What If Serious Sam Fought Replicants?
Sometimes it’s good to know that the classics persist. The hardcore shooter is a great example of this phenomenon. When the big new FPS’s tend to rely on niche gameplay concepts, multiplayer and setpieces, it’s good to know that you can still go and play games like Painkiller and Serious Sam. Sometimes you just want to blow shit up.
In Hard Reset, you blow shit up. Lots of shit. You blow up lots of shit in a beautifully rendered cyberpunk world reminiscent of Blade Runner. You can pretend to be a Blade Runner blowing shit up.
If this excites you, buy this game. It’s cheap. If you are still not sure, read on.
Hard Reset was released earlier this fall for the PC by a Polish developer called Flying Wild Hog. In the past, an indie game developed by an eastern European no-name company would carry a very negative connotation, but we are living in a post-S.T.A.L.K.E.R. world here. Very good things are coming out of eastern Europe. Moreover, Flying Wild Hog has a bit of a pedigree: it is made up of developers from People Can Fly (Painkiller) and CD Projekt RED, who made the fantastic Witcher series.
The game is, at its core, a hardcore old-school shooter with a very pretty cyberpunk graphical style. The player takes the role of a futuristic operative in an futuristic city that is being overrun with killer robots. Lots of killer robots.
All of the classic cyber-punk tropes are represented: you travel through a dark, neon lit, semi-Asian metropolis which is chock-a-block with flying cars, eerie advertisements and a sort of ground in grit.
In some ways, the game may go too far in appropriating its cyberpunk style. Deus Ex: Human Revolution also featured a heavy cyberpunk theme, and even had direct homages to Blade Runner and Gibson, but it felt original all the same. Hard Reset’s style does not feel original. It feels, very much, like the developers set out to make an FPS that looks exactly like Blade Runner. So, as far as cyberpunk goes, it isn’t so much homage as theft. Then again, if you are going to steal a style, steal it from the best.
Regardless of whether Hard Reset’s essence is or is not original, it is incredibly well executed. The graphics look just great. Look at some of these screenshots to see for yourself. The game runs beautifully and the combat is quick and vicious. The music is haunting and thematically appropriate, and the sound design is generally great.
Finally, the game has a great little physics model, with a good amount of environmental destructibility. If you shoot a grenade into a room full of stuff, the result will be utter Havok. Pardon the pun. Contrast this with more “modern” shooters like Rage and Battlefield, and it’s remarkable how much of a difference being able to damage your surroundings makes to immersion.
Hard Reset is, above all else, an old school shooter. As such, the focus is entirely on the combat, and the most amazing graphics in the world could not fix it if the combat were not good. Fortunately, they seem to have not only gotten it right, they even innovated a bit.
First off, the game really features two types of combat scenarios: the player is either swarmed with hordes of enemies, or the player faces a few heavily armored hard-hitting enemies. Hard Reset is not a corridor shooter really, it’s all about going from combat arena to combat arena. Think Serious Sam, not modern warfare.
Two things become apparent early on in playing Hard Reset: you can’t take much damage, and your guns tend to be either weak or slow. Just being able to aim and shoot your gun properly will not get you very far in Hard Reset. The game is far more difficult, even on Normal difficulty, than your typical FPS shooting gallery.
Because of this, careful attention must be paid to strafing, tactically retreating, and using the environment to your advantage. In fact, nearly every combat arena is littered with explosive or otherwise damaging objects, such as computer banks that spew electricity when destroyed. Using these to slow down or eliminate your enemies is the key to Hard Reset, and a factor that separates it from other games in the genre.
The game also innovates on the way it handles its weapons. Putting it simply: There are only two guns in the entire game, one that uses bullets/explosives and one that uses energy. As such, there are only two types of ammo, red and blue. Now, all of this is pretty deceptive, as you can upgrade these guns to take on new forms and aspects. For instance, I upgraded my starting rifle to transform into a shotgun, a grenade launcher and eventually, a RPG, each with their own unique attributes and alternate fire modes. As such, the game really features 10 guns, not two.
The Bad Part
Of course, every game has its problems, and Hard Reset has some big ones. Problems that detrimentally effected my enjoyment of the game. First, the aforementioned upgrade mechanic is overly reliant on finding collectables hidden throughout the levels. You see, in order to upgrade your guns (making them stronger and earning new ones), you need to collect NANO energy. You earn a bit of this through just killing enemies, but if you really want to move up that tech tree, you need to find hidden NANO stashes. This becomes tiresome and tedious.
Moreover, the game relies on a checkpoint save system, and it does not care one bit how many collectables you found prior to your death. If you get killed (which happens often and quickly), you are sent back to the previous checkpoint and all progress is reset. You will need to gather all of those NANO crates again, and you will even have to upgrade your weapon all over again if you did so previously. Decisions like this make playing the game a chore.
On the subject of upgrades, I should note that the game is pretty short. We are talking less than 5 hours here. As such, you unless you really explore the hell out of each and every area and collect everything, you will likely never max out your weapons. By the end of the game, I had barely scratched one of the game’s three tech trees. That’s a shame, and it only served to lock out a good amount of content, as the developers choose to limit resources in this way.
The difficulty is going to be a sticking point with some folks. As I said, even on the game’s normal mode, it is pretty tough. Enemies can generally take a pretty hefty beating, and they beat the shit out of you pretty quickly. Players need to be proactive to stay alive, and even highly skilled FPS gamers will die over and over again due to bad-luck factors like getting hit with a random explosion or an enemy spawning behind you. If you can deal with the inevitable frustration this causes you will be fine. If you get frustrated easily by difficult games, this may be a deal breaker.
Finally, and I feel like I should mention it last, both because it’s the worst element of the game and the least important, the storyline sucks. Seriously, it’s just awful. I am not sure if it’s the writing or the translation, but both the narrative and the dialogue borders on incomprehensible. The voiceovers are tone-deaf and the story beats swing wildly between illogical and cliché. Seriously folks, don’t go into Hard Reset for the story. The game may look like a killer cyberpunk adventure, but, in terms of its storyline and dialogue, it doesn’t even rise to the level of a Shadowrun, let alone a Blade Runner.
So that’s that. Hard Reset is an interesting, fun and unique game with a killer sense of style and a classic old school shooter sensibility. It is also frustrating, difficult and at times tiresome. Even so, I feel that the good elements outweigh the bad, and ultimately the game is fun to play. Considering it is a new IP (increasingly rare these days) and relatively inexpensive, Hard Reset is the perfect kind of budget title: one that looks great and does what it sets out to accomplish. At the moment, you can buy the game on Steam for $10, and at that price it’s well worth the purchase.