To protect my integrity and reputation as a film and game critic, I think it’s of the utmost importance to be transparent to the reader...
...So, to be frank and honest, you should know I am a devout Predator/Alien/AVP loyalist. In other words, I am a nerdy fanboy of massive proportions. I may be labeled as biased, considering my fandom. It’s possible that’s true, but I am looking at this game as a gamer first and foremost. That being said, let’s get down to business.
Predator Hunting Grounds is the latest project from developer, Illfonic. They are the people behind the group-friendly title, Friday The 13th: The Game (2017). My love for the Predator film series had me cautiously optimistic as a self-appointed gatekeeper of the franchise. Friday the 13th: The Game was loads of fun, but it had some glaring problems. Granted, Illfonic is a much smaller studio than the Triple ‘A’ variety, pumping out the 60th Assassin’s Creed game, so it’s always important to keep that in mind. Regardless of what it’s compared to, the developer’s earlier titles, or what our expectations are, it all comes down to one thing; Is the game fun?
The short answer to the above question is a resounding “Yes,” but there is a lot to unpack here. Predator: Hunting Grounds gives the player control over a special operations soldier, joined by three others, or the Predator himself. The fireteam are equipped with firearms, a melee weapon, gear such as grenades, and perks that give the player enhanced abilities. It sounds like they have plenty of firepower to combat whatever threat comes their way, but The Predator is no slouch. As The Predator, you’re given a full armory of the usual suspects from the film franchise, such as the combistick, plasma caster, net gun and the iconic thermal vision. Instead of simply pitting the two forces against each other, there is a mutual threat to both parties. Whether you are part of the fireteam or The Predator, you will eventually run into terrorist AI who are a pretty good shot. The Predator can earn experience points by killing these terrorists, as can the soldiers, but the soldiers are tasked with specific missions from the start of the match. For example, one mission had my fireteam infiltrate a railyard in order to airlift a train car containing stolen assets. That’s probably the most unique mission we completed, but each mission still helps create a sense of anxiety, because if an alarm is triggered, The Predator will be alerted to your whereabouts. This is a fun element that spices up the game, without feeling tacked on or annoying. The inclusion of the terrorists also gives the player incentive, as completing the mission rewards you with experience points. With your earned experience, you can purchase cosmetics such as new hats, skins for your guns, new outfits, etc. Passively, your experience will unlock scopes, barrels and suppressors for your guns, as well as perks. Fortunately, from the looks of things so far, there doesn’t seem to be a way to use in-game currency to purchase ability upgrades. This ensures there is no pay-to-win corruption going on. There could definitely be changes made between now and release, but for now, all in-game currency can only be used to unlock cosmetics. All of the aforementioned progression structure is mirrored for The Predator as well.
So, we know the stakes, the rules and the incentive to keep playing, but how the game plays can make or break any amount of progression or fun toys to play with. To put things into perspective, Predator: Hunting Grounds is all over the place. It’s quite the mess. Playing on the fireteam means you’ll be engaged in Call of Duty style combat, but unlike Call of Duty, the controls feel sluggish and unresponsive. It isn’t unplayable by any means, but there are definite framerate issues that slow down the otherwise fast and frenetic gameplay. Thankfully, aiming feels better and the feedback from your gun feels appropriately powerful. Limbs satisfyingly fly off enemy AI when shot in the right spots and there’s appropriate recoil and kickback from your guns. Problems arise when trying to hit The Predator. The aiming itself is fine, but it’s not snappy enough to track The Predator’s quick movements through the trees. However, this could just be a learning curve that will reveal itself to be a skill-based problem, rather than a mechanical one. The gunfire and grenade sound effects are fantastic and add to the overall punchiness. Come to think of it, everything in the sound department is of high quality, including the Alan Silvestri inspired music.
Playing as The Predator is a thrilling experience, albeit mechanically inconsistent. Leaping through the forest and scaling the trees looks fluid and natural. The animation team have outdone themselves and I can’t speak positively enough about it. Controlling The Predator is a slightly different story. Most of the time it goes where you want it to go, due to the leaping mechanic showing you where your landing spot is and button prompts let you know when you can scale trees. It sounds quite limiting, but it’s really not. There are so many possible routes and ways to traverse at your disposal that it never feels like an automated experience. The problem with The Predator arises when trying to perform attacks. Ranged attacks are easy enough, but the melee attacks are imprecise and it’s hard to quickly change your tactics on the fly. Essentially, if you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do and how the fight will go down, your chances of a successful kill are slim. However, when you finally do land a hit or transition into the spine separation mini cutscene, it all feels worth it. That’s just it; Many of the games mechanical shortcomings are pretty easily forgivable, especially when the group social experience is so strong.
Predator: Hunting Grounds is at its best when played with a group of buddies. I was able to play a long session with close friends in the gaming and streaming community. I also played a good number of matches with random players, but it’s not quite the same as bragging about your hard-fought victory to your best friend. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun playing with friends. Sure, I’ve spent countless hours playing Destiny or Battlefield 4 with friends and those are memories I treasure, but I can’t remember the last time a game had me shouting, yelling and cheering loud enough to give my wife legitimate concern. It reminded me of a time before online gaming, when friends were huddled around the couch engaged in tense matches of Goldeneye (1997). Of course, the other games mentioned are different mechanically and in design, but the essence is similar. There is a fun sense of comradery and role-playing with your four-person fireteam. Since we only had access to the ‘Assault’ class we began assigning each other with specific duties in order to strategically kill the predator and complete the mission. I can’t think of anything negative to say about the social experience of Predator: Hunting Grounds.
With less than a month away until release, there is definite room for improvement. With an inconsistent framerate, sometimes sluggish controls, server issues and aiming problems, it’s hard to say how the final product will turn out. That being said, Illfonic’s new title is undeniably fun, offering a thrilling experience unlike anything the franchise has ever seen. I can’t think of a game, aside from maybe Dead by Daylight (2016), that offers the same level of tense, engaging, social gameplay that Predator: Hunting Grounds has. Illfonic already has my money for pre-order and after playing the trial, it seems like I’ve made a fine investment.
Hunt or be hunted when Predator: Hunting Grounds releases on April 24th, 2020 on the PS4 and PC.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth
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