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Wot I Think: Hatred

More 'Disdain', really

Obviously Hatred [official site] has engineered itself, with the support of a jejune voluntary army, a degree of infamy. A drearily tasteless and cheap (in all senses of the word) promotional campaign dared a mostly uninterested world to care that it was to feature a lone gunman slaughtering hundreds of innocent civilians. They got a bit of attention from the credulous, but not much, and now the finished isometric shooter appears with little noise. Despite all that, I’m not here to review the clumsily engineered politics behind its development, but the game itself. Here's wot I think:

Hatred, while not in the leagues of the worst games ever, is a terrible game. Bug-ridden and clumsily constructed - and perhaps most damningly, repetitive and dull – it’s flawed from the most basic design decisions onward. But what it is, more than anything else, is bland.

You play a guy who’s had enough of the world, and wants to take as many other people’s lives as he can before ending his own. From his target-range-filled basement, he fills his pockets with guns and knives, and sets off to slaughter the local population.

I really shouldn’t underplay just how bug-ridden and clumsy it is. From the controls down, it has an overriding feel of something poorly constructed and badly implemented. While ostensibly a twin-stick isometric shooter, its controller controls are so awful as to be unusable. With mouse/keyboard it becomes playable, but you’ll float over surfaces, get stuck on corners, develop wrinkles during the load times, and stare in wonder that AI can still be so dreadful in 2015. And most strange of all, when playing in a window, each time it loaded something the window would creep its way down my desktop, as if trying to escape the monitor and slough itself off onto my keyboard.

Once its foibles are understood, you can then get on with pointing the cursor at the human shapes and clicking at them until they’re dead. Hit Q before they breathe their last and you’ll perform an Execution, which sometimes gives you a mini-cutscene as you kill them. Other times it just shoots at them like you were already. Although all of this does rather depend upon being able to see anything at all.

I’ve not quite understood the motivation behind the black-and-white presentation. While it certainly does make colourful explosions more striking, and the sometimes-red blood stands out a little more, it really only succeeds in making the game an indecipherable mess. While the opening town is fairly easily distinguished, once you’re down into the sewers, then out into the marina woodland, even seeing yourself on screen becomes tricky, let alone identifying people to shoot at. And spotting objects on the ground – the only method is to hold down Left Alt which will outline them in red. If you need to do that to make your game workable, you need to go back and rethink the core design. For instance, the character is on this screen:

Even more problematic is the lack of helpful feedback. You can, and mostly are, shot from off-screen, which while not necessarily a gaming faux-pas, does at least require some effort to inform the player from where it’s coming. The white single-pixel-wide bullet tracers, projected across a cluttered, fifty-percent white screen, really don’t do the job. Just a little red flash from the relevant side would be enough to make the insta-deaths a little less frustrating.

And deaths carry quite a punch. Despite being your character’s stated goal, unless you have a rare respawn token, his demise results in restarting an entire level. Which, to their credit, are large, sprawling spaces. In dying a few times on the first level, while struggling to fathom the controls (it’s Shift to sprint, but there’s no Space to jump, and he’ll only jump when you’re sprinting), I was able to run off in a completely different direction and find different things to do each time. Fair play to that.

But most flawed of all is the character you play. What appeared to be the intended premise behind the game was a regular guy losing his shit and going on a killing spree, before taking his own life. A thing that, while mercifully rare, does happen. In the real world, as a consequence of such an act the press works like billy-o to demonise the individual, to dehumanise him, in order to more easily parse the horror. It’s far easier if we can see a killer as “pure evil” rather than “horrendously broken”. If he’s made unhuman, then it can’t be wider society’s responsibility. (Instead of course blame must be allocated with the demon du jour, from rock music to video-nasties to, well, videogames.) So it makes beyond no sense for Hatred to present its character so demonically.

Huge, muscular, wearing long hair over his enormous brow, he’s designed and presented like Darksiders II’s Death. The similarity is striking. He murmurs his laugh-out-loud bad script (“I can smell innocent blood. It always tastes better”) in a deep, throaty drawl, talks of dark vengeances, of grand, humanity-destroying schemes. Incredibly, a game about a human fed up of humanity chooses to almost literally demonise its own character. It so widely misses everything that would have made such a game even notionally controversial, by accidentally making its game like every other.

That you’re killing innocent bystanders is mostly of little consequence when the game plays like a dreary riff on The Darkness. Let alone how banal such acts so often are in the peculiar world of videogames, in the shadow of GTA and its many clones. Gamers, in the majority, have adjusted their perceptions (for better or worse) to see the mowing down of pedestrians in a car in Mafia, or a bored killing spree in Saints Row, as an arcade action. As knocking over cardboard cut-outs. In delivering Hatred with so many clichés of broody-broody-dark-dark shooters, the same instinct kicks in. You’re not a senseless murderer, committing atrocious acts – you’re a placeholder monster making targets fall down. In doing so, all of Hatred’s attempts at controversy evaporate in a cloud of mundanity.

