The Pillars of Horror: Dino Crisis

A lesson in making dinosaurs not scary

To celebrate the release of Primal Carnage a while ago I thought I’d go dig up my old copy of Dino Crisis. Really, what’s scarier than a giant, angry lizard that wants to eat you? This isn’t some bag of decaying flesh shambling its way toward you, but rather a few hundred pounds of muscle, teeth, and claws acting on pure animal instinct. We’re talking a semi-intelligent, fearless predator that moves quickly and can score a lethal wound on flesh with one hit. So, how did Capcom manage to make a game about these terrifying creatures so dull? How in the world am I not afraid of these things?

For starters, it takes nine bullets to put down a basic zombie in Resident Evil, but usually about seven to kill a raptor. We have a problem right there. I shouldn’t be having an easier time killing a healthy dinosaur than I would have in taking out a half-rotten human corpse. The dinosaurs do grow stronger as the game progresses, but they never really reach a strength level that I felt was indicative of how powerful they were. You’re fighting dinosaurs, so why doesn’t the game do anything to reflect the scope of these new opponents?

Even if you haven’t played Resident Evil, you can still tell that there’s something wrong with being able to put down these huge raptors with a hand gun. When I ran into my first one, I have to admit that I was frightened for a minute. Extending the main character’s hand and seeing that tiny gun pointed at the snarling face of that first raptor made me feel weak and insignificant. It felt like a meaningless act just to point that small gun at the thing, since it was just going to charge at me through my bullets and kill me anyway. Just the same, what choice did I have? I fired anyway.

Each shot stunned that first creature, holding it in place so that I could fire my next shot. Not to constantly draw parallels between it and Resident Evil, but zombies kept moving when you shot them and I would expect the same from a dinosaur. Raptors might not be as hardy as a T-Rex, but I’d still expect them to shrug off bullets until I’d put enough into them to down them for a moment. They shouldn’t be stunned and frozen in place with every single shot, because they seem weak and almost ridiculous at that point. Why is this little hand gun doing so much to disrupt what this creature is doing? If I can cause them this much trouble with the game’s most basic weapon then why would I be afraid of them?

The sound that gun made was utterly pathetic, too. The guns in this game carry almost no audible payload, sounding more like you’re firing an Airsoft gun than an actual firearm. The little puffs that come out of your handgun just drive home how weak and useless it is, but it’s somehow still capable of killing dinosaurs. That plays a little trick on you in how you perceive the strength of these creatures. If you think back to Doom, that catastrophic boom that you hear when firing the double-barreled shotgun gives you a sense of its power as well as that of the enemies that can or cannot withstand it. I was rightfully afraid of anything that could stand up to more than one hit from that gun, but Dino Crisis had nothing like that. The guns just popped impotently, making me feel powerless while also showing me that my enemies were weak as well.

If they wanted the basic weapon to be effective then I think it should have been something more powerful than a hand gun. I think the weapons in the game needed to be ramped up as the enemies were. If I’m going to be spending an entire game fighting huge lizards then I should start off with a machine gun at least, or even the shotgun. Even if it didn’t change the amount of shots needed to put a dinosaur down, it would have changed my way of perceiving the game.

The guns you’re given in a game instantly put an idea in the player’s head about how powerful they are. If your first weapon is a hand gun, you’ll probably feel a little safe. Start with a shotgun or something more powerful and you’ll be laughing to yourself. Having something powerful right from the start of the game is a good way of making the player feel really empowered from the start. Can you imagine starting out with a grenade launcher or something? You’d feel overconfident and cocky, even if a part of you might be wondering why the developers had put it in your hands.

Having to sink seven shells from shotgun into the first raptor might not have required many changes to the game’s graphics and code, but it would have gone a long way into framing the dinosaurs in a more dangerous light. I can take out people with a hand gun, but I wouldn’t think that it would be powerful enough to fight off a dinosaur with. If I’d had to shoot it that many times with a shotgun then it would have changed my perception of the game’s enemies quite a bit. Even if it was still seven shots from the game’s most basic weapon, I was still using a shotgun. In my mind, that’s a lot of power needed to kill a single creature, and that is something I’ll carry with me the whole time I play through the game. Again, it wouldn’t have changed much in the way of gameplay, but mentally it would have made my enemies seem larger and more dangerous. Fear is something that plays out in the head to begin with, so any steps you can take toward unsettling my perception of what’s going on is going to make a big difference in the game.

