From Crytek GmbH, they of Crysis and CryEngine fame, Hunt: Showdown is a high-stakes, always online PvPvE first-person shooter set in the humid swamps of 19th century Louisiana, where grizzled wild west hunters stalk creatures of the night for cash bounties and attempt to extract their hauls while under fire from rival player-hunters.
Despite having a distinctive style that borders on the steampunk but still manages to retain its western values, there is no mistaking the DNA of games such as Evolve and Left 4 Dead in Hunt: Showdown. There’s even a touch of battle royale thrown into the map design that gives the game a Heinz 57, stitched-together feel that dovetails nicely with some of the grotesque enemy design.
As with many online PvP games, Hunt: Showdown is a game with a ‘draw you own conclusion’ narrative. Which is to say that the story is slight and hidden away in a compendiums menu you don’t need to visit at all if you don’t want to. Why are cowboys and cowgirls fighting zombies in the swap? Because monster hunters gotta hunt monsters.
A replayable offline tutorial available at the start of the game gives players a feel for the structure of the main game mode, Bounty Hunt. It’s important to note that while the tutorial does guide you through the 4-act sequence that makes up a successful hunt, it is a sanitised version of the real experience. Part of that can be attributed to the learning process, discovering important mechanics mostly through trial and error (pop-up tool tips aren’t as frequent or helpful as they could be), but the most enjoyable aspect of Hunt: Showdown is missing from the tutorial: the tension of PvP, and Crytek deliver this in spades with a few tweaks that wander off the familiar PvP path.
Before any foray into the hunting business, players must select their hunter from a pool of characters: your first two are free, others can be recruited in true bounty hunter style using in-game currency. Each hunter comes with a random load out of weapons (primary, secondary and melee) and equipment, as well as equally random passive ability perks. As you continue to use your chosen hunter or hunters, they will level up through XP and are rewarded with upgrade points that can be used to purchase additional passive perks such as poison resistances, longer sprint times, bonuses with specific weapons, etc.
There are two further types of XP that are generated through play: bloodline and utility.
The bloodline represents permanent player progression throughout the game and has 100 ranks. As a player increases their rank, weapons, gear and perks become available to your full roster of hunters, whereas initially some of these will come bundled with particular hunters but are not available to all.
Utility XP is not a thing that is ever expressly labelled by the game but it generally covers weapons, equipment and consumables. Most, if not all, of the base weapons and gear of Hunt are unlocked as your bloodline level increases in rank. Using these base versions will generate experience that unlocks variants of those specific items. For example, using the standard Nagant M1895 pistol enough will unlock the precision version and then the deadeye variant after that. Like bloodline unlocks, weapons and equipment unlocked through prolonged use become available to purchase for use by all hunters.
The short version of all of this is: your first hours with the game will see you field a roster of quite individual hunters who have unique skills and gear – although the gear can be transferred to other characters – but the longer you play the game, you will gain access to perks, weapons and equipment that can be outfitted to any hunter, on top of those that come with them.
As you navigate an initially convoluted hub menu of characters, perks and weapons, you begin to get a sense that there’s some real stakes to this, lots of normally ‘free once unlocked’ inventory that must be purchased with in-game currency, if not real-world money. And you would be right. After all, why would you need a ‘roster’ of characters to play from?
From rank 1 to 10 of the bloodline, any of your hunters that are killed in a match will be spared the ignominy of permadeath but, after that, the gloves are off and any characters killed by AI or human enemies will be irretrievably lost, along with their equipment and weapons.
High stakes indeed.
WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE
As you load into a live game for the first time, there’s a palpable apprehension. From bloodline level 11 onward that tension is understandably heightened. Normally reserved for larger scale PC PvP games, the simple addition of permadeath creates huge gameplay repercussions and has clearly informed the design of Hunt: Showdown.
Character selected and equipped, the player is dropped into the only map in the game – so far, there are plans to add another in a future update – at a random starting point either alone or in a team of up to 3 and tasked with finding three clues that will reveal the location of the bounty target. These clues are discovered using supernatural ‘dark vision’ and basically act as signal locators used to triangulate the lair of one of three hero monsters: the Spider, the Butcher and the Assassin (again, more bounties will be added in due course).
Outside of the tutorial, movement is a fraught affair, a constant battle between speed and stealth. Speed – normally a highly prized attribute in PvP – will of course get you to clues (and the bounty) that much quicker but it can not only paint you as an easy target for opportune players, full-tilt running or even walking can also activate the rich soundscape of the map, aggravate the locals and giving away your position to nearby competitors.
Sound is such an important part of Hunt: Showdown and it really shows the handcrafted attention to detail that Crytek have baked into the map. As you wander around the tutorial, you’ll no doubt stumble across broken glass, or walk through low-hanging chains, or step on a dry branch, and your brain will register that these are audio queues (the game manual refers to them as ‘sound traps’) intended to give away your location. But that does nothing to address the surprise and dread you feel when those same sounds are made by someone or something else in a live game. AI cannon fodder and hero monsters will often give themselves away by setting off audio telltales but the first time you hear gunshots and realise that other players are nearby really ratchets up the tension.
