Historically, splicing dino-DNA with different species has gone terribly for everyone involved, but in this case merging it with the frantic intensity of Left 4 Dead’s co-op and setting it on a vast, open world-style map has worked out nicely thus far. Second Extinction, by Generation Zero creators System Reaction, is a simple concept that I might’ve doodled on my homework in junior high school, but it relies on the speed and polish of its action and the variety of its mutant enemies to stand out. For a co-op focused shooter that just hit Early Access with a planned several months of runway left before full launch, it’s off to a strong start.
The premise here is that mutated dinosaurs are taking over the planet and it’s somehow up to you and up to two friends to massacre them and “reclaim Earth” before it’s too late. That’s about it; there isn’t much of an overarching plot here in the sense of overt exposition. Instead, the evolution of the world is the story, conveyed by way of a more organic and emergent format with its singular big, connected world map.
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When you choose a mission you also choose a drop point that determines where you start – though at the moment, that always means “icy tundra.” Once you’ve arrived you’re free to explore and do whatever you want – including optional side objectives or even going into neighboring zones in search of higher-value targets or to pursue a distant optional mission. It’s typically up to you to decide if you want to go after better rewards in more dangerous areas or play it safe and progress more slowly.
Usually co-op shooters of the Left 4 Dead ilk feature smaller maps and tight corridors, so the freedom here is refreshing. Dinos make their presence felt in more unique ways, like tunneling out of the ground behind you in a cave or chasing you in a pack towards a dead end. Getting surrounded is terrifying and overwhelming, and the dynamic spawning makes each run extremely unpredictable. There are some hot spots in each zone that usually have certain types of enemies, but it’s hard to ever feel safe and secure no matter which direction you decide to go which keeps you on your toes.
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On top of that, dinosaurs react to the movements and areas of focus of all players globally. So if the community is, collectively, attacking certain zones more than others to farm specific upgrade resources or to go after difficult Contracts, threat levels will shift during the weekly reset and larger-scale Emergence Events may start to show up in some regions. The magic of this system is that it creates a satisfying dynamic that helps ensure missions are never identical.
So far in my quest to reclaim Earth I’ve killed a lot of dinosaurs. Like, a lot of dinosaurs. Second Extinction takes its name very seriously because after a day or two your individual kill count feels large enough that you may have been capable of wiping out an entire species on your own. This is a very good thing, though, because slaughtering scores of grotesque, genetically modified beasties here is extremely rewarding, at least in the first 15 or so hours I’ve spent with it so far.
Weapons are fun across the board, even if they’re standard fare and lack some impact at first. Once you start upgrading them and unlocking key guns, like the SMG as a secondary weapon, it all starts to click. I fell in love with the grenade launcher, personally, and after a few missions’ worth of saving up the upgrade currency I was able to unlock the ability to have it explode on impact with an enemy, instead of waiting for the fuse to detonate. That was a literal game-changer.
Unlike packs of zombies, which are usually all roughly the same size and shape with a few rare special ones thrown in, there is a surprising amount of consistent enemy variation with dinosaurs. You’ve got the small, agile raptors that dart around and chase you down at breakneck speed, and even the spitters that can hit you with acid from a distance. Large, tankier dinos show up to soak up bullets during some fights and then the really big ones, like the ferocious T-Rex, even make an appearance in the more dangerous regions. Having this constant enemy variety makes an already tense battlefield completely chaotic as you find yourself sliding under a Rex or tossing incendiary grenades at groups of smaller raptors. Pivoting around and circling the big creatures feels almost like a dance at times since you can dash backwards and side-to-side for increased mobility.
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Speaking of, battling the T-Rex is an immensely satisfying fight. Each of the dinos have glowing weak points, and Rex’s glow is just under his chin at the throat. This is difficult to hit with my trusty grenade launcher that’s so effective against lower to the ground enemies thanks to its blast radius, so I’d usually switch to an automatic weapon for sustained damage or get up close with a shotgun before dashing out of the way. Lots of kiting while chipping away at its health from a distance is crucial.
Playing by yourself is technically possible, but it’s just not as fun and has some serious difficulty spikes when the big groups of dinos arrive. In co-op, taking a balanced loadout between the three of you is key, and as with all games of this type it’s far better with a group of friends than with randomly matched strangers. For example, making sure someone has rechargeable ammo drop kits or grenade drop kits keeps you stocked up and big AoE attacks like incendiary grenades or air strikes can really thin the herd in a pinch.
Every mission ends with a climactic last-stand battle in which you must secure and defend the landing zone for an escort ship. In the more hostile zones it’s easy to get overwhelmed quickly here, but scraping it out and surviving by the skin of your teeth is just as good as it was back in the heyday of Left 4 Dead.
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When you combine that with the instability of the world and how dramatically things can shift across the map, there is enough variety in enemies and gear to keep things interesting for the 15 hours it took me to see all the missions and feel like I had my fill of what’s available right now, even though there are still lots of upgrade options I haven’t explored yet. But I’d be lying if I said after spending that long with this shooting frenzy I wasn’t starting to grow a bit tired of the arctic tundra that dominates the map. Snow and ice is a great contrast to the oranges of fire attacks and the redness of bloody gore, but it lacks variety. I’d love a more jungle-style area or even something on the edge of a volcano to shake things up, and there is a ton of room for getting a little crazier with things.
Despite the one-note setting, the objectives and missions are more diverse than you usually see in a co-op shooter. One mission may have you triggering missiles and searching for waypoints while fighting through hordes of dinosaurs, while others may send you to escort payloads into a mine. And while you’re doing your primary mission, tons of optional side objectives always crop up, like shooting down recon drones or destroying breeding caves full of eggs. You can complete these for extra Resource tokens, which are used for upgrading guns with things like improved stats or even new features such as the aforementioned grenades exploding on contact. The upgrade points come frequently enough to feel like you’re making progress, but are just rare enough that it’s actually enticing to consider doing extra missions when out on a job. On top of that, you eventually unlock extra Contracts that you can accept during missions. These have hyper-specific challenges on them like getting a certain number of headshots with a particular weapon. It’s nice to have more goals to check off, but it’s mostly meaningless.
Before a match you’ll pick a character, each of which equips a primary gun, secondary gun, and their own unique perks and signatures abilities. There’s Ortega, who can equip two primary weapons and forgo the secondary weapon, meaning she can bring both a shotgun and assault rifle into combat if you want. She also gets to dash at increased speeds which is excellent for evading damage. Rosy, on the other hand, can lay down static pylons that create electrical barriers between them used for stunning dinos. There are two more hunters as of now to choose from, and in addition to gameplay differences all four have unique personalities and voices – they’re not overly memorable or anything, but it’s still better than picking generic classes or just choosing abilities outright.
What’s missing right now, most of all, are the long-term hooks – that layer of progression that Left 4 Dead never had but has been added on top of nearly every game in the genre it spawned in the decade since. I’d have liked more things to unlock beyond just gun upgrades and new weapons. Things like character and gun skins would help incentivize me to return, and something like a Battle Pass would be useful to reward sticking with this game instead of the million other options out there.
This article was originally published by IGN.COM