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A dinosaur writhes, blood spattering the snow under it, with the player’s assault rifle in the foreground
Carnivorous or herbivorous, all dinos must eat lead in Second Extinction.
Image: Systemic Reaction/Avalanche Studios Group

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Second Extinction’s dinos and guns: Two great tastes that go great together

Be quick on the trigger, or be part of a nutritious breakfast

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

The elevator pitch for Second Extinction might sound like a kid’s breakfast cereal ad, wherein two awesome, yet disparate things unite to form one big, even more awesome thing. In the case of this game, it’s dinosaurs and a first-person shooter.

Give developer Systemic Reaction some credit, though; Second Extinction, originally announced for Xbox Series X a year ago, is not formulaic. It matches the how-am-I-still-standing relentlessness of Doom and Left 4 Dead with production values just as strong, an emphasis on cooperative play, and a larger meta-game affecting the world’s sizable map. Developers Simon Vickers and Anaïs Palm took me on a tour this past Wednesday, with a rather meaty mission chapter that provided 60 minutes of fast-paced action, and multiple firefights that ended thigh-deep in dino remains.

What drives a lot of that action, Vickers explained, is the reason why Second Extinction launched six months ago for Windows PC on Steam Early Access, in advance of another preliminary run with Xbox Game Preview beginning April 28. It’s called the “war effort,” which is an ongoing meta-game in Second Extinction where parts of the map get more or less dangerous and dinosaur-infested depending on how players themselves have performed there.

It’s not strictly a zero-sum tug of war. A place with a lot of action, even if human players are prevailing, can get marked as too dangerous for the orbital drop that begins a mission series. That can alter where the player’s fireteam of three begins its operations, and the order in which they might tackle some objectives. Random encounters get a lot more frequent in areas of greater dinosaur activity, and in extreme infestations, players can face random firefights bigger than the boss battle awaiting them in the story.

“Twice a week, the players’ actions will be tallied up, where they’ve succeeded at things, where they’ve failed,” Vickers, Second Extinction’s game director, told me. “That will adjust things accordingly. So if you see a lot of players failing in a lot of areas, then that will increase dinosaur presence. That will introduce extra challenges, which could have unique objectives and slight twists. So the idea is that, even though these are kind of very scripted missions, they change from week to week, play session to play session in interesting ways.”

Second Extinction therefore needs a lot of players hammering away at the the game. Systemic Reaction wants to build up a strong sense of a world where humans, who escaped to orbit to flee the tyrannosaur tyranny, face a dynamic threat on the ground, with a feeling of gained or lost momentum.

The Xbox Game Preview version coming this week has a matching content drop on Steam, called Preseason 4, and the console game is heavily informed by what Systemic Reaction’s PC community has been doing so far, Vickers said. But the two communities will not begin any kind of cross-play until later; Vickers gave September as a window. Meantime, Xbox One and Xbox Series X may play together.

I’d have to play the same mission sequence a second time to get a clearer picture of how the meta-game changes things. But the swarming raptors, lumbering ankylosaurs, and acid-spitting … something-o-saurs would have kept me from taking handwritten notes anyway.

In Second Extinction’s story, the dinos have returned — as “evil, mutant dinosaurs.” (I noted to Vickers that “evil” suggests some kind of sentience or self-determination; he demurred as to the lizards’ brainpower.) Their mutations mean they won’t behave the way we’ve assumed through decades of coloring books and trips to the museum. Raptors were outfitted with a kind of dense, shovel-like plating on their face, which allows them to dig into the ground and execute sneak attacks from below. “Watchers” occupy an officer-like role within the AI, calling in reinforcements and buffing up those nearby. And the triceratops is definitely not a docile herbivore. They have heavy plating and a big-time charge attack.

