By Stuart Young –
Robots – they’re right up there with zombies and Nazis when it comes to the most popular video game cannon fodder. But what is it that makes them so ubiquitous? Is it the simple guilt-free pleasure that comes shooting a robot? The fact that they’re liable to expire in a magnificent explosion and a shower of sparks? There’s a bit of all of these factors being channeled into Hard Reset, a cyberpunk-styled retro FPS from Polish indie studio Flying Wild Hog, a game where you shoot nothing but robots – until, of course they explode. Yet it’s almost as satisfying the thousandth (not an exaggeration) time as it is the first.
In Hard Reset, you play as a soldier called Major Fletcher (we never see him command anyone, so maybe the rank is just honorary) who works for an entity called The Corporation (Perhaps you can guess whether they turn out to be the good guys?) Fletcher is tasked with protecting the City of Bezoar (seemingly named after an intestinal stone) from a rampaging rabble of robots. They want access to somewhere called The Sanctuary, an artificial repository of dead human consciousness. I think. To be honest, the story is all a little bit confused and hard to follow, mainly told between levels with motion-comic style cutscenes. There’s something involving a mad doctor, exterior and interior AIs and a big robot called Atlas. The script may have plenty of cyberpunk trappings, but Deus Ex this ain’t.
Not that it matters that the story is total bobbins, because this is a full-blooded retro FPS, modelling itself after the likes of Quake. And, to quote one of the men who made that game; “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important”. That might not always be true nowadays, but it’s certainly the case in Hard Reset.
What is important is the crunchy, satisfying combat. There’s a huge variety of robots to blow to smithereens, from tanking melee chargers to ranged rocketeers to pesky bomb-dogs. The levels are littered with destructible objects that can do explosion splash damage to enemies, or create a temporary electrical field that also damages the robots. Movement is plenty fast, and your chief defense isn’t so much your health bar as your ability to run around wildly and put plenty of distance between you and the enemy, all the while keeping your finger on the all-important left mouse button.
There’s no cover-system, and no magical regenerating health (although you do have a shield which mitigates damage – this recharges over time in a set-up halfway between Half-Life and the original Halo). There are plenty of health and ammo pick-ups strewn generously across the levels, meaning you’ll rarely be left without fuel for your two guns – a conventional firearm and an energy weapon. Calling them two guns is a little misleading – although these are technically your only robot blasting tools, drawing from two ammo pools, they each transform into what are effectively five different weapons, with almost as many alternate fire modes. There’s a shotgun, a railgun, a mine launcher, a homing weapon, a rocket launcher and many more.
These extra weapons are never found in the environment. Instead, they’re unlocked at upgrade stations. You gain upgrades by beating enemies and collecting the NANO resources scattered around the environment – sometimes these are hidden away in a concealed cache. Every time you discover one of these, a happy noise plays and the message ‘Secret Found!’ pops up on-screen – another delightful throwback to old-school shooters. Collect enough Nano, and you gain an upgrade.
It’s effectively an RPG leveling system, complete with three unlock trees; you can choose to upgrade your combat suit, your firearm or your energy gun. It’s a very well designed system – rather as in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, almost every single upgrade is valuable, unique and makes a real difference to your capabilities. The upgrades range from unlocking a new weapon or secondary-fire mode to gaining more damage-per-shot or enhanced shield and healing capabilities, including a very handy ‘last stand’ feature which slows time and increases resistances when your health is dangerously low. You’ll need this – even on standard difficulty, this is not an easy game, requiring honed reflexes and spatial awareness you probably haven’t needed since Quake. Noe will you be able to collect every upgrade on a single playthrough, meaning that not only is every decision is important, but extra value is added to the ‘new game plus mode’ that comes with the game; there’s also an arena style survival mode and a silly-hard no-checkpoint mode.
It’s good that these little extras are included, because Hard Reset is a fairly short game and there’s no multiplayer, even in this new (and completely free) Extended Edition. The Extended Edition certainly rounds out the package, and is a great gesture from the developer. Five extra levels are added after the main campaign finishes, and function essentially as a DLC expansion pack, adding some new enemies and environments and continuing the story of Fletcher – who, incidentally, is a rather angry and obnoxious protagonist with a hatefully whiny voice. At least we don’t hear much of him outside cutscenes. In fact, outside cutscenes we don’t see any human characters at all – presumably one of the concessions made by the indie developer to devote their resources to making this game look beautiful in every other respect.
Hard Reset is an extremely pretty game in a generic, Blade Runner sort of fashion. Technically and artistically, it’s a real achievement with bright, colourful, bulky-looking environments and enemies, all rendered with state of the art lighting and environmental effects. There’s barely any noticeable loading, which is mainly handled in cutscenes or with the odd momentary pause during the game proper. This is all made more impressive by the fact that it’s running on a proprietary engine – definitely an asset that will serve Wild Hog well when it comes to working on their next title.
The level of polish here is on par with the blockbuster games that have a many-times-larger budget, and while the locations – abandoned factories, rain-spattered streets, scrap-strewn canyons – can sometimes look a little repetitive, clever level design does an adequate job of masking this. Occasionally, the relentless shooting will stop for some primitive switch-flipping or barrel-exploding ‘puzzles’. This gives you a little breather between the relentless action, and lets you admire the art at a slower pace. This world never feels like a coherent place in the way that more story or exploration led titles can achieve, but that was evidently never the goal here.
The audio presentation is less of a stand-out, but perfectly adequate, with a generic, throbbing techno soundtrack that plays in battles and satisfying feedback from your weapons and enemies. Like everything in the game, it’s in keeping with the retro style and lack of pretensions. Sometimes, it’s great to forget about modern FPS gaming, with its gritty, gory combat, lofty pretensions of realism, and Hollywood-style scripts, and just shoot some naughty robots.
Is It Worth Your Money?
It’s currently $19.99 on Steam and seems to becoming a perennial bundle favourite. If you want unvarnished old-school FPS action with modern presentation, I would heartily recommend it. In addition, the Extended Edition answers most lingering doubts as to the game’s shortish length.