Nostalgia and Masochism: Hands-on with Hard Reset

By Stace Harman, Monday, 12 September 2011 18:00 GMT

This week sees the launch of a most unusual beast: a PC-exclusive shooter with no time for soft console kiddies. Stace Harman goes hands-on.

Hard Reset

Set in a dystopian future where machine AI has reached its limit, you take the role of Major Fletcher, a grizzled veteran and payrolled defender of the Sanctuary – a network that the machines want to take control of in order to push beyond their current restricted potential.

Launches Tuesday 13th September via Steam with an RRP of $29.99/£22.99/€27.99

First project of new Polish studio, Flying Wild Hog

Features weapon-based skill trees designed to be fully explored over multiple play-throughs

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Hear that? That’s the familiar sound of scores of droplets of information, game features, screen shots, videos, interviews and hype-laden statements that can be heard throughout the build-up to the next big release. They splash away in the background, constantly reminding us that the game is there and ensuring that it stays in the collective consciousness.

If all goes according to the plan mapped out by the holy triumvirate of publisher-developer-marketeer, it’s a sound that starts some 18 to 24 months in advance of a title launching and steadily builds from a few drips to a near-constant flow to a final deluge of assets and regurgitated statements in the run up to launch.

Everyone plays their part: consumers sup from the cup every time marketing machine splutters into life and the press imbue each serving with their own syrupy flavouring so that even hints, rumours or confirmation of a lack of a particular feature justify another whizz through the Soda Stream machine, to carbonate otherwise flat news.

It’s arguable that a slightly wonky retail model, in which an initial big splash is deemed necessary before shelf space is quickly cannibalised by the next big title, makes this anticipation-heavy approach necessary. Nonetheless, it’s an approach that we can all do with a break from every now and then: a chance to cleanse our palette and appreciate a fresh new project for what it is, rather than what it looked like it was going to be.

So, what of a game that appears, all but fully-formed, from nowhere? Without months of build up, in which opinions are subconsciously formed and day-one purchase decisions made, how do we respond to an interesting proposition?

In Hard Reset, we get to answer these questions and from Flying Wild Hog CEO Michal Szustak we hear the reason for so short a time between the initial reveal in July and the release of the fully realised game this week.

“We wanted the gamers to get Hard Reset as soon as possible after they heard about it,” Szustak explains to me by email after my hands-on time with the preview code.

“With a short [marketing] campaign based on an existing and fully finished product all the information that we give the gamers is true and solid.”

Pigs might fly
Hard Reset is the first product of Flying Wild Hog and is made up of a handful of staff from Polish developers People Can Fly (Bulletstorm) and CD Projekt Red (The Witcher). It’s apparent that the developer prides itself on having created an old-school sci-fi shooter, on featuring weapons with multiple upgrade paths and, in particular, on being challenging. Before we delve any deeper, let’s just address that last point, first.

20 minutes of gameplay footage.

From the few hours that made up the preview build, Hard Reset looks set to be challenging even on the default difficulty level – in fact, it’s one of the key things that the company is aiming for.

“Challenge and satisfaction – those are the words,” Szustak confirms.

Sometimes this challenge is presented in a pleasing, tactical manner. With just two base weapons that can be upgraded in a number of ways along several different feature-laden skill trees, the foundation for an arsenal that suits your play style is laid down.

One weapon is energy based, with area of effect attacks, arc-lightning and the option to equip a tactical scope that allows targeting through walls. The second weapon is of more traditional artillery fare, albeit one that can shape change into a shotgun, rocket launcher or mine-thrower.

It’s an elegant alternative to the implausibly large number of individual weapons that many shooters bestow upon you and Szustak confirms that you’ll need to play through more than once to try out all of the upgrade paths.

“It’s impossible to get all the upgrades in one play through,” he says. “We wanted the players to try beating all those evil robots with different gear again, because we know that the experience is different.

“You can also use the Ex-mode to replay Hard Reset on a higher level of difficulty, with all the gear you unlocked on your first play through.”

So, on the surface at least, the: two guns, many forms approach is a definite plus in the game’s favour. Slightly complicating matters, however, is that the visual identity of each mode of fire for each of the two guns isn’t quite unique enough to allow fast and accurate scrolling to the desired firing mode when in a tight spot, making rote-learned hotkey-binding near essential, even on normal difficulty. A more unique, perhaps colour-coded, visual cue for each weapon mode would have been preferable.

First teaser trailer.

Danger, high voltage.
Environmental kills are encouraged and, against a multitude of mechanical foes, are essential to avoid being overrun. Numerous power generators, ventilation fans, cars and even vending machines can be coaxed into discharging a powerful electrical current into nearby foes with a shot or two from either of the base weapons. This not only saves on ammo but also affords time for you to regroup.

It’s satisfying to have an ATM deliver the killing blow to the tyrannical AI of the future but, moreover, bringing the environment into play in this way is necessary due to two very deliberate design choices, both of which I found to be of mixed success in the preview build.

The first is that with many of the more useful upgraded weapons, be it one with an area of effect attack or a single, powerful attack, that weapon mode has a cool down period during which you cannot fire another shot, nor switch to another weapon mode.

Tactics such as firing an initial high-impact shot and quickly following up with weaker pulse rifle or machine gun fire are scuppered by this, as all you can do during the seconds that it takes the weapon to return to a state where you can fire again or switch to another firing mode is backpeddle away from malevolent machines or turn around and – in a manner not all together befitting the grizzled army veteran protagonist, Major Fletcher – leg it.

And that brings us to the second, deliberate design choice: how long you can sprint for is dictated by a visible stamina bar, but when you sprint for any length of time you have to wait for the stamina bar to fully recharge before being able to sprint again.

Second trailer.

Of course, the bar recharges more quickly if you’ve only sprinted for a couple of seconds than if you deplete it entirely, but it’s an odd and counter-intuitive to see that you’ve not exhausted the stamina bar but to still have to wait until it has fully recharged to use it again. This is especially evident when faced with two or more stampeding foes against whom the best defence is last-second sprint dodges.

There’s no quick save feature either – “We wanted to create a game that is challenge, but gives you satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. If you save game every 5 secs it’s not a challenge to beat our game on Insane difficulty,” explains Szustak – though coming as something of a relief is that the number checkpoints has been increased for the final build. In the preview code they could be too few and far between at times, enforcing the unsatisfying necessity to repeat one particularly tense and challenging arena section in near darkness.

It’s clear that the team at Flying Wild Hog have created a difficult and dark sci-fi FPS. It’s one that requires a more considered approach than its self-professed old-school sensibilities first suggest and presents an intriguing prospect when it launches early next week.

It’s likely that not everyone that plays Hard Reset will appreciate the deliberate attempt to make the game difficult and my most genuine and sincere advice to those people based on the evidence I’ve seen here is to not be ashamed to try playing through on the easiest difficulty first.

“If you want to be one of the 10 guys in the world that will beat Hard Reset on difficulty level ‘Insane’ – we are giving you that opportunity.”

Normal difficulty here appears to be taken from the days before tutorials, before the quick save lifeline and before gamers assumed they could make it through the opening levels of a game entirely unscathed. As Szustak forthrightly explains:

“If you want to be one of the 10 guys in the world that will beat Hard Reset on difficulty level ‘Insane’ – we are giving you that opportunity.”

Hard Reset launches for PC on Tuesday September 13. A demo is available now.

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