Predator: Hunting Grounds Review
Awkward rumble in the dated looking jungle
Despite being a cult classic film franchise, there hasn't been a serious game based on The Predator in the past two decades. The concept seems easily adaptable - a vicious alien hunter arrives on Earth to wreck havoc and claim human spines as trophies. And yet, the most recent adaptations have been arcades and forgettable online spinoffs. Perhaps inspired by the recent success and general fan appreciation towards Alien: Isolation, we now have Predator: Hunting Grounds, a new multiplayer action/shooter from IllFonic and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. While the game tries to offer a bloody and intense hunting showdown, it ends up being a repetitive and brief series of encounters in a dated-looking jungle.
Hunting Grounds is an asymmetrical multiplayer title that pits a Fireteam of four humans against the titular Predator. The human players are tasked with dropping into a map, completing their multi-step mission objectives, and getting out. The Predator is there to hunt, preventing the squad from escaping with their spines intact. There are multiple ways a match can end - the Fireteam completes their mission and escapes, the Predator is killed, or the 15 minute timer runs out. Regardless of what happens, everyone gets a healthy dose of experience points, so the focus is on engagements rather than the outcome. If you want a bit of practice, there is a Private Match option; don't bother with the Tutorial level, it's quite poor.
The action takes place across just three maps, which are all jungles with a few different drop-in points for the Fireteam. The maps are interchangeable; one has a large logging camp, another a few military installations, and the third a village upon the water. But the maps all look and feel pretty much the same, as the Predator needs his tall trees to run across. The Fireteam just moves between the different locations to interact with something, and then extract; there are no unique missions or mechanics specific to one map. You grow familiar with the maps quickly as they are not very large, and there's nothing to do in the jungle outside of the areas with structures. The missions are at least random, so you never know where you'll need to go for any given match.
The human Fireteam squad plays like a very shallow first person shooter. You drop in, the game marks an objective, and you beeline through the jungle to the target. The missions are all entirely interchangeable and easy to ignore; sometimes you're stealing hard drives, blowing up pipes, killing captains, eliminating evidence, stealing tech, and so on. None of this really matters, because all you're ever doing is walking up to a glowing spot and interacting with it. Sometimes, you have to hold the button a little longer; other times you have to search a small area to find the item first; and in another case, you have to stick around and defend an item while it does something (like hacking).
This defending seems largely unnecessary, too, because you're up against the enemy AI soldiers that spawn in and just run into the area. Enemy soldiers in Hunting Grounds don’t even deserve a mention. They are meant to be cannon fodder for the Fireteam to distract them from The Predator, but their AI is practically nonexistent. They spawn and run in, and just stand around, shooting. The game even shows you their location on the minimap right off the bat. They don't actually do anything as far as objectives go, and they are so static that they might as well be practice range dummies. It's meant to be a minor annoyance, yes, but they demonstrate such a lack of ability that it looks almost broken. The game lets you be stealthy, but with poor AI it's pointless; you can disable alarm boxes to prevent reinforcements.
Playing as The Predator is probably the highlight of the game, as it becomes a third person action title. This alien hunter can jump high and sprint faster, and he has more health than the humans. He also has infrared vision to better identify targets, and a limited-use scan to help point him in the right direction. You can use a leap to quickly cover ground or get on top of structures, and of course a cloak mode to conceal yourself. While you can stick on the ground, the better option is to jump up into trees and parkour your way around. The game handles the controls decently well, as you can automatically traverse the branches. The Predator gets no objective markers - apart from the final extraction chopper being called - so it's up to you to find the human players.
When the two sides finally meet, the action intensifies. In a great bit of design, the Predator emits his trademark clicking sounds, which lets the Fireteam know that danger is close. The gunplay for the Fireteam is pretty basic, though does feel occasionally satisfying against AI soldiers and the Predator. The latter, meanwhile, can run around and melee attack the humans; it only needs a few melee hits to put someone down, or one fully charged and well-placed plasma shot. The Predator remains cloaked even during action, as long as his energy meter has some juice, so you can escape from a firefight; but it does leave a green blood trail, allowing ambitious Fireteams to reverse the roles of the hunt. Humans can also shoot a few of the tree branches, eliminating some of the parkour paths.
The general idea is that the Predator will attack in spurts, taking the time to retreat and heal, while the Fireteam does the same and tries to push on for their objectives. Both sides carry packs to restore health after an engagement; human players can find more scattered around the map or bring more as an item, while the Predator can try to find wild boars, but they seem exceedingly rare. If Fireteam suffers losses, the survivors can bring them back in via radio call-in, if they successfully avoid the Predator until then. The humans can cover themselves in mud to temporarily help avoid detection.
