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Future gangs of New York: Huntdown comes out to play

21st Century Warriors

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Rockstar’s adaptation of The Warriors is one of my favourite licensed games. That’s probably at least in part because The Warriors is the perfect film for a game adaptation, seeing as it’s full of minibosses, action sequences and a basic level structure.

When I played Huntdown [official site] at GDC last week, a stack of decades-old games came to mind, but it was The Warriors that leaped to the front of the queue, in an explosion of denim, spraycans and chains. Huntdown is a side-scrolling beat and shoot ’em up for one or two players, and it does good gangs.

Baseball bats have become hockey sticks, and The Warriors themselves have become guns for hire rather than a gang on the run, but in many ways this could be one of those sequels that decides the best thing to do is to move the action to the future. Highlander 2, I’m looking at you.

The video should give you a good idea of what kind of game this is. If your childhood was anything like mine, you played something that looked a bit like it on an arcade machine down the local leisure centre, eating soggy chips with fingers that still tasted of chloroform chlorine (so glad I didn’t name the leisure centre – ed) from the pool. For me, it was Renegade and Narc, though both are imperfect analogues for Huntdown. There’s no depth to the screen here, at least not in the levels I played, so it’s more like a straight-up action platformer. But that suggests the jumping is more difficult than it is. Essentially it’s a side-scrolling shooter with verticality.

You can take cover behind crates, which are destructible, and in alleys or alcoves. Enemies will do the same. And there are grenades that bounce and roll around the screen, bossfights that range from Large Man to Actual Mech, and a bunch of different guns to use. It’s very much a game about shooting baddies rather than punching them, though there is a melee attack that’ll probably become more powerful before the final release. At the moment, it feels a bit like tickling someone with your foot, though the game is true enough to its Rad Eighties sensibilities that even a foot tickle can launch someone through the air from time to time.

The co-op is my favourite thing about it at the moment. In solo play, you’ll actually be alone, with no AI to step in to your buddy’s boots, and that seems a shame. The action is all close quarters enough that you can be genuinely helpful almost by accident, spraying fire across the screen and killing the knucklehead who is about to clobber your pal. Best of all though, the enemies are just about reactive enough that you can distract their routines by leaping into view, leading them into crossfire or away from your wounded chum while she grabs a fresh gun from the piles littering the floor.

I also laughed with strangers when a massive bastard with a nightstick knocked my character from one side of the screen to the other, the limp corpse flopping through a perfect arc and landing with a crunch. Fore! Home run! SLAPSHOT. The big fucker was standing in a wrestling ring because why wouldn’t he be?

A lot of these retro games are as tough as their inspirations and while I like a challenge, I find the likes of Oniken frustrating long before I’m finished with them. I admire how closely they stick to the truth of the past, with its coin-grabbing desire to kill, kill and kill again, but I’m a tourist. I enjoy sightseeing in RetroVille, but I don’t want to live and die there. Huntdown might have bosses that send me flopping across the screen, flickering out of sight and out of lives, but it’s at least slightly forgiving. You can take a few hits before dying, don’t need to worry too much about conserving ammo (though you might end up stuck with a peashooter of a gun if you burn through bullets too quickly), and because of that you’re more likely to chuckle at a ludicrous death than to lob your controller across the room.

My controller is wired, which makes those kind of petulant displays a total embarrassment, like a noodle-armed nerd attempting the shot put. Thankfully, I’m more of the ‘mutter quietly and grimace’ sort, but there’s no need to worry about any of that right now because Huntdown seems more likely to make me chortle and cheer than anything else. It’s challenging but, in the early levels at least, it isn’t punishing.

This hits a sweet spot for me. On one level, it’s not a particularly exciting game, doing things that I’ve been familiar with for a long time and lacking any specific hook. But at another level, it’s one of those retro games that’s actually far more detailed than any of the things that it remembers. As I was talking to the developer, I suddenly remembered a “similar looking” game called After The War that I hadn’t thought about since I was a kid. “It’s the same kind of future world, though in After The War a nuclear bomb has been dropped”, I explained as I searched the internet for an image.

Never let it be said that retro games don’t change with the times.

There will be loads of levels in the final game, with new gangs to fight and new weapons to use. Along with the main objective – get from beginning to end and kill any bosses along the way – each level has a bonus in the form of a courier carrying what I assume is Bad Drug Money. It might even be actual Bad Drugs, but I think he’s carrying whatever it is in a metal briefcase, which definitely seems like a place to stash cash.

The courier is triggered at a specific point and you have to tear through the level to catch and kill him. It’s an optional change of pace, the rest of the game allowing for careful cover shooting, and although the chases are a simple pleasure, they are indeed a pleasure. So is the rest of the game. Pleasant, old-fashioned ultraviolence. It’s the Saturday Morning Cartoon version of The Warriors the networks couldn’t handle. And of course that cartoon would be set in the future.

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