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Hunting raptors on the slope of a goddamn volcano

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Play This Now is an ongoing feature in which we highlight free or cheap games that you should play. Now.

If you've ever dreamed going hunting in Jurassic Park, have I got an early access game for you.

The Hunter was first released in 2009. The free-to-play simulation relies on a licensing system, where players spend real-world money to open up new areas of the map, earn weapons and gear and collect more animals to hunt.

To me though, the allure of The Hunter has always been the terrain. The wooded hills, the expansive valleys and the beautiful day/night cycles always delight. The hunting itself? Well... not so much. Often I'll wander for multiple in-game days without seeing any animals, and when I do they'll scamper off before I can draw a bead on them.

Fact of the matter is that there's no real danger in the game. What's a white tailed deer going to do to me anyway?

All that changes in The Hunter: Primal, a spin-off just released on Steam's Early Access program last month. Players take on the role of a prisoner, stranded on an island on an Earth-like planet far from home.

Your only companions there are the friends you bring with you into private multiplayer, and thousands of pounds of carnivorous dinosaurs.

Clever girl

It had taken me two days to hike this far and I wasn't about to give up my position without a fight.

My back was pressed against a ruined concrete wall, all that was left of a decades-old outpost here on a low bluff. The raptors had been stalking me for over a kilometer already, but by keeping the small curves in the land behind me I had so far been able to avoid silhouetting myself.

But they could still smell me. I could hear them squawking, sending trills and weird calls back and forth. There were at least two of them, but I'd seen them travel in groups of up to four in the past.

The high-tech crate next to me contained a .308 hunting rifle. It looked brand new, but without any ammunition it was less than useless. All I had was an improvised bow and ten primitive arrows.

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Suddenly the raptors stopped their calls. I could hear footsteps behind me. Then a green lizard with red-tipped feathers on his arms and tail gingerly walked past the structure I was hiding behind.

I drew my bow, took aim at his belly, and loosed a single arrow.

The animal dropped to the ground in a heap, the fletching on the arrow completely lost in its body. I had struck it in the gut, from behind, and driven my arrow through nearly all of its vital organs, stern to stem, and finally into his heart. It died instantly.

Another raptor, silvery blue with hardly any feathers at all on its arms, came into my field of view from the left. I took aim on a spot just ahead of its forelimbs, leading my target as best I could, fired ... and missed.

With my second shot I hit the beast in the intestines, but that only pissed it off. It turned, howled at me, and spread it's arms wide — a flash of blue and black fronds. I hit it once in the neck, then again in the face as it closed on me. And then...

... it turned away. It ran.

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My heart was beating out of my chest. Over the last five hours in-game I had died no less than 20 times, nearly always jumped by a pack of raptors. I had pincushioned them as they advanced on me, five maybe six arrows each, and only ever brought one down with a lucky shot to the spine.

They feel smart. Once I was startled right out of my desk chair when one snuck up on me from behind. This was the first time I'd gotten the upper hand and it felt amazing.

I found the red one 50 meters away as night fell. It hadn't gotten far, and died from blood loss. I posed for a selfie, and then got on my way to the next outpost.

There had to be some ammunition around here somewhere.

Lizard king

To my east a volcano leaked smoke into the air, silhouetted by the light of one of this planet's two moons. It looked like the cover of a b-grade science fiction novel.

I moved quickly through a valley caked with a freshly dried lava flow and then up an embankment and into the a dense forest. The underbrush wasn't as thick here as it had been in the south, and my PDA told me that the spoor and tracks I was finding were from triceratops. I had little to fear from the gigantic vegetarians, so I rose from a crouch and eased into a regular walk.

Soon I made it to an impact crater, and in the center found an old campsite. The crates here yielded a few bits of camouflage clothing, another bow and no ammunition. Not even any arrows.

I decided then that I might as well go sightseeing before I turned in for the night. In its early alpha state, the only way to save your progress is to leave the game running. Once I turned it off this avatar and his loadout would be gone forever so I might as well get a few screenshots while I was here.

That's when I heard the footfalls of a tyrannosaurus rex.

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I hit the ground. Caught in the open as I was now there was no sense in running, it would only give me away. Perhaps 15 meters away was a pile of dinosaur dung. Perched on top of it was a single human skull. Next to me was an egg. I'd stumbled upon a tyrannosaur's nest.

It came over the horizon and walked right past my cover. With my Track IR I could follow it with my head while I kept my body still. There was only one way out of this situation, and luckily I had picked up a few rocks along the lava flow.

I tossed one to the right, then another. The t-rex turned, sniffed at the air, and then ambled over to investigate. I rose to a crouch and moved as stealthily as I could into the trees. I didn't come up from a crouch again for another kilometer.

Strength in numbers

After around eight hours playing the game solo I'm impressed. The classic vistas I enjoyed from the original, the varied terrain and the exotic skyboxes give Primal both depth and character, and the dinosaurs do a solid job of hunting you back.

There seems to be a community gathering around the game. The Steam page is already littered with group shots of four or five players gathered around the carcass of a t-rex, bristling with weapons and looking quite pleased with themselves. Debates have sprung up about how many rounds of .700 ammunition it will take to down the beasts and where they're best placed.

That's because dinosaurs are aliens in a way, the t-rex in particular. With a tiny brain, and such a massive bony skull, it makes little sense to aim for the head. Tales of 10 or 20 rounds to the gut, of a coordinated hunt from multiple directions, of getting jumped by raptors while setting up in cover make it sound like quite a challenge. And it's one I'm looking forward to trying soon.

The Hunter: Primal is available now on Steam for $19.99. You can also buy a 4-pack of licenses for $59.99.