On my team, I took on Ortega, an all-rounder with an assault rifle and a shotgun, whose generalist approach gave me the best broad preview. Palm took the heavy trooper, Rosy, who swung around a mini-gun and deployed electrified fencing for super useful herd control. Vickers played Amir, a commando who called in a breathtaking orbital strike to barbecue the alpha-baddies, identified by a skull icon. Everyone could avail themselves of grenades and health restoration, and everyone could call down one type of orbital resupply — ammo, in my case, or equipment (health and frags) in Palm’s. There’s a fourth hero, Jürgen, a sniper, and this week’s Preseason 4 kickoff will add a fifth, Jack, who is the new Enforcer class.

Safety in numbers, for good reason

The point in bringing this up, you definitely need numbers to take on a mission in Second Extinction, but the teamwork does not have to be tactical or even sensibly coordinated. We were using chat, and it’s recommended because Second Extinction is a game born for zappy one-liners and action-movie puns. It was helpful to tell Palm I needed a heal or an equipment resupply, or when Vickers was out of ammo, that my drop’s lengthy cool-down was just about over. But we still would have made it on mute, I felt.

That said, the scale of the opposition is such that you will find often yourself running out of ammo on your main weapon; our end-of-round weapon accuracy ranged between high 40s for them and, er, a little lower than low 30s for me. (OK, high 20s.) This is one way in which I realized that soloing the game is just not feasible. Vickers said the game already has a hardcore element who are capable of soloing missions, but those are players with hundreds of hours in the game. I booted into my preview build before the appointment, just to snoop around, and was immediately torn limb-from-limb by a random patrol of raptors, in a “low-activity” area no less.

“We’re quite punishing on people if they’re by themselves,” Vickers said. “We wanted to be making a co-op game, you play it with your buddies or you play it with strangers, and we wanted the challenge to reflect that.”

Second Extinction does have a free-form Expedition mode, which doesn’t have a structured story mission and groups may roam. But Vickers said that’s really only for those who are mucking around, killing time, or waiting for friends to show up. And it’s still very dangerous to go alone.

Second Extinction is solely PvE — there’s no competitive multiplayer strapped on. There are leaderboards and more meta ways of competing with others, though. I found the lack of human opposition reassuring, as my rifle accuracy fairly suggests I am no RoboCop on my dual analogs. The dinosaurs went down at varying rates — bog-standard velociraptors could get waxed in a single burst, where larger, tanky dinosaurs needed to be flipped to expose a glowing weak belly. Explosions and status effects are readily available, thanks to burn barrels and short super-attack cool-downs, and they’re most efficient at cutting down the horde.

Anything that can explode, does

Just calling in an orbital supply drop can be an attack; if you target a clot of enemies and they’re still there when it lands, splat, dino paste. “Of course!” Vickers laughed. “That’s, like, the first thing we did!” And when all of the crate’s goodies have been picked up, it blows up, so whoever picks up the last health kit, try to kite over some dinos first.

“Anything that can explode, does explode,” Vickers said cheerfully.

Given that Second Extinction’s twin appeals are big lizards and big guns, it’s not like Systemic Reaction must thread any design needles to stitch together a large audience. If there is any nuance to Second Extinction, it’s more in a tone that takes the action seriously, but its premise less so. There’s a mission, with a goal and a fail state, for sure. If everyone on the team dies — respawns take 30 seconds — you’re done.

But it all goes forward with tongue-in-cheek good cheer. For example, our extraction was — of course — a firefight where we had to hold out against a dinosaur onslaught for a few hectic minutes before the cavalry arrived. When they did, the dropship door slammed shut with a stray raptor inside, earning us all an achievement.

“One of our design interns came up with that one,” Vickers said. “I was like, ‘You’re never gonna be able to get that — that’s not gonna work. Prove me wrong.’ And she did. So I’m very proud of that.”

Second Extinction’s Game Preview begins for Xbox Series X and Xbox One on Wednesday, via Xbox Game Pass. It’s also available for Windows PC via Xbox Game Pass for PC, and a la carte from the Microsoft Store. Preseason 4 adds the new character, as well as a tutorial mode, and will be followed sometime in June by Preseason 5, which adds a new enemy, remappable gamepads, and another weapon. Second Extinction’s roadmap runs through November, so a full launch is probably on deck in 2022.