By John Walker on September 9th, 2011 at 12:00 pm.
Announced and released within just four months, the first game from Polish super-group Flying Wild Hog, Hard Reset, was something of a surprise to the world of PC. Dedicated to the platform, it’s a defiant thing: a first-person shooter with no multiplayer, no console vibe, and old-school shooter values, and it’s due out next Tuesday. So does it deliver in its specific niche. Having just completed it, I’m fully equipped to tell you Wot I Think.
Hard Reset had a chance. What could have been one of the more entertaining shooters is rendered often tiresome thanks simply to the hubris of one design choice. That, and its being incredibly short and going absolutely nowhere.
It was obvious from the preview code that Hard Reset’s desire to recreate the 90s shooter was going to be undone by its awful checkpointing. Despite embracing everything else that made old-school shooters so much fun – no reloading, no cover, no regenerating health – for some inexplicable reason they decided to go with the modern vanity of checkpoints. They know better than you where you should restart, and it’s about three battles, a long walk, and one gun augmentation before the point where you died.
(To remove doubt, I’m not trying to win the quicksave/checkpoint debate here. I’m simply taking the logic that, if a developer is clearly incapable of putting checkpoints in the most vaguely sensible places, then quicksave is always preferable.)
Hard Reset is deliberately an extremely difficult game. Even on Normal, you’re being faced with a tough challenge from the start, large waves of robotic enemies frequently pinning you down in the twisting sprawl of city streets. It’s a shooter that remembers shooters were meant to kill you. But it’s also a shooter that forgets how that mechanic needs to work.
There’s something of a story, but it’s so incomprehensibly delivered that it’ll wash right past you. Max Payne-alike comic book sequences offer a low budget (although often nicely illustrated) means of explaining that robot AI has taken over the world (or something), and you’re the one who can run around shooting at it. But it’s mostly such overblown gibberish that there’s not much point in paying attention. It’s pretty telling that they play over the level loads, with an option to have them shush as soon as the next section is safely in your RAM.
But the story’s really not the point here. What you’ve got is the most incredibly gorgeous proprietary engine offering vast, slick cities painted in Bladerunner grey and neon. Made exclusively for PC, none of either console’s ancient limits restricts potential, meaning intricately detailed views stretch to the skyline, while gorgeously shimmering rain-soaked robots litter the screen. And you’re going to shoot at them.
The game’s smartest choice is the two-weapon system. One fires bullets, the other electricity, and each can be augmented to an enormous degree. Using collected “N.A.N.O.” points, and an upgrade station, you can choose which new weapon modes, or modes within modes, (and indeed armour options) to add on, meaning by the end you’ve just as varied a load of weaponry as any other classic shooter, just more efficiently contained within two main guns. And thankfully, since almost every preview pointed out how impossible it was to tell which gun mode was which, they’ve improved the HUD to give you clear feedback about what you’re about to fire.
(They listened to that criticism.)
For great stretches the checkpoint issue doesn’t arise. Well balanced sequences offer some lovely detail. Going into a room and seeing the shadow of a robot disappear around the corner, knocking over a barrel on its way, creates a superb atmosphere, a good sense of foreboding. Heavy, tough fights stand between you and the next destination, in what is a distinctly linear route through the levels. But often you’re tagging a checkpoint as you arrive in each new area, and all is fine.
The problem erupts so miserably on what turns out to be four or five occasions of a slight game, when it puts you in a pocket of multiple waves of enemies. Appearing with a peculiar timing, each new round of enemies rush in usually before you’ve had time to scoop up the needlessly disappearing health and ammo drops from the last lot. Which is fine – that would be a tough, interesting battle. But it’s when you’re on the fourth stage of the fight, and you get pinned by the game’s weird need to fill the already tight spaces with dozens of obstacles. Get trapped in a corner, or simply be unlucky enough to be near a car or barrel when an enemy fires at it, and you’re dead in a second. Which, after a load, puts you back before the first wave of it all. And far too often, a walk away, with an upgrade station between, meaning any previous tweaks you’ve made will need to be redone.
The battles, however, are often genuinely excellent, despite the rather basic AI on display. Enemies run/roll toward you, and then hurt you. But they run in such numbers, or with such force, that it’s a desperate backward scrabble to survive. It’s not Serious Sam, but it’s reminiscent of id’s shooters at their most frantic.
And astonishingly, this isn’t a case where changing the difficulty level is a solution. If I go to turn it down to Easy to get past a particular bottleneck, the game informs me that this is a permanent change, and I can’t change it back. What? Presumably tied into the entirely unwanted achievements, tiered to the difficulty you’re on, it seems to be a measure to stop you, er, cheating at achieving meaningless pop-ups? This is a single-player game. There isn’t even a multiplayer option. So the game is deliberately handicapping itself and me in order to protect something utterly without meaning or merit. There’s no option to turn bloody achievements off, so what do I do? Switch the game down to Easy and then no longer enjoy the excellent challenge in other parts of the game? Or just replay the same section 900 times until I fluke my way through it?
There are a couple of other rather sizeable issues. The first, and perhaps most significant, is the frequent failure to recognise button presses. In the frantic fighting, having the game ignore your wheel scrolls or pressing of Q or E to change weapon is utterly infuriating. And can frequently lead to death. In the later stages of the game you can have some incredibly powerful ranged modes for your weapons, which are no use when you’re being swarmed by six pesky robots around your feet. So when it won’t switch for whatever reason it has, you are overwhelmed and die, and are sent back to whatever point in the history of mankind it was last deemed a checkpoint might be necessary. It’s hard to maintain your patience.
The second is the ending. The story, such as it is, at least pretends to be going somewhere, giving you the impression that there’s more interesting stuff to play. Your character can apparently store other people’s consciousnesses in his brain – or something. It’s honestly such nonsense that caring what was going on became a bit too demanding. But whatever’s happening, there’s a manner of twist halfway (let me stress again, none of this affects the game you’re actually playing – just the cutscenes), and then just when it seems to be about to go somewhere… it ends.
There’s all this promise of your character’s unique abilities being realised, something about nanobots and my brain, making me wonder if I was about to reach a significant turn in the game, a new element being added to how I play for, what, the final third? But in fact the whole thing is over in about six or seven hours, all of that blather utterly unrelated to the steadily unchanging game itself. When waiting for the next level to load after a particularly dull boss fight, seeing the credits appear was just mystifying. Oh. You’re done.
Which is infuriating, because everything that was needed for a great game was in place. Stupid, tiresome checkpointing that had ample opportunity to be fixed, combined with difficulty spikes alongside no option to turn the difficulty back up again, and what turns out to be a meaningless, repetitive romp, all squish down a really fun shooter. Many of the battles, especially early on, offer tremendous challenge, coupled with the wonderful animations and characters of the enemies. It just turns out that those few enemies are all you’ll encounter throughout, and they don’t start doing anything new at any point.
It looks utterly incredible, and deserves to be lauded for that. With so much going on at any point, it ran like a dream once I’d dropped the anti-aliasing down from an ambitious 8x. The enemy design reveals real talent behind the game, their quirky behaviour and exquisite animation constantly a pleasure. And while the levels are nothing other than a series of beautifully gloomy corridors, they’re just open enough to offer easy searches for secrets, and occasionally small arenas for extended fights.
I fought hard to like Hard Reset. But with the way it just stops before it feels like it went anywhere, everything I was forgiving as a step toward the next stage turns out to have been it. Despite having two or three hours of good fun from it, I come away without any of the fondness I’d scraped together. But good grief, the engine is remarkable, the notion was there. Maybe their next game?