Bank robberies are classic cowboy fare. Whether you're up to no good in Red Dead Redemption 2 or stealing from the rich to (sort of) give to the poor in the original Desperados, these temples of cash have long been the scenes of messy shootouts, upturned tables, and big, golden pay-outs. At least when your heist strategy's going according to plan, that is. In an exclusive demo for one of the later levels in Hard West 2, the upcoming sequel to the 2015 turn-based tactics original, Ice Code Games' chief technology officer Mateusz Pilski is starting to feel the heat a bit. The bank is well guarded, with at least half a dozen gunslingers staking out the doors at the front, and untold numbers waiting in hidden nooks and crannies further back. He takes a moment to consider his approach, but he begins his assault with confidence.
"In any XCOM-like, when you see that many enemies and that much firepower, in that good a position, you think, okay, I'm fucked up," he tells me. "In just a second, I will show you how you can use Bravado to totally overturn the situation."
Bravado is a new addition to the Hard West series, but the way it refuels your posse's action points on KO-ing an enemy will be instantly familiar to anyone who's dabbled in recent strategy games such as Gears Tactics or Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters. However, whereas those games rewarded successful executions with a single bonus action point for your teammates, entering Bravado in Hard West 2 will renew the whole kit and kaboodle for the character doing the killing, effectively letting them take another full turn right there and then.
With the right planning, this can lead to some pretty outrageous chain attacks, and indeed, moments beforehand in my preview session, Pilski had made short work of the sheriff's defence force in the neighbouring street doing exactly this: using Bravado to take out multiple enemies at once, often in single turns, before they'd even had a chance to attack. Of course, taking out seven enemies in one go, pretty much with a single character in this instance, might have some of you worried that Hard West 2 is going to be too easy when it launches next week on August 4th - and it's something the team at Ice Code Games have been particularly mindful of during development.
"Designing Hard West 2, we really wanted the gameplay to feel different and to feel western," lead producer Grzegorz Ziemba tells me. "If you've played any other XCOM-likes, you've probably noticed that the standard gameplay doesn't really match a western setting. While in XCOM-likes you usually hide behind cover, use overwatch and basically react to what the enemy does and wait for the opportunity, Hard West 2 is all about being aggressive, being all in your face. It's you who's coming for all of them."
Admittedly, I'm not sure I'd be half as efficient if I was the one making the decisions here, and it's clear from watching Pilski and Ziemba's playthrough of this bank mission that using Bravado effectively will require some very un-XCOM-like thinking to achieve the same kind of killstreaks.
"Bravado isn't just for killing enemies, it's also about positioning," Pilski adds. "For example, here, I could stay behind the cover and have this guy for 75% chance to hit. But this isn't XCOM. This is Hard West. And you can go on the centre on the street, like a true cowboy, shoot this guy with 100%, and now after that I can reposition again, and maybe this time I will hide because I'm not sure if I'm able to kill those [other] guys right now."
Using Bravado as a positioning tool is something I hadn't really considered when playing the closed beta back in May, and watching it all play out in the hands of someone who actually knows what they're doing certainly makes it feel like it's in-keeping with the cowboy fantasy. It may not be quite as immediate as wiping out an entire gang in the blink of an eye with Red Dead Redemption 2's real-time Dead Eye targeting, for example, but it's still playing up to this idea of using your lightning fast quickdraw skills (or in Pilski's case, the frenzied tomahawk swings of the tank-like Laughing Deer) to be the fastest gun in the west, taking out bad guys one pew pew pew at a time.
I'd argue it's also a more convincing cowboy fantasy than other western-themed tactics games such as Desperados 3 have managed in the past, too. Sure, Desperados is a stealth-tactics series by nature, often favouring if not necessitating a softer approach by default. But as much as developer Mimimi Games tried encouraging us to go in guns blazing in 2020's excellent third entry in the series, firing off a bullet still felt like a failure in many respects – a scuff mark to be hastily erased with a tap of the quick-load key.
"People have to find a way to properly plan their movements," Pilski continues. "This is not about having a very good build and powerful weapons. Of course, this is important to a point, but it's not crucial. What's crucial is to outsmart the enemy and find the proper way to chain your actions and use Bravado as much as you can."
It helps that your posse of characters in Hard West 2 are made of sterner stuff than their 2015 predecessors. While leaving characters out of cover often spelled certain doom in the original game, thanks in no small part to its punishing permadeath, your party in Hard West 2 now have more HP as standard, and falling in battle will see you starting over from the latest checkpoint instead of slogging it out with drastically reduced numbers. This was partly to encourage players "to get out there, experiment, push forward, play badass," Ziemba tells me, citing the shootouts of The Magnificent Seven as a key touchstone (or should that be Tombstone?) for what the team are trying to achieve here. "The game is challenging, especially on Hard and Nightmare difficulties," he continues, "but it doesn't punish players with irreversible posse members’ losses for making mistakes."
But there was another reason for getting rid of permadeath as well, and that's so the team could tell a more authored story about the gang sitting at the heart of it all. "In Hard West 2 we wanted to tell a bigger, more complex story," says Ziemba. "Each posse member has a unique backstory and their character arcs are intertwined with the main plot. We wouldn’t be able to do that if our cast could die at any moment. Besides, if we killed a character voice acted by, for example fans’ favourite Kevin Conroy, we would be in much bigger trouble than Carter's posse!"
