Hunt: Showdown Review
Down In the Bayou...
Though it is not hard to find multiplayer games that mix elements of player versus player and player versus environment, finding one that actually does this well is much more difficult. All too often one aspect will dominate while the other is relegated to a foot note, with games that get the balance right being few and far between – Valve's classic Left 4 Dead series is still probably the high water mark in this arena. Taking a detour from their usual Singleplayer-centric games, developers Crytek have taken on this combination of PvE and PvP with their latest game, Hunt: Showdown. This southern hillbilly-horror themed multiplayer title involves players trying to hunt down monsters to collect bounties, while fending off other hunters who are trying to do the same. This is an interesting concept that is generally executed well here, though a few design choices are likely to alienate some potential players.
The first thing that really stands out in Hunt is the distinct setting. The two maps in the game evoke steamy rural southern swamp towns of the United States that have befallen some kind of vaguely Lovecraftian disaster which saw local people and animals turned into horrific monsters and mutants, with dense vegetation and decay reclaiming most structures. The weaponry and technology available feels like a strange mix of late 1800's western era with a steam-punk twist. The distinct setting, audio and visual design build a unique atmosphere that help Hunt: Showdown immediately stand out from any other multiplayer game.
How engrossed you become in this atmosphere will partly be dictated by how you choose to play the game. In its primary Bounty Hunt mode, players can go solo or in groups of up to three hunters to try and track down and kill some particularly nasty monsters that will appear in one or two random locations in each match. Playing solo makes for the most tense and immersive experience, but one that lacks the safety net of being revived by teammates, so one must tread very carefully.
To track the monsters down, you will need to use a special type of vision accessible to all hunters called Dark Sight that lets you locate clues around the map narrowing down the possible location of the bounty target. Aside from the main target you are hunting, the map will be populated with a large number of assorted mutants and monsters that you will need to either dispatch or sneak past; they vary from mild nuisances to serious threats.
The biggest threat however will be other players, who are trying to do the same thing. Each match is populated with up to 12 hunters who are all going after the same clues and competing for the same bounties. A well placed headshot from any gun, close range shotgun blast, or good smack from a heavy melee weapon is all it takes to bring a player down, at which point your only hope is being revived by a teammate (if you have one), so you will need to be constantly listening and watching for any signs of hostile players.
After you and your team manage to track down enough clues, the location of the bounty target will be revealed. At this point, you can kill the target, which will involve a moderately challenging fight against one of three particularly creepy monsters. Before you can collect the bounty, you will need to 'banish' the monster, a process that is started manually and takes a couple of minutes. When banishing a monster, all other players on the map will be notified and given the location, meaning there will be a high likelihood of other hunters trying to sneak in to steal your bounty, or setting up ambushes outside.
Once the banishing is complete, the hunters who collect the bounty will be granted a boost to their dark sight that allows them to spot other players for a short time, while all other players on the map will be able to permanently see the approximate location of the bounty holders in dark sight or on the map. To escape with the bounty, the holders must locate an exit point, make their way there and survive a twenty second timer. Fleeing other players in an attempt to extract with the bounty feels like a unique and exciting aspect of the Bounty Hunt mode that isn't really found elsewhere.
In general, Bounty Hunt is a distinctive and well-designed mode that allows for a good mix of encounters with other players and AI mutants. The threat of other players and lethality of the combat makes you want to deal with the AI quickly, quietly, and efficiently, since being snuck up on while in an outright firefight with some undead beast is an easy way to get killed. You might also find yourself getting attacked from behind by some shambling beast while in a shootout with another player, as loud noises will attract them.
Further increasing the stakes is the fact that each hunter is unique and has their own progression system. For the first several hours, new players will be put in a 'training' mode which means that if you die during a match, your hunter will remain alive and continue to gain levels. However, once you pass this period, if you die in a match you lose your hunter and any gear you had, permanently. At this point, you will need to spend precious money to recruit and fully equip a new hunter. As a hunter survives multiple matches and levels up, you can upgrade them with traits that give bonuses like being able to sprint at full speed for longer, taking reduced damage from some melee attacks, or the ability to fire pistols more rapidly.
As such, going in with a low-level hunter will put you at a bit of a disadvantage and force you to play more cautiously. An interesting twist in the Bounty Hunt mode is that hunters can extract at any time. You also get to hold on to any weapons you pick up during missions and extract with, so you always have the option as a low-level hunter of escaping if you win an engagement with other hunters and pick up some nice gear that you want to preserve. Or, you might choose to save a veteran hunter by escaping a bad situation instead of trying to fight it out. This is perhaps the biggest thing that helps differentiate the Bounty Hunt mode from other battle-royale style games; there isn't just a single team or player that wins, and victory is not so clear cut as simply being the last one standing.