Littered throughout the map of Hunt: Showdown are AI enemies who, in a Titanfall nod, are generally easier to kill and will guarantee XP whether the player survives the hunt or not. Enemies range from garden variety zombies that shuffle around aimlessly until triggered by sight or sound, to lieutenants that harbour more unique abilities like incendiary attacks, swarms of poisonous insects, husk-like heavy armour and, er, acidic leeches.
While the types of enemy and their signature skills aren’t particularly novel, their design is wonderfully repellent. Increasingly twisted takes on perverting the human form lurch at you from all angles, resplendent in slime and gore, drenched in a drab pallet of greys and browns that contrasts the blown-out sun-burned environment.
Once the monster lair is discovered, players must best the beast in combat (single or otherwise), which is usually not entirely straightforward as the lairs tend to be designed to benefit the hero monsters. That being said, the bounty AI isn’t especially crafty, usually opting for rushing around awkward spaces and throwing around overpowered attacks like they’re going out of fashion. That’s because the real threat isn’t the bounty, it’s the other players who very often have been absent so far (save for the odd gunshot or explosion in the distance) but in all likelihood are staring at you down iron sights at that very moment.
The bounty hunt mode isn’t necessarily a race to the finish and strategy can change radically depending on whether you hunt alone, in a duo or a trio. 2 or 3 players are definitely better for taking down the bounty, a trio especially as that leaves one player in overwatch and two for the takedown. Of course, a successful, high-level solo hunter can break clues and take down a bounty in short order BUT the likelihood (and more logical approach) is that a lone hunter will wait until the heavy lifting is done by other players and then pick off opposing players while they’re occupied.
Oh, and just to spice things up, the banishment of the hero monster takes about 100 seconds and can be seen by any opposing hunter using their dark vision. So there’s that.
WILD WILD WEST
Once the creature is banished, the next stage of the multi-phase mission structure begins and players carry precious bounty tokens to one of several extraction points to win. Again, this phase really emphasises the risk versus reward aspects of movement. Sprinting to the extraction may well pay off but you might find yourself killed during the 30-second extraction phase. Taking it slow and steady may result in an ambush or running gunfight, but if you are victorious, that excruciating half-minute window may be incident free.
Speaking of gunfights, the shooting in Hunt is satisfying with weapon design and, again, sound of particular note. Weapons feel authentic and old-fashioned – even the more fanciful embellishments – and the slow reload of a revolver or bolt-action rifle only enhances the tension of high-stakes situations. There are plenty of emergent gameplay moments, where bells, glass or chicken coops can be shot to distract or attract enemies. Explosive and toxic barrels are strewn all over the play area that, coupled with the always popular gas lantern, can be improvised as weapons or used to hinder other players.
Melee is also satisfying but very one-note. Enemies are either dispatched with one hit or many repetitive ones, and charged attacks don’t really have any flare given the long history of grisly comedy zombie deaths. Weapon-specific finishers would be a welcome addition but the omission of colourful stealth kills is a real missed opportunity.
Each bounty hunt game has a 60-minute timer which may seem generous at first but after sinking 14 hours into Hunt I can honestly say that there are still parts of the map I haven’t even seen and others that I haven’t full explored yet. The map is both large enough that 12 players may not cross paths until gameplay bottle-necks are enforced yet intricately designed, a patchwork of different locales that offer different combat arenas but still feel thematically connected. In the space of minutes you can move from dark swamp waters rippling with tentacled horrors to the remains of a prison where ill-considered movement will ring the dinner bell for the undead inmates. The whole game looks good as well, despite some unfortunate issues with water reflection and the occasional example of breathtaking asset popping.
That 60-minute game time, however, brings us to one of Hunt: Showdown’s biggest problems: waiting time. While time-to-kill in the game is short, the load times are almost interminable. Despite the addition of a quickplay mode that is closer to the normal realm of faster-paced deathmatch, you still have to boot the game, wait for it to load the splash screen, connect to a server, start matchmaking and then load the match. This is not a game that you hop into, breeze through a few rounds and then move on to another title of an evening.
Like the hunters you enlist, a Hunt: Showdown player must be patient. Not just during the hunt but in their approach to how they play the game overall. You have to be willing to invest a lot of time into Hunt simply because you will lose characters in the blink of an eye (or a head shot) but, long term, playing regularly will ensure that whatever new hunter you recruit can be outfitted with equipment and abilities that will allow them to remain competitive on the battlefield.
Getting to know the map is also a time-sink but a worthy one, given the trade of the game. Any hunter worth their salt knows the territory they track their prey in and first-hand knowledge of the geography will no doubt prove beneficial when planning ambushes or springing traps.
Hunt’s other drawback is its tight focus – just two game modes – but that feels true to the game the developers want to make and rewarding for those players who appreciate a slow-burn approach rather than quick thrill-kills. The price tag of £30 seems fair to me given the amount of time I’ve already put in and the different experience on offer. There are