Indeed, as fans of the original game will know already, Hard West isn't just about spaghetti western shootouts. Whereas XCOM has its strategy layer to keep you busy between missions, Hard West 2 shifts gear into more of a text-based RPG in its quieter moments, presenting you with a top-down map to trot your way through on horseback, and lots of Disco Elysium-style dialogues to pick through, albeit without that game's mad inner monologuing. Of course, this being set in the weird west (although not quite that Weird West), there's still a good helping of supernatural and unholy goings on to contend with here, but that's not to say these sections are completely devoid of action. In the beta, for instance, these text-based scenes contained everything from mini shootouts to digging up loot from old corpses, the spoils from which you were then free to use in your loadout, or sell on for more cash at the next town.
"Big combat missions are the ones that are connected to the main plot, while miniature shootouts are more like little tactical challenges," Pilski explains. "Encounters that are played through text are mostly ones that follow some of western tropes that did not translate to turn-based combat. For example, a classical high noon, middle of the street revolver duel was presented through a narrative encounter, as a fight in an open field with one character wouldn’t make an interesting tactical challenge." There was always a temptation to try and turn more of these into bigger combat missions, he adds, but "at some point you need to finish the game".
Which brings us back to the bank. To prepare his assault, Pilski uses the special ability of new character Lazarus to heal Laughing Deer, who at this point is looking a little worse for wear after almost singlehandedly smashing the skulls of every enemy on the map so far. Pilski roughly categorises Lazarus as a "support character, but not in the classical meaning of it," he says, hinting at Hard West 2's other big draw: you're not just fighting inhabitants of the weird west's underbelly, after all – when you lose a bet with the devil himself in the very first mission of the game, you yourself also become a part of the local weird brigade.
"The skill he has is called Transfusion, and it allows you to switch your health points and statues with another unit," Pilski explains. "So here I have Laughing Deer who only has 9HP, I can switch with him. Thanks to that, Laughing Deer is now at full health." Of course, this means Lazarus is now a sitting duck. "Not to worry," says Pilski without missing a beat, "as we can switch with this guy [another enemy further inside the bank] who has 20 health." And just like that, the party is healed and someone is looking primed and ready for a bit of Bravado time right about now. "In this way," Pilski says, "I was able to heal my posse, but in a different way to other games."
At last, it's time for the final big murder run with Laughing Deer. After using Wild Run to get to his first poor victim (a move which does more damage the further he travels), Laughing Deer uses his second wind of Bravado moves to be the first one inside the bank. Six cowboys await him on this floor, but more of them are hiding up the stairs just waiting to take a pop shot at him. Before that, though, Laughing Deer swaps his tomahawk for his shotgun, allowing him to kill one and wound another in its wide firing range. The Bravado horn blasts again, allowing him to reposition and repeat the tactic not once, but twice for a total of three kills.
Flynn then moves in with her Shadow Swap to bring another gunslinger on the balcony into Laughing Deer's orbit. Three tomahawk clubs later and he's racked up a fourth kill. Then Flynn throws a stick of blue dynamite at another to both wound and inflict some extra fire damage, allowing Laughing Deer swoop in to claim his fifth.
But the Pilski stops dead, and it's clear something hasn't quite to plan. "So I made a mistake and probably I will have to pay for it in my blood," he jests. "But this is also what tactical games are about. You can't always make a perfect move. I'm afraid I will lose Flynn here, but let us see."
Alas, as Pilski runs out of moves, it quickly becomes apparent that neither Flynn or Laughing Deer are going to last long against the oncoming horde, and a Game Over screen materialises after just a couple of attacks. "As you can see, it's not that simple to use all those mechanics," he says. "On higher levels, it's quite difficult to find the proper way to use Bravado perfectly. But this is something that we think is great for the game, because the challenge that we give the players is different to other XCOM-likes. You have to find the chain kills."
After a quick reload to just outside the bank again, he tries for a second time to take the bank vault, employing other new character Cla'lish's demon summoning ability as a potential decoy tactic. Unfortunately, that too goes south pretty fast. On the third attempt, Pilski moves Flynn in first, using dynamite to soften up three of the welcoming party, before throwing another stick to kill her first target. She enters Bravado and shotguns two more, kill one and wounding the other. Like before, Pilski repeats this a couple of times to thin the crowds and then Shadow Swaps with his final victim to pull them out of cover. They swiftly meet the end of Flynn's shotgun like the rest of them, giving Flynn yet another bout of Bravado, but Pilski knows his limits this time.
"This is a good point for a tactical retreat," he says, "and I can actually do the tactical retreat with Flynn with this guy that I left behind!" Right on cue, Pilski initiates another Shadow Swap with the one straggler he left alive outside, and Flynn is now safe and sound from the imminent swarms of enemies about to bust through the rest of the bank's corridors. He'll still need to fight his way through them to get the vault, of course, but the hard part of getting through the doors is over. Now, it's a matter of picking them off one by one and stealing his way to victory. "In this way, I just went into this bank, killed everybody and disappeared," he says.
A classic cowboy heist, in other words, and one I can't wait to try and inevitably fail at myself when Hard West 2 launches in little over a week - and if you missed the closed beta back in May, then make sure you give this week's pre-launch demo a try, which lets you play the first chapter of the game for free from July 28th to August 1st.