Hunt: Showdown is interesting. From it’s spotted development starting out as a spiritual successor to Darksiders, to its eventual release on PS4 that’s prompting this review. It’s an FPS from Crytek, which means it’ll look stunning, provide innovative gameplay, and be a benchmark for years to come… or will it? With a relatively low key launch by gaming standards, protracted across platforms too, there’s a chance this might slip quietly past a lot of people. Those that do see it might wonder just what it’s trying to be and drop it in favour of something more modern feeling that covers larger scale warfare. There’s an element of risk from the studio then where they’re wanting to offer something different and will forge their own path for gamers to stumble across it. It’s worth it though because there’s something oddly compelling to go with the strange happenings in late 1800s America.
Let’s tackle the first question out of the bag… Hunt: Showdown is a team based shooter where opposing players get dropped into a large open world map and have to search for an objective. So far, so familiar. What’s different here is that the map is populated with all kinds of freakish monsters, and the task is to hunt for a particular beast to take out. By finding clues scattered around the areas, players track down and battle whatever it is they’ve cornered, then wait to pick up tokens from its corpse. After, grabbing the spoils it’s time to high tail it to an exit and savour that victory. With multiple objectives and no way of knowing how many teams there are vying for the same prize, and with the ever present danger of the NPCs, it feels more like survival horror instead of out-and-out combat. Indeed, the focus on stealth is heavy and the unaware will soon find themselves in heaps of trouble. There’s never a single way to approach a mission, and depending on the party size (one, two or three), the freedom of choice opens up all sorts of possibilities.
Playing solo means absolutely no one covering your back, so being sneaky and avoiding confrontation is probably going to keep you alive the longest. Though whether you decide to track down the clues by activating the Darksight ability that shows them up as blue dots, or simply let the others do it for you and follow them, is a great dilemma. Likewise, in groups of two or three there’s the tantalising prospect of having numbers on your side and laying an ambush near the most likely exit points. Or you can play as a team and track the giant spiders or butchers, kill them, then fight through whatever comes at you to secure the glory. This variety of play, and the inherent sandbox nature of the levels, means it’s not just constant repetition which it could easily have fallen into with only two maps available. Equally, the different partners you’ll encounter are going to bring something new to the table each time. Like them or loathe them, sometimes you need to rely on their help and hope they don’t double cross you when you least expect it.
Hunt: Showdown doesn’t feel like an FPS despite fully presenting itself as one. Sure, the combat is played out with pistols and melee weapons from an eye-level viewpoint, but it leans more towards RPG most of the time. Characters are purchased from the in-game store to use, and there’s one free one to snag each day. Level them up by scoring XP and there are upgrades, more weapons and improved tools that become available. Character traits are key to performing better as they boost specific skills, but there’s a catch. When a character dies it’s permadeath. The risk/reward here is finely balanced because you know you can only get better by taking a character out in the field, but there’s a strong chance you’re going to get them killed. Do you want to keep improving their abilities, or just leave them on the bench until you’re more confident. It’s a tough decision that surprisingly brings you closer to the randomly generated avatar on the screen. Newbies fear not, this only kicks in from level 11 onwards, so you can learn before having to suffer that loss.
Staying alive is harder than expected in the multiplayer – health is broken into several chunks and you can carry health packs, yet a good thwack from an armoured beast is going to take its toll. Whilst there’s usually a chance you’ll find out what clobbered you before being downed, it doesn’t take much and that makes you wary of most encounters. There’s a good variety of abominations to run from. Dogs, zombies, poisonous bees, spiders… each attacks differently and has particular weaknesses to exploit. Regardless of loadout there will always be some form of additional weapon lying around, or traps to pick up and set, and to some degree the melee items can be the most effective. This being the 1890s the armaments are slow to fire and reload, so being accurate is critical to maximise damage, though a good sized stamina bar means a couple of swings of a sledgehammer can be more effective. It will be down to personal preference, and you’ll see a lot of players touting shotguns because they’re easily the best, but it pays to experiment and have a couple of options available in the weapon wheel.
If hunting monsters and trying to not get done over by dirty rotten scoundrels wears thin, there is a single player mode in quick play that pits several people in a map and asks them to drain Wellsprings for energy. First to drain the most wins, and the others die. It’s fast paced and fun in a Battle Royale way, and you get free characters with each go so it takes away that concern about losing your level 50 farmhand. There’s also a pretty comprehensive tutorial that shows you the ropes and provides different difficulty levels so you can get used to the world without the pressure of other humans depending on you, or tracking you down. For those that like lore this has it in spades in the reference sections of the main menu. Every creature is covered in detail and has a mastery ranking to go with each one to give some impetus to get out there and batter them.
Give the smallish nature of the game, Hunt: Showdown has a fair amount of thought behind why the US is in the state it’s in, and what has been happening to the settlements. Largely this is presented in the quite lovely looking CryEngine which brings the greenery to life, ripples the water invitingly, and makes you feel queasy with the filth and decay scattered around. It’s not exactly what you’d call a crisp and clean environment. Eviscerated animals lay around (sometimes waiting be put out of their misery), corpses litter houses, and the monsters lairs are typically nasty. There’s a grim sense of dread underlying even the most picturesque scenes, and the macabre nature of the visual story telling stands out all the more for it. The sound design works well to provide atmosphere and the odd jump scare, usually when walking up to a flock of birds. It’s actually a key tactic in hearing the noises other players are making and pinpointing their locations – there’s lots of debris around that crunches and rattles with each movement. There’s even the instruction on the loading screen to use stereo headphones for the best experience.
It bears repeating, Hunt: Showdown is interesting. It’s also surprising in that it gives as much as it takes. The first few rounds (that can last up to an hour) are lessons in managing nerves and balancing caution and enthusiasm. As experience with the setup develops you start to see the potential on hand, and the forced death of upgraded characters means that most of the time everyone is on a pretty level playing field. There are some glitches, mostly graphical, and finding partners can be a pain in these early PS4 days as higher level players tend to ditch the lower level, but getting going with a group isn’t too taxing. Cooperation and intent is driven by the monster hunting itself negating the need for loads of communication, and this makes it pretty accessible to all. Combine this with the semi-asymmetric multiplayer and there’s good reason to dip your toe in the online waters. Arachnophobes need to steer clear though, don’t say you haven’t been warned.
A review copy of Hunt: Showdown was provided by Crytek’s PR team, and the game is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One for around £30 depending on platform and success in haggling with the shopkeeper.