliffs and dense vegetation. Combat is limited to brief encounters with packs of dinosaurs and soldiers, so contrary to what in-game hints tell you, you’ll never be stalked by unexpected lizards.
In addition to linear (if disguised) corridors, Turok recycles most of the FPS genre’s other current clichés. You’ll find the usual assortment of weapons, comprised entirely of the old military standbys: pistol, shotgun, SMG, pulse rifle, bazooka, grenades. The gunplay is pretty unremarkable, with a gun that overheats, a chaingun that takes forever to reload, and a pistol that is patently useless. Some of the smaller guns can be dual-wielded or mixed and matched, and I found Turok’s double-gun system to be a lot more intuitive and practical than Halo’s. To its credit, the game at least lets you drop the chaingun as an auto-turret, but that idea has been around since at least Perfect Dark on the N64. Considering that the Turok series gave us weapons like the gore-tastic Cerebral Bore, I was rather disappointed in the new game’s selection of guns.To warrant at least some small part of its trademark, the game gives Turok his traditional weapon, the bow. The weapon is slow—it takes time to steady the aim and pull back an arrow, but the range is good and a fully tensed shot is lethal to any ordinary enemy. The bow is essentially a second sniper rifle that Turok has with him at all times. My only gripe is that Turok will only hold an arrow back for so long, and then he lets it fly. Apparently his size-of-large-hams biceps are only strong enough to keep a bow drawn for a few seconds.
For the new game, Turok trades his old spiked gauntlets for a trusty combat knife. He can’t melee with any other weapon, but the knife makes up for it. If you press the right trigger down in time with an icon on screen, Turok will perform an instant kill move with his knife that will dispatch any regular soldier or dino in a brutal takedown cinematic. Pulling these moves off is so easy, it gets a little cheap; you can charge into a pack of raptors and take three or four down without suffering a single bite. The knife is also handy for stealth based combat, in that it kills enemy soldiers silently if you can sneak up on them.
The stealth combat leads me to Turok’s most glaring flaw: its fragmented and indecisive gameplay. When it’s not being a run-of-the-mill FPS, Turok tries to be three or four different kinds of games and half-fails in each respect. The aforementioned stealth elements feel scripted and out of place; you’ll come upon a clearing filled with enemies milling about, but alert one of them and you’ll have the entire mountain’s complement of troops chasing you.
At other times Turok tries to be Gears of War, without any implementation of a cover system. This was rather disorienting at first—knowing that I was playing a Turok game, I’d run in, triggers down, expecting a spray and pray gunfight, but then I’d be overwhelmed and killed within seconds. This new brand of Turok expects you to huddle behind rocks and crates, firing from cover without any way to really hunker down or pop out for a quick shot. You basically have Gears of War combat with Quake-style movement mechanics, and they don’t go well together at all.
The inclusion of regenerating health doesn’t help this situation either. Regular readers of my reviews will know that I absolutely hate regenerating health, and Turok has only fueled my ire for the trope. As the titular hero sustains more and more damage, his vision gets red and bleary, making it harder and harder to aim at and kill the annoying guy pumping bullets into you. Explosions also tend to throw Turok flying through the air, landing with his back to whatever is attacking him. The only effective way to handle combat is to barrel in, kill a few guys, make a cowardly run halfway across the battlefield to recharge, and repeat.
The game has a lot of frustrating moments like that, where it’ll apparently give you many ways of dealing with a situation, when in reality there is only one effective solution and you aren’t made aware of that. The final boss battle with a T-Rex is a good example. The battlefield is littered with weapons, but the only real way to defeat the T-Rex is to grab a shotgun, distract the dino with its secondary flares, and then pump it full of rockets while it stares dumbly at the shiny flare on the ground. Incidentally, the dino can withstand more explosives than could effectively kill the Incredible Hulk, so expect to be devoured a number of times as you scurry around looking for more rockets.
The checkpoint system makes the gameplay even more tiresome, because most of the checkpoints are placed at inconvenient times. You’ll get wasted again and again, only to retry from a point five or ten minutes ago, and then have to battle your way through the same platoon or pack of raptors all over again. Prey let the player save whenever they wanted to, and that game was released a couple years ago. The 360 has big memory cards and a hard drive, and Turok needs to get with the times.
The gameplay is on the average side at best, and frustrating at worst, but at least Turok sounds good. The score is primarily orchestral, and does a good job of wrapping the linear action in an epic disguise. The music isn’t something I’d want on a soundtrack, but it’s well done and consistently fits with the action. The voice acting is surprisingly good, within the constraints of the stereotypical space marine characters. The cast includes Ron Pearlman and Timothy Olyphant, and Gregory Cruz is memorable as the new Turok.
As far as multiplayer goes, Turok has a healthy supply of modes and options, but for the most part they’re your typical fare, much like the solo campaign. I liked that the maps have dinosaurs running around, attacking players at random. The co-op mode is probably the multiplayer’s biggest disappointment—you can select a number of pre-set missions where you and friends fight against bots, but there is not option to play through the solo campaign with a friends. This is a little strange, considering Turok has an ally with him at almost all times during the story mode. The multiplayer is online only, with no split-screen support, so you probably won’t be breaking Turok out for parties like you would Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4.
Overall, the new Turok left me a little conflicted, because I had such a love-hate relationship with it. It’s a competent shooter in most respects but also an extraordinarily average one. Sure it looks good, but is that really a compliment for a 360 title anymore? I’m tired of saying “this game looked spectacular, but…”
I guess I agree with Ben Croshaw on this one. Most of Turok’s problems come from it ripping off Halo, just like every other FPS these days. Yes, Halo was very creative in many ways when it came out; the free-roaming vehicle levels, limited weapon capacity and squad based combat really hadn’t been done before. A lot of people forget that the other half of Halo was repetitive level design, linearity to the point of mindless tedium and a pretty clichéd story. Any game that copies Halo to the letter is going to imitate the good and the bad—you’ll inevitably get the stereotyped space marines, and the recharging health in a context where it doesn’t make sense and gets on the player’s nerves. Last time I checked, Turok doesn’t have a fusion-powered alien energy shield that re-juices after a few seconds.
If you really liked the older Turoks, maybe you’ll just be thrilled that the series is back. There certainly isn’t much of the original spirit left, though. This new flavor of Turok has potential as a series, but the developers need to give it a personality of its own, add more nostalgia for the old fans and make the gameplay more engaging.