Hunter and Hunted
I broke down a bit of the difference in playing as either the Predator or the elite, human squad out in the field during my PAX West 2019 Predator: Hunting Grounds preview, but as a brief recap: Predator pits four humans on a set of various missions (find drugs, find bad men who probably sell drugs, kill men and their drugs) while racing against both the clock and AI enemies. All the while, the dreadlocked alien has one goal — kill this group of soldiers.
To steal from my coworker Tom Marks, Predator takes the smart approach that other recent asynchronous multiplayer games do — by giving the humans a mission other than killing the big bad, the added purpose makes every role feel vital even when you’re not the obviously very cool teched out alien. The missions, at least in the trial, are often samey and rather boring, moving you and your team from one pertinent location to the next while mowing down relatively simple AI enemies. But the hook of having something to do other than fear the Predator adds a nice cadence and purpose to matches that made the Predator’s hunt more unpredictable match to match.
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And that unknowable fear is key to the experience — the Predator is out there in the jungle, somewhere, and I often scanned Illfonic’s lush jungles (which look beautiful from afar but don’t quite hold up when close up against a tree or decaying structure) fruitlessly hoping to catch a glimpse of my foe running amongst the trees. Illfonic has captured a really intriguing blend of constant dread and the player’s need to compartmentalize that dread until it can’t be helped. For my first few matches I was a skittish, unhelpful squadmate, and I’m sorry to all of the strangers I played with. I feared the Predator could be behind any tree, around the corner of any dilapidated building, and I often met my end because of that. An unseen batch of AI foes, or, more commonly, the Predator finding me because I strayed away from the group.
I quickly had to get the idea of the Predator’s might out of my head — it would eventually come to kill us, and that’s when I could worry about its superior strength. Instead, I focused on being a more present player, and a more active teammate, and I often saw more success because of it.
Hunting Grounds rewards teams working together. Any time myself or someone else strayed from the pack, it was almost always to our detriment. But even when playing with strangers, and omitting voice chat, we could still complete our mission, or even take down the Predator, by sticking together, pointing out trouble with a quick ping system, and responding quickly to call in all our firepower when the Predator appeared. Whereas fighting the human AI is a matter of getting the jump on them and using cover well, the Predator can move so quickly, and so unexpectedly, that it’s often about finding the ideal window to unleash hell on it.
And when playing as the Predator, how you respond to those firefights often determines the flow of a match in an instant. You can try to fight from afar, shooting down from the tree branches and using camouflage to avoid being spotted. Or, you can jump right into the fray, using melee attacks to swipe at foes while also opening yourself up to a lot more potential damage. Though trust me, few things have frightened me like being a human player inside a room as the Predator speeds in through the doorframe. There’s no way to win, then.
Finding balance is the key to winning as Predator, both in when to go full force on attacking or hang back in the shadows like a forest Batman, especially when you don’t know whether humans are packing grenade launchers or pistols. And all of your abilities are tied to a single energy gauge, so while firing off a few full-force blasts from your shoulder cannon could knock an enemy out, you might have no energy left to turn invisible and flee afterward. The Predator is, no doubt, a strong opponent to best, but at least with my time so far, it feels like there is enough in balance that defeating it feels achievable in every match, at least at first.
The biggest change from playing two matches of Hunting Grounds to playing a weekend of it was getting a chance to understand how progression works. With an overarching level tied to XP gained from both matches played as the Predator and humans, I unlocked “field lockers” — Predator’s version of loot boxes, that come with a host of weapon and character skins for customization. You’ll unlock more boxes as you level up, and can use currency to buy them as well, both in-game and real world. But for now, it seems these loot boxes are cosmetic only, and I obviously hope they stay that way.
But there is progression to characters as well. While I unfortunately didn’t get to play around with the different human characters, I was able to add perks and change loadouts for both humans and the Predator as I leveled up, with a clear bit of additional armament ready to be unlocked at higher levels. Keeping up with those upgrades is essential, as they can change how quickly a Predator’s energy reloads or improve the ability of muddy camouflage to hide from the Predator as a human. I noticed a marked improvement in my ability to handle the unexpected as I outfitted my character with more perks, and was eager to see what else I could unlock at higher levels and how it might make matches more varied, especially when so much can hinge on the more boring human AI enemies.
I’m glad Predator: Hunting Grounds had this trial weekend, because the entire weekend was saddled with disappointing queue times, with it sometimes taking over four minutes to kick me into a match. The first day of the trial I was being matched with only a single human squadmate as well, too, or even having to go it alone against the Predator. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t do too well in those first matches.
By the end of the weekend, match load times were down, but I still waited a couple of minutes before getting kicked into a match, and had to back out to the menu a number of times as the Predator because I was not being matched with any opponents.
Of course, this being a test weekend, I’m glad Illfonic is taking the time to see how Predator works out in the wild. I think there’s a strong core in the matches — everything playing to its source material as being a Predator game still feels fun and worth diving into match after match. I do hope Illfonic can find a better balance to making the other objectives a bit more interesting, but outside of its technical issues, Predator shows plenty of promise by sticking to its franchise guns.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s senior news editor, host of Podcast Beyond!, and PlayStation lead. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.