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Hard Reset Review

By Jeff Buckland, 9/20/2011

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I'm an old-school fan of classic, frantic FPS games like Quake and Serious Sam, and many times I've heard a lament over how the days of those games are gone. Nothing seemed to nail that coffin shut for fans like Doom 3's claustrophobic setting and low monster count, and the forthcoming Serious Sam 3 still has a ways to go. But a new studio called Flying Wild Hog - made up largely of developers that worked on games like Painkiller and The Witcher - has released a game that fans of the super-fast FPS should enjoy. It's called Hard Reset, and while it might not scratch every old-school itch you've got, it might just tickle you in places you didn't know were so sensitive in the first place.

Hard Reset takes place hundreds of years in the future, where machines have taken over Earth and humanity is hanging on by a thread in defense of the killer machines that patrol nearly every city street. You play a grizzled, film-noir-style hero named Fletcher who's set out on a task to investigate some deaths in one of one of the few human strongholds left. Things get pretty crazy shortly afterwards, and while Hard Reset's story isn't exactly amazing - nor was it integrated well into the game, seeing that most of it plays out in cutscenes during loading screens - it's still worth seeing. The hand-drawn, graphic novel-style art for these cutscenes is nice but it provides a nice counter-balance to the realistic-looking Blade Runner-style environments and copious amounts of explosions and special effects.

You have a grand total of two guns in this game, no ability to take cover, no melee attacks, and you can't even duck. (At least Fletcher is able to jump and sprint.) Sounds awful, huh? Well, your guns actually pack five separate weapons into a transforming shell that you unlock as you spend cash picked up from fallen enemies and in secret areas, and each of those weapon modes has some kind of alternate-fire usage that can be unlocked as well, whether it's a charged-up version of a basic shot, firing missiles via lock-on, or maybe an x-ray zoom scope. One of your two guns is an energy weapon with variants on that style that follow - electricity, plasma, and the like - and the other is a ballistic weapon that includes more conventional weaponry like a shotgun, assault rifle, rocket launcher, and more. Finally, there's a third set of upgrades for Fletcher himself. The purchase of each unlock through in-game cash is a nice way to introduce an upgrade system, because it allows players to buy the items they want, rather than have the game dictate to them when they get the shotgun, then the chaingun, on to the rocket launcher, and the like.

Hard Reset is full of tough robotic and cybernetic enemies, but the environment is littered with exploding objects, too, all powered by Havok physics. This game takes the idea of the classic FPS explosive barrel to the extreme - many areas are generously peppered with all kinds of objects that can electrocute, frag, or incinerate enemies, and it's up to you to lure them into those objects and possibly time the explosion to do maximum damage. You can probably get through the whole game without taking much advantage of the explosive environment, but this is clearly how the game was meant to be played - and the special effects you unleash when setting off a chain reaction that destroys a whole courtyard full of enemies easily makes it worth the effort.

The developers are trying to stick with a few old-school trappings here, so Fletcher performs like the sort of disembodied floating gun we played with back in the late '90s - and still have in games like Call of Duty. But going beyond even that, there are no ladders to climb in Hard Reset, no cover to take except what you naturally do to try and duck behind something, and your health only regenerates by picking up green orbs from fallen enemies. You do have a shield that recharges, but unlike many sci-fi games with personal shields, Hard Reset's shielding does not completely negate damage to your health when it's active; it is stripped away as you take hits, and it only mitigates health loss - so having low shields is almost like having none at all. The less shield you have, the more health you lose when you get hit. This can make some of the bigger fights, including the huge boss fights, particularly interesting, because you'll find that many fights will keep you taking small hits to keep your shields from recharging.

All of these little limitations can get a bit frustrating, since Fletcher isn't exactly the most nimble of characters. His sprint is a bit awkward and sluggish to get going, and he can't easily dodge out of the way of enemies or incoming projectiles, so you're going to take a lot of damage that you'll feel you could have avoided in a more modern game. And one feature I do expect of an old-school shooter - the ability to save and load anywhere and anytime - has been replaced with a checkpoint system that can get frustrating. Unlike Halo which generally hits you with checkpoints as soon as nearly any fight ends, Hard Reset extends it out; you could find yourself re-playing five or more minutes of tough combat if you die right before a checkpoint happens. I'm not the type to say that checkpoints are always bad, but extensive playtesting needs to go in to make it work, and that didn't happen here. Even if it did, though, in a game like Hard Reset which is intended to be so refreshingly, uh, "old", checkpoints feel entirely out of place here.

Beyond that, Hard Reset does a decent job of keeping you focused on the action, and that's good because the setting does wear thin pretty quickly. Flying Wild Hog has gone on the record talking about their particular brand of shooter here, where it's got a higher budget than a standard indie game, but a lower bankroll behind it than the dozens-of-millions AAA shooters that these developers used to work on. The $30 price tag will still likely raise a few eyebrows, but I don't feel like it's outside the realm of a good value. I suppose that future updates that add multiplayer, cooperative play, or other features would help soothe the sting a bit, especially since Hard Reset offers little replay value beyond just the fun of sizzling up some robots in a single run-through of the campaign, but I don't think a bunch of new gameplay modes or multiplayer features are really what will make or break this game.

One thing that Hard Reset does right is that it gives me the sort of charmed, care-free feeling I used to get from FPS games, a laid-back attitude that you don't often get from today's shooters. You know what I'm talking about: that arbitrary tension that developers brew up, that artificially (superficially?) increase your heart rate and make you feel like you're being screamed at and rushed into constant cranked-to-eleven cinematic battles. With Hard Reset, I don't have to worry or care about a plot, the guns are fun and satisfying to use, and the visuals, delivered at smooth frame rates on most half-decent gaming PCs, offer great visual quality considering the game's generally solid and consistent performance. There's an easy objective-marking arrow I can turn on that points me to where I need to go next, and I'm always keeping an eye out for secret areas - which are tracked on a "level complete" screen like we used to get in the Doom days.

The level design isn't ever really totally brilliant, but sometimes, I have found that a particularly tough battle becomes easier if I brainstorm and try setting off a specific chain reaction of explosions from this barrel, over to this sign, and onto that kiosk. Sometimes, the challenge lies in both setting up the biggest environmental hazard for our glorious robot overlords, then in herding them into those explosions while keeping Fletcher out of those same areas of effect. Hard Reset may not have any terribly devious puzzles and the enemy variety isn't the greatest - also, doesn't it ever turn to daytime in cities like this? - but I wasn't really looking for that, anyway.

I think the only unfortunate thing here is that many of the gamers that would enjoy Hard Reset - old Quake veterans setting up impromptu LAN parties in their college dorms in the late '90s - have since "grown up", gotten married, and are funneling all of their money towards their kids rather than their gaming PCs. Oh, sure, they still play a few games, but they have two hours a week away from the rest of the family, and that's not enough to make Hard Reset necessarily worth it for some. Either way, this game certainly isn't for everyone, and I'm still a little doubtful as to whether this game really has a market left after all these years, but there are still at least a few of us left that play and we really appreciate the effort. I hope that Flying Wild Hog finds the customers they're looking for; with any luck, enough of them are still around and playing to make Hard Reset a success.

Overall: 8 out of 10



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