Another way to level up a hunter and gain access to some gear is to play the only alternate mode, an every-man-for-himself Quick Play. Here, each player starts with a random hunter wielding a basic weapon, and you must scavenge the map for further weapons and tools. In this mode, hunters must activate rifts, which behave similarly to clues in Bounty Hunt, before activating something called the Well Spring from which your hunter will absorb energy. This mode only has one winner; whoever has the most energy when the timer runs out, or is the last hunter standing, will win this mode with no option to extract. If you win, the surviving hunter will be added to your roster and can be used in Bounty Hunt.
Though this is a decent mode for getting some quick action in, this is negated by the fact that the mode is seemingly less popular and has significantly longer matchmaking times. The fact that only one hunter can emerge victorious also encourages more camping on objectives than is found in the regular mode. Camping can be a bit of an issue in general in Hunt: Showdown, due to the incredibly lethal nature of the combat. Though clues and rifts glow orange if another hunter is nearby, players will sit near exit points or outside of the buildings occupied by bounty-holding monsters to ambush others, and death will come instantly, often, and out of nowhere much of the time. This can be especially frustrating early on, when it feels like you have access to limited weapons and are simply getting outgunned by more experienced players who have access to a much larger arsenal.
Outside of picking up weapons from fallen enemies, you will be limited to weapons that you can purchase from the in-game store, and what weapons are available to you are based on your bloodline level. This is an over-arching player level separate from individual hunter levels, and governs the equipment that comes with hunters when you recruit them. Initially you will be limited to a handful of pistols, lever action rifles and single barrel shotguns, and I found myself a bit frustrated when getting killed by higher level players using things like scoped sniper rifles, or more esoteric weapons like a poison cross-bow or explosive-bolt shooting bomb lance. Fortunately it doesn't take too long before you start gaining access to more varied weapons, but between the lethality of the combat and limited starting loadout, the initial hurdle of getting into Hunt: Showdown is not trivial, especially when you consider the game has been in early access for months and has highly experienced players already.
The other biggest issue currently facing Hunt: Showdown is a lack of content. Currently there are two maps which feel fairly similar to each other, and just three monsters to kill for bounties. There is a good amount of variety in random mutants/monsters found around the map, but once you learn how to deal with them, the PvE aspect of the game becomes rather easy and loses much of its tension. The result is that Hunt does not have the kind of legs you really want from a multiplayer-centric game, an issue heightened by the near full-price cost of entry. It will take players a long time to reach the level cap of 100 and unlock access to all items, but I suspect many will lose interest before they get to that point.
If there is one thing Crytek are known for, it is making some visually and technically impressive products. Though Hunt: Showdown isn't quite as cutting edge as some of the studio's past output, it is still a fine looking game with great lighting in particular. Dense vegetation covers much of the maps and will appear the same for all players, meaning you can't gain an advantage by turning down the settings. Some textures might appear a bit blurry and the game looks slightly too bright in some dark areas or at night, making some items like flashlights and flares a bit redundant, but overall Hunt is a visually appealing and distinct game. Though it generally runs well, I did experience framerate drops in a couple of locations, as well as some significant server lag that caused myself and other players to abruptly warp around on a few occasions, though not in every match.
The real highlight of Hunt's presentation is the audio design. The audio is what really sells the game as a horror experience, adding both to the atmosphere and gameplay in a meaningful way. The environment is littered with booby traps from branches, glass, and caged hounds, chickens or even packs of crows that will cause a huge ruckus if you disturb them, revealing your location to other hunters. Monsters make terrible gurgling, growling noises, and they themselves will walk into chains and make footstep sounds that will put you constantly on edge about other players being nearby. Weapon audio is also nice and meaty, and strong directional audio means you always know the rough location and distance of other hunters going loud. Though the matches don't have any music, even the low humming of the main menu and loading theme fits perfectly with the package.
Hunt: Showdown is an undeniably solid multiplayer experience that succeeds at feeling unique. Its fast and lethal PvP encounters might prove too much for some, and the content is on the thin side relative to the price, but what is here is fairly polished and offers a good amount of exiting action and tense standoffs. Those who enjoy the high stakes encounters of battle royale or DayZ-like games, but also like the idea of some PvE and a deep progression system to go along with them, should definitely give Hunt: Showdown a look.