That same perception wasn’t helped when I hardly entered a room that was dark or even dim. Beyond a few fenced-in spots at the start of the game the whole game is lit up as if it were on the surface of the sun. You don’t have to have darkness in order for a game to be scary, but the place was just too bright and well lit to seem like it was hiding anything. Not only that, but there were almost no windows or other entry points, either. Even if you don’t have darkness, there’s a need for there to be some place outside of the player’s reach that enemies can come from. There needs to be dark or hidden crevices so there’s a chance the game can build up some kind of tension. Without that, the whole game became pretty predictable.

The basic scenario played out the same every time. If I walked into a room and heard growling I would haul out my gun and wait. Eventually, the creature would move into view or my character would auto-lock onto it, and then I would start firing until the dinosaur was gone. There were some points where the game was able to surprise me, but most of the time each room was set up with the same attack pattern. Even the more powerful dinosaurs would appear and attack in pretty much the same way, making for a game that was unrelentingly predictable.

While Dead Space wasn’t as scary as I would have liked, they definitely got it right when it came to monster appearances. The creatures could come from just about anywhere, and every surface was covered in vents and gaps that the monsters could come crawling out of. Even though many of the basic monsters could be killed easily, they would constantly pick away at my health as each one came sneaking in from a direction I wasn’t paying that much attention to. Those entry points also meant that there were often monsters around me with no indication from the game, so after a while I would learn to never feel safe.

I knew exactly when and where to feel endangered in Dino Crisis. I was given audible clues every time a dinosaur was around, and they were almost always coming from somewhere right in front of me. Given that the game took place in well-lit corridors for the most part, I would just sit and wait for the creatures to come my way. Given the auto-targeting system and the fact that shooting enemies would stun-lock them I just never felt the slightest twinge of fear while playing the game.

I didn’t even get a blip of it during the few times the game did go out of its way to surprise me. It still does try to pull off a jump scare every once in a while, but again, being able to stun-lock the enemies carried me through the day. There’s also the fact that the game typically went into a video mode to show me where the dinosaur was coming from didn’t help, either. The final problem came from these little sequences where the word ‘danger’ would flash at the bottom of the screen after a surprise attack, and you’d be expected to mash buttons for a few seconds to get away. If something in the game actually managed to get the drop on me in any way, I was usually greeted with a safe sequence where I didn’t have to showcase any skill at all. I actually relaxed even more during these sequences than during the rest of the game.

Even when the T-Rex, absolute king of dinosaurs, showed up and promised me instant death if it made contact with me I wasn’t scared. Even when it did manage to surprise me I was still safely tucked away in a cutscene for a moment, letting me get my bearings on things before I had to protect myself. It was just utterly depressing, and given that the most you have to do is shoot the thing when it tries to bite you, I felt like it had lost all of its power. There was nothing special about fighting it, with the developers making it kill you in one hit rather than take the time to plan a really good boss fight. It died in the exact same way as every other dinosaur in the game, and with just as little satisfaction.

Dino Crisis is just too well lit, its monsters seem too weak and are too predictable, and it all does absolutely nothing to intimidate its players. The fact that you were fighting dinosaurs was just the developer’s way of being lazy and hoping the huge lizards would be enough to scare players. Toss in a few cheap tricks from Resident Evil and they’d be able to count the money as it rolled in. It was a lazy game built by a lazy team, even if considered as an action game. It does nothing to entice or excite its players, and I really wish I hadn’t wasted my time playing it again.

It is a horror game without any attempt to build up an atmosphere of fear. There is nothing to heighten or even create tension; just a series of hallways and keycards that eventually lead to a lame ending. Beyond a few feeble attempts to startle its players, the game has no teeth at all. Despite choosing enemies that should have made it easy to frighten the audience, Dino Crisis is never, ever scary.

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Joel Couture
Joel Couture
Joel Couture

MASH Veteran

A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

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