It’s odd to find myself looking fondly back at Postal. Like Hatred, Postal was never a good game. But it was at least conscious of how to deliver this motif. It recognised that it needed to at least mimic the ordinariness of the regular world, in order to have your acts seem so heinous. Hatred’s monochrome unrealness ensures nothing feels recognisable or familiar, and its absolute absence of humour or self-awareness makes it even more alien. At no point does it feel like what it’s meant to be.

That blandness is all-pervasive. The “Executions”, intended to be gruesome kills generating you extra health, are of course an idea much copied from the mediocre Punisher game of 2005. But rather than Volition’s genuinely stomach-turning deaths (oh gawd, the wood chipper), here the closest it gets to gross-out is stamping on a person’s head. Most of the time it’s a four second cutscene of our bloke shooting them at a different angle, or perhaps stabbing them in the eye. Perhaps that these feel so mild is a larger statement on violence in gaming, but wow, they feel so comparatively mild. It's best to just switch the animations off in the options, to make things a smidgeon more playable.

Death is most likely to be caused by getting stuck on some furniture, or one of the hundreds of invisible barriers that randomly appear in buildings, or its bloody failing to jump through a window for six tries in a row. And even in stages with multiple missions, it’ll still start you over again from the very beginning should this happen. Killing 80 civilians for a third time, because the 20 cop killing section that follows keeps bugging out, becomes a tiresome chore.

But, to give the game its dues, on occasions it does manage to feel gross. In less frantic moments (the most frantic can bring the engine down to a stuttering slideshow) you’re running about, picking off fleeing bystanders as they scream for help, and yeah, it feels shit. That gets a degree more shit when Mr Growlypants, having executed a woman, mumbles, “Your life was worthless, you cunt.” In these few occasions, playing the game feels less like struggling through a terrible Alien Swarm clone, and lets in a glimmer of the tawdry unpleasantness they were aiming for. Then you’re back to the frenetic buggy mediocrity once again.

There are seven levels in total, but I haven't made it past the fifth. I'll tell you why. First, you have to kill 150 civilians in the sprawling urban area, which is seemingly half populated by police. Getting this far is tricky, especially if you don't gather all the available respawns by completing "side quests" (killing people somewhere), but once reached, you're then tasked with killing 40 soldiers. They're heavily armed, and unlike in previous levels, they don't swarm to a particular point, so you're left having to find them and fight them in the open. Except the open is insta-death land. Because this game's so badly put together that not only is a grenade thrown at you impossible to dodge, and an instant death, but if a car so much as taps you, you're worm food. And cars will fly in from the side of the screen killing you before you can clock they're there. Then of course the usual being shot at from all angles, and most of all, the hideousness of not being able to run in any straight line without being tripped by a bug. Death means starting all over again, and I've replayed this level maybe 20 times now, for the sake of seeing if anything more interesting happens later on. At this point, I'm calling it.

I’m pretty sure there’s nothing to be rescued from this. To be good, it would need to be reconfigured from the ground up, made to actually work as a twin-stick shooter, and then given one hell of a lot more to do within. For it to be a controversial, censor-defying piece of provocation, it needs an entirely new perspective. Set it in a high school, have it feature children as well as adult civilians, let it revel in the consequences of the destruction of ordinary lives... something, just something to let it have its own offensive voice. Rather than the nothingness result of a pseudo-demon character shooting at blank, dumb-ass AI dolls.

When a game’s highlights are its bugs (I especially enjoyed a SWAT van being violently propelled about a block away after tapping a stationary pick-up truck, and landing on top of a train), then you know you’re in deeply crappy territory.

Hatred fails in every way. It fails to be a fun, entertaining game. It fails to be a technically competent release. And most of all, it fails to be a controversial, shocking experience. It even fails at being bad in an interesting way. By the time you’re taking on levels requiring multiple stages, the thought of repeating the tedium all over again becomes untenable. After a miserable few hours, I’ve not completed the game, so goodness knows, perhaps some incredibly shocking thing happens toward the end. But it seems unlikely, and getting there would be no fun for anyone. If you were looking to rubberneck at the engineered controversy, there’s little to care about. If you were planning to buy it to show those feminazi SJWs a thing or two, you’re going to get stuck with a shitty game-shaped hole in your wallet. It is, beyond all the hype, just a crappy game.

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