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.
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