Hard Reset seemed to appear from nowhere. First a screenshot. Then a name and a video. Then a pile of screenshots. That started barely a month ago, with the game due out as soon as September. And then yesterday we found a few levels of the game arrive in our inbox. So I've had a play of this PC-only shooter. (The screenshots aren't ours, as the code was watermarked, but those below are all new, and you can click on them for bigger versions.)
Flying Wild Hog, the best-of-Polish development team behind today's treat, have been selling Hard Reset as an old-school PC shooter, and in many ways that's true. In other ways, it really isn't. Where it falls between the two is an interesting place, full of promise, but with elements I beg the developers to fix before release.
The story, told in comicky-book cutscenes, is about something called the Sanctuary, millions of human lives, defending it from the machines, doesn't this sound a bit like the Matrix, shouty men, and so on. Which is essentially the words people say in between bouts of your shooting at things. An old-school shooter's story should be ignored in favour of shooting at things, and so here I give it a tick. I then draw a smiley face next to the line at the end of one of the cutscenes where your shouty-man character shouts, "Time to blow shit up!"
That's mostly what Hard Reset is about. Having some weapons, and shooting at the enemies. Also, shooting at the scenery to make stuff blow up to destroy the enemies. And it's no more sophisticated than that. Another tick.
Things get even more ticktastic when the very neatly used in-game tutorial tips (presented alongside the game's in-game narrative nonsense, context sensitive, and not enforced - tickticktick) introduce you to the concept of looking for secrets. The great forgotten feature of classic shootering are present and correct, either offering you bonuses for exploring off track, or having cracks in walls that can be widened by exploding nearby barrels, cars, etc. These bonuses are presented in the form of madly glowing giant awkwardly shaped boxes of ammo (tick), health (tick) and XP (waitwhat?).
XP is the game's perhaps first serious deviation from 90s shooters. As you kill things you gain it in drips, as well as gathering larger lumps from the pickups. This can then be spent at upgrade stations, letting you elaborately adapt your two main weapons, as well as improve your armour and health. Those two weapons, by the way, begin as a standard bullet-firing machine gun, and an electricity-firing plasma gun. Each can eventually be upgraded until it shifts, Transformers style, into many alts. So your machine gun becomes a shotgun, a rocket launcher, grenade launcher, and so on. The plasma orb doodah can fire arcing electricity, balls of fizzing lightning, giant electric domes, and hefty beams. Then these modes each have improvements and alt-fires, and so on and so on, meaning that just two guns are in fact an enormous arsenal.
Enemies, as I said, are machines, of many different types, and there are immediately far more of them than you'll think reasonable. Like Serious Sam, Hard Reset is a game best played while running backward, which is an ultro-tick. However, flipping crikey these demo levels got hard. Being swarmed by bombs on legs, all exploding on you at once whether you shoot at them or not is, at the moment, a touch frustrating. There are ways to get past it using different weapons, but, well, here we come to the first of my major gripes...
The two changing weapons thing is a great idea. One is assigned to Q, the other E, and then the varying modes on your mousewheel or the number keys. The massive issue is, in the version I played there's no useful way to know which mode is which. The gun changes shape, but not in a distinctive way, and the little symbols that appear in the bottom left of the HUD are utterly meaningless. This version of the game generously unlocks lots of the modes of the guns midway through, so as to give the previewer an opportunity to use everything despite not having the full game. And it quickly becomes apparent that trying to remember the order in which the different modes of two weapons are in, with no useful visual feedback, is a real pain in the arse. It lead to my blowing myself up with bombs, or firing useless electricity at giant mechs.
This becomes more problematic when combined with another cross next to its old-school values: no quicksave. Clearly the argument tediously rages on about whether games should quicksave or checkpoint, but there's no debate that when the latter is chosen, they have to be done really bloody well. Currently, and there is plenty of time for this to be fixed, Hard Reset's aren't. Being killed from behind four rooms (and thus four major waves of enemies) into a level sees you put right back to the start, which is not okay. I'd far rather see a quicksave put in, since that's how super-tough shooters always used to play, and would escape the need for the team to dramatically fix its checkpointing.
And while I'm listing things I'd love to see tweaked so as this astonishingly gorgeous shooter can be everything I'd like it to be, the damage feedback is currently all over the place. Using the rather more modern technique of reddening the edges of the screen to show you're taking damage, the intensity of this in no way matches the damage taken. You can be presented as being at death's door with 90% of your health, or on other occasions suddenly drop dead without warning. It definitely needs tidying up, especially in a game that's so focused on being difficult.
Talking of being difficult, a rather weird feature, and one I can't immediately understand, is the way difficulty levels work. The usual are available, Easy, Normal, Difficult and Insane. I picked Normal, as is only appropriate. Later in the few levels we were sent I found myself being utterly trounced. No bad thing - being difficult is another important tick. But I wanted to get past it to be able to write this for you, so switched down to Easy for a spell. Except, it was to be for the rest of the game. Changing difficulty in-game will only let you make it easier, not harder, and then when you select that change it warns you that you can't undo it. It meant that as I went on to finish the portion of game, including the big boss, it was all rather too easy, and there was nothing I could do about it. A very peculiar thing, and I cannot immediately think of a good reason for it to exist.
The reason I bring these things up in a preview (usually a more neutral territory as it's unfair to judge something that's unfinished) is because I really desperately want this game to be good. The graphics, as the video and screenshots will have shown you, are astonishing. It runs incredibly smoothly for so much elaborate detail, and copes well with a dozen enemies on screen at once. Such fidelity, combined with 1990s shooter values, desperately running backward as you avoid the onslaught, is exactly what I'm missing from my gaming at the moment. Just being in a shooter that wasn't trying to teach me a valuable life lesson while asking me to solve Fermat's last theorem using planks and physics was a rare joy. My shoulders relaxed slightly as I realised I was being allowed to have fun without consequences. That's something well worth fighting for, so I really do beg Flying Wild Hog to reconsider their use of checkpoints, and to rethink their feedback for which weapon is selected. Tweak that, and we're really onto something here.