Greg Orlando

Oh, for a Brontosaurus burger. The early Homo sapien sapiens in Intrepid’s B.C. appear beaten up, kicked in, worn out, and ready for death at the advanced age of 12; it’s their lot in life and the awesome price they must pay for being a part of what overseer Peter Molyneux calls, “the goriest game ever.” Please note, however, that this does not, in any way, prevent the female members of said species from looking like creepy, exaggeratedly large-breasted, pre-Stone Age Hooters waitresses.

Such is la vida loca in the fantastical world of B.C., where humans intermingle in real-time with dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, giant man-eating crocodiles, and a host of other prehistoric beasties in Xbox’s first third-person “existence is suffering” simulator. Players control a tribe, one member at a time, as it takes a long, dangerous trip to reach a Shangri-la of sorts atop a snowy mountain. Along the way, players, via their tribe member, will be able to apply their modern-day know-how to influence the environment in many subtle and overt ways.

“We wanted to set [the game] in an extremely richly simulated ecosystem,” Ben Cousins, lead designer for B.C. says. “An ecosystem where all the objects in the world make sense and behave the way they do in natural environments. A world where a rock can be picked up, broken, and used as a weapon. Where a tree can be set on fire. Where the creatures in the world have diets, need water, and need to sleep. We decided to make it a prehistoric setting because we’re all fans of dinosaurs and everyone loves that whole over-the-top kind of setting.”

In B.C., tooth-and-claw rules, and the humans, at least initially, are sorely overmatched. Thankfully, players will be able to use their brains to topple brawn. Once their basic needs have been met, tribe members in B.C. will begin to explore and experiment; ultimately mastering fire, domesticating dogs, creating new tools to simplify their days, and crafting weapons for attack and defense. Invention expands the ways in which a tribe can go about its everyday business, as well as deal with threats.

After much tinkering and many late-night think sessions, it will be possible to hunt raptors with bows and spears, use fire as a means to herd the beasts into a carefully laid trap; bring them down without firing a shot by poisoning them; or use building techniques to wall off a water supply, forcing both herbivores and carnivores alike to either move in search of a new place to drink or die from thirst. “We want to give players the freedom to be a little bit smarter about it,” Cousins says. “So those people who really like to think about games and be strategic actually have the ability to do those more complex interactions.”

In a world as real as its creators could make it, every action will have a consequence, and lack of fore-thought can be as deadly as the sharpest claw. A lick of flame might start a domino effect, destroying fruit trees in an area and throwing the food chain into chaos. Cousins says, “Imagine it was a dodo that was eating that fruit; that dodo would then move out of that area. If the raptors were eating the dodo, then the raptors, too, would be pushed out of the area. So you can see that by a simple action like setting fire to a tree, you can actually do some quite complex things with the ecosystem.” The same mischief might be accomplished by poisoning the grass a plant-eating dinosaur eats, which, in turn, would kill the meat eater who unwittingly consumes its flesh and the scavengers feasting on any of the remains.

Players can form and control five-member parties while instructing other members of the tribe to perform specific tasks. B.C. is a thoughtful, equal-opportunity employer; players can go through the entire game as a female and will never have to bother with mundane activities such as gathering food, standing watch over the camp, or building structures. Instead, they’ll be able to command tribe members with almost superhuman abilities: builders who can lift and haul huge stones, athletes who can swim like dolphins, hunters who employ their heightened senses to zoom in when using bows, and mystics who can use chemical poultices to poison things or set objects on fire.

Gorgeous brutality dominates. When Cousins sets out with five brave video humans to attack an enormous Tyrannosaurus rex, the result is suitably gory. Using spears from a distance, the hunters get in a few shots, and the giant monster rears up in anger. Multiple spear points stick out of its chest, and blood pours copiously from the creature’s wounds. The Tyrannosaurus counterattacks, stomping one human into paste and chomping another between its razor-sharp teeth. Yet another human dies seconds later, seemingly crushed by a huge tail, and Cousins, in perhaps the understatement of the year, casually remarks, “As you can see, they’re not doing too well. Naturally, it’s quite hard to kill a T. rex with five guys with spears.” Die the beast does, though, and it’s only after this extended blood-bowl ends that Cousins mentions this was a baby Tyrannosaurus.

Beyond the dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts, B.C. holds a major surprise, one extending well beyond the boundaries of the fossil record. “Along the way [the humans] will also meet another creature that we’re not talking about, which is a much more intelligent creature that will be more of a direct competition within the environment. What we’re doing is we’re kind of thinking about a hypothetical prehistoric past where man was directly competing with another type of intelligent creature,” Cousins says. When asked if this new threat is simian in nature, he says, simply, “perhaps.

“[It’s] something quite horrible.”

A near-unlimited draw distance gives players vistas to stare at openmouthed. On one set of heights, it’s possible to peer down into a sun-soaked valley to see a huge Diplodocus wading into a river, while Corythosaurs nibble at some bushes and Velociraptors feed on a huge hunk of dead who knows what. At the end of the game, players will be able to note their progress by looking out from their tribe’s new mountain home and observing all the areas they’ve covered during the journey.

Dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest existence has never seemed so appealing. It may be, as author Thomas Hobbes said, a life that’s nasty, brutish, and short, but it’s definitely a life worth living.

Vicariously, of course.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Xbox Nation.