Beyond the basic shooting and melee options, the two sides have some gadgets at their disposal - the Fireteam has various grenades and resupply pouches, while the Predator can use the above-mentioned plasma weapon or a bow for ranged options, trap the humans in a net, throw a spear, and more. Only two weapons and three gadgets can be brought along, so strategy and team composition comes into play. Should the Predator go down, he can set a self-destruct bomb countdown, and humans can either try to defuse it via a basic minigame, or run outside of blast radius. When the Predator gets the upper hand, he can violently execute the Fireteam members.
Addressing balance in an asymmetrical game is a tough task to begin with. But from many hours with the game, things seem to play out the same regardless of player level or skill. If the Fireteam sticks together, there's not much the Predator can do to eliminate them all. But if they fall apart or are not able to focus their fire, it's very easy pickings. The game lacks missions that switch things up, like forcing the Fireteam to split up or something even remotely interesting. Occasionally, you might get an optional objective. And it's not like you even know who is in the match or what their profile levels are - the game doesn't show this information in any screens. So you could, theoretically, be matched up with players well below or above your level, but it doesn't matter too much. So it sort of makes the experience both fair and dull - there's not a ton of advantage gained from leveling up, as it comes down to strategy and skill.
Matches can play out quickly, like if the Predator is not skilled and tries to attack as soon as he finds the Fireteam. But even if both sides stay alive through a series of engagements, there is a 15 minute limit, and it usually takes under 10 minutes for the Fireteam to complete their mission. As such, Hunting Grounds is definitely more of a fast paced title, and not meant for the Predator to stalk their prey for a while.
No matter the outcome of a match, players who contribute even marginally get some experience points. Experience levels up your player profile, which in turn unlocks new weapons and gadgets to use. Helpfully, the XP level is shared between your Predator and Fireteam loadout, so even if you rarely get to play as the murderous alien, he still gets unlocks. As mentioned, the loadout for both sides includes two weapons, as well as gadgets. Further, there is a Call of Duty-like perk system that lets you get specific boosts - such as more health, better resistance to gunfire, more energy, and so on. Up to three perks can be equipped, but they have varying cost that must add up to 9 points. The Fireteam members also need to level their rifles by using them in battle, and a few attachments can be added such as sights and extended magazines. Last but not least, you also unlock a few more soldier/Predator classes which have different health and speed stats, letting players further customize their playstyle.
The game also features visual customization, letting you get new colors for weapons, armor, spray paint for face/mask, and so on. The items are earned via lootboxes that drop with experience levels, or purchased with in-game currency. The currency is earned over time and by picking up material during matches; if there is a specific item you want, it can be purchased directly as well. All of these systems are purely cosmetic, and so don't have any impact on gameplay.
As a multiplayer title, Predator: Hunting Grounds lives and dies by its online population. During the launch week, the player numbers seem okay - it takes about a minute to play on a Fireteam, and about 5 minutes to become a Predator. There's also crossplay support between PS4 and PC players, helping boost the numbers. The real issues come more from the design and technical issues. There are frequent occasions when matchmaking simply gets stuck and needs to be restarted. When you do get a lobby, that can get stuck as well. If the lobby is lacking just 1 player, the game starts a lengthy countdown and refuses to start the match right away even if all players are ready. As the population inevitably dwindles, it will be important to get these issues addressed and find a way to reduce wait times for Predator queues.
The game also struggles with presentation on the base PS4. It looks fairly low-budget, and though some of the textures and particularly the Predator looks OK, the humans leave much to be desired. The faces lack features, as does the armor and the weapons. The animations are very poor for humans as well, often looking like a game from very early in this console generation. Textures are often of low quality, and lighting looks entirely flat. There are tons of jagged lines in the scenery and especially vegetation, making the entire environment flicker and shimmer artificially. Gore and gunfire mechanics look very dated, and there are very little physics effects to speak of. There are even spelling errors in some texts, and even opening of the cosmetic lootboxes often has visual glitches. But perhaps worst of all, framerate problems persist throughout the matches.
Apart from the Predator, the audio mix also leaves much to be desired. Random AI soldier chatter appears as subtitles, when you never actually hear it; explosions and gunfire is mostly hollow and often glitchy. The Fireteam members - who are generic avatars - sometimes decide to speak to themselves and it's rather jarring. The military commander that spouts instructions and back-story to the Fireteam during missions is about as generic as it gets. The action music and classic main theme of The Predator are included here, but things begin to grow very repetitive as you sit in the menus for matchmaking.
Predator: Hunting Grounds has some potential, but aside from the well-executed Predator mechanics and sound design, the game leaves much to be desired. The balancing in an asymmetrical multiplayer title will always be questioned, but in this case it seems decent and relies more on player skills than their level or unlocks. The matchmaking is running okay for now, and cross-play should hopefully keep the game population at decent levels for a little while longer. But with such limited content - just three maps, no single player - this title will only appeal to a small niche of players. It also doesn't help that the game looks very dated, runs poorly on a base PS4, and enemy AI is nonexistent. All but the most hardcore 4v1 and Predator fans may want to give this a pass; at least it's not a full-priced release.