Exoprimal makes a terrible first impression.
Its mixed-media opening blends a breaking news segment with a corporate recruitment campaign, and somehow, the game manages to make its absurd (albeit refreshingly unserious) near-future premise borderline impossible to explain. But hold on, let me give it a go: Rifts in the fabric of space-time have brought hordes of dinosaurs to Earth, necessitating the manufacture of exosuits to repel the invasion, as well as an advanced artificial intelligence called Leviathan, whose prime directive is to train fighters and monitor the operation.
You play as Ace, a mute rookie who joins a patrol squad that quickly ends up stranded in an alternate timeline, where a rogue Leviathan is forcing exosuits to take part in endless wargames masqueraded as combat tests. Said wargames manifest as 5v5 player-versus-environment-versus-player multiplayer matches, where you push through a series of cooperative dinosaur defense objectives while translucent phantoms indicate the location of your human enemies, showing you whether you need to speed up or take it easy.
Complete your tasks, though, and suddenly both teams are thrust onto the same playing field as a final assignment looms, and this is where the magic happens. You can now directly interfere with the enemy by blowing up their payload or pulling off a sneaky gank. Oh, and if you pick up one of the randomly spawning “Dominator” power-ups, you can transform into a Triceratopsteleport into enemy territory, and wreak scaly havoc.
Unfortunately, in its slow-going opening hours, Exoprimal makes it frighteningly easy to write it off as another live-service hero shooter lurking in Overwatch’s shadow. The regiment of 10 exosuits you can hot-swap between includes a shield-toting tank, a rollerblading support, and a katana-wielding carry. Their biomechanical designs and fleshy, plastic sofa innards are lovely to look at, but the door is left wide open for snide comparisons, and I felt inclined to make them — until I fell in love with my main.
Barrage is a fiery-haired blend of Team Fortress 2‘s Demoman and Overwatch’s Junkrat. He pumps out bouncy explosives with a satisfying clunk and has a complementary stun grenade for clumping together raptors. Exoprimal‘s mechanics are tight and well up to Capcom’s high standards — stringing together these button presses is a satisfying kinetic process that allows you to enter a flow state of mayhem. In Barrage’s case, this ends with his ultimate, where you can turn into a gigantic missile and wipe out an entire five-stack of human players.
Despite briefly moonlighting as a sniper far away from the action, embracing the more immediate chaos as Barrage allowed me to quickly understand the assignment. Exoprimal is at its best when your team isn’t doubling up on suits, allowing for maximum synergy. Launching grenades at the horde and watching Skywave’s gravity well draw the dinosaurs together as Roadblock unleashes a tornado of doom is so satisfying, and it opens up opportunities for melee characters like Zephyr to swoop in and pummel the raptors as they whip around in sequence like they’re stuck in a cosmic washing machine.
However, given that each suit has its own proprietary progression system, there is little incentive to switch once you’ve found your favorite, which is firstly a major shame given the effort that has gone into crafting the 10-strong roster’s builds, but it also creates inevitable team composition issues once a meta hardens around Exoprimal. As tough as it would have been to give up on being a Barrage lifer, I would have preferred not being able to double up the suits within a team to maximize potential tactical creativity.
Regardless, I gradually learned how I could complement my squad’s abilities as I climbed through the proficiency ranks, assigning and upgrading modules that changed my hero’s skills in meaningful ways. It quickly became apparent that Capcom’s latest is a very different breed of hero shooter, one in which it’s far more about efficiency and communication than being “cracked.”
Like the food critic in Ratatouille, I was brought back to a halcyon time when esports ability wasn’t so coveted, and it was more about having fun pushing a payload with your friends on Gold Rush or fighting through the mall mobs in Dead Center. These feelings are fleeting, though, as Exoprimal can often be its own worst enemy. Between matches, you’ll suffer through the mockumentary dialogue of a ship crew that feels like a watered-down Guardians of the Galaxy, begrudgingly clicking through a branching “analysis map” of mysteries, watching the tracker tick toward your next reward — a jargon-filled cutscene. The loop can grate in the early game, as, for several hours, there’s a distinct lack of mission variety and only a handful of maps… until something genuinely disarming happens.
[Ed. note: The following contains gameplay spoilers for Exoprimal.]
After around a dozen 30-minute matches of Dino Survival, you’ll begin matchmaking into what appears to be a standard multiplayer game, only to find that one of your Aussie NPC comrades has invaded it, joining your squad to collect some data (and to call Leviathan “fucked in the head”). This shared-world storytelling event enrages the rogue AI, which starts tearing at the seams of the wargame’s rules, all while you’re still racing to beat the enemy team as usual. Mutated dinosaurs rear their heads, as well as thousand-strong swarms of pterodactyls and new, more engaging mission objectives, like defending a VTOL or charging up a hammer to break through area barriers.
This paradigm shift changes Exoprimal considerably, introducing new maps, a healthy difficulty spike, raid bosses, and, at long last, some genuine narrative intrigue. It is a profoundly confusing pacing decision where you’re abruptly playing a very different, arguably much better game several hours in, one that actually sets a fascinating precedent for future multiplayer storytelling shenanigans. In the game’s universe, this is canonized as a “firmware update” — which makes sense, but I just wish it would have come much sooner, or was at least communicated better in the game’s marketing, as many players might not gain access to Exoprimal‘s best assets before bouncing off of its boring early hours.
A seasonal live-service roadmap promises a time-based endgame mode, variant exosuits, and a Monster Hunter collaboration in the near future, which, as a player now caught in the game’s talons, is an exciting prospect. Exoprimal is rough around the edges, but hopefully, by the time these updates arrive, it will have found the nostalgic audience its compelling experimental narrative sorely deserves, rather than going the way of the dinosaurs.
Exoprimal was released on July 14 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Capcom. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.