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Turok

(Touchstone; US: 4 Feb 2008)

There may be some irony in the notion that a Native American, a member of a culture thrust to the edge of extinction, doubles as a dinosaur hunter, a species that clearly has gone over that edge.  If there is, though, the folks in charge of writing Turok‘s paper thin and often formulaic narrative have not given it much thought.


What these writers instead choose to explore about the heritage of the game’s protagonist are things that we already “know”.  For instance, were you aware of the fact that Native Americans are naturally adept at bow hunting?  If you weren’t, helpful cut scenes in Turok help in establishing this and many other “facts”.


While Turok fails to deliver in terms of a nuanced or less offensive rendition of its main character, it continues to confound with hackneyed plotting and utter predictability.  The upshot of the plot concerns the crash landing of a group of space marines on an alien world.  The group has been charged with locating a rogue and eliminating a special forces commander.  The special forces unit called the Wolf Pack (how’s that for an awesome name?!) led by said commander was, of course, a military unit that our man Turok once belonged to and *yawn* ultimately left due to the group’s shady and unethical leadership.


After our marines are shot down over this planet (whose fauna mysteriously contains living dinosaurs—while the game has shed the subtitle Dinosaur Hunter it still includes this, its main draw: blowing the hell out of extinct critters), they find that they need to survive as best they can.  The marines, of course, distrust Turok because he is “different” and is ultimately viewed as traitorous for having abandoned his former unit.  As a result, most of the dialogue between Turok and his fellow marines (who sometimes serve as squad mates during the shooting sequences) largely consists of general surliness, pissing contests, and the like.  These marines trapped together with only one another to survive the forces of Wolf Pack and the unfriendly (and very large) fauna basically can’t help but just talk shit to one another for the majority of their time together.  They (as all Marines I gather apparently are) are soaking in so much testosterone that they just can’t help themselves.  In a nutshell, I felt like I had “watched” this video game at least ten years ago when it was called Aliens, which happened to be a much, much better film.


Of course, “watching” isn’t all the experience that a video game should provide.  There is a first person shooter wrapped in the wretched plotting.  As far as first person shooters go, what’s here is serviceable, but, perhaps like the plot, doesn’t offer anything really fresh to the medium. 


Turok, like other first person protagonists, collects various weapons from pistols to shotguns to miniguns, and then he puts them to good use blasting both military opponents as well as dinosaurs.  He also can shoot barrels which explode (I know, I know…innovative).


Barring these normal first-person shooter mainstays, there are legitimately some less common variables in Turok‘s game play.  Turok’s opponents are not one happy evil family.  The soldiers that he combats are by no means allied with the dinosaurs and, as a result, the meat eating dinosaurs will attempt to chow down on any human that they can.  Turok even has some sneaky ways of getting the dinos to do his bidding by luring them with flares to enemy forces, allowing the player to sit back and watch the carnage ensue.


As a player, I was a little put off by this tactic initially.  Returning for a moment to my initial emphasis on “watching” this game, I felt a little sidelined by these sorts of combats at times.  I have always had some mixed feeling about the emergence of the “pet” phenomena (I borrow the slang of fans of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars Online in describing the ability to summon characters to fight in your stead) in gaming.  Given that video gaming’s fun is chiefly as an interactive rather than passive experience, I have always felt a bit torn about the notion of letting the game “play” for you.  However, the more encounters that I had of this sort playing Turok, the more I realized that my distaste for this concept may be lessening.


It may be due to the rather frantic pacing of some sections of Turok, in which the player often is given little respite between some fast and furious fire fights, that the very legitimate tactic of waiting to see what happens on a battlefield struck me as a reasonable enough choice of option and one that requires some decision making.  While seemingly passive, opting out of combat for a time is a reasonable strategy that is both a reasonable simulation of real life battlefield tactics as well as an oddly participatory act within the context of the medium.


As an avid board game player, I can attest to the successfulness of occasionally laying back in a game to let stronger opponents fight it out to weaken or destroy each other.  I don’t know why a single player experience had to remind me of that, but, for whatever reason, I have to give Turok some degree of credit for making me rethink some of my presumptions about aspects of strategy and gaming.


The other thing that I can credit it with is some interesting and satisfying boss fights and the fact that on the whole the game play experience admittedly becomes better as it proceeds.  New “set pieces” like a fight with a T-Rex while hiding amongst the roots of a massive tree or a battle with a really icky sea monster in an underground cavern give what might otherwise appear to be a rather dull shooter some late-game vitality.  There is something to be said for the simple satisfaction of piercing the scales of a mammoth creature with arrows and ultimately taking it down armed only with a knife.


I guess some of the basic machismo that the game’s narrative taps is fulfilled in these brutal but gratifying moments.


Those positives aside, Turok never really escapes its own conventionality.  Given the couple of shooters that have appeared in the last few months that have advanced the genre in less than conventional ways (the sublime Bioshock, the too short but tremendously compelling Call of Duty 4, and the clever and quirky Portal), it becomes even more difficult to feel much moved by this offering.  If you haven’t played the three parenthetically mentioned FPSes yet, I would suggest that dropping your nickels and dimes for those games before taking a look at this slightly more lackluster cousin may be money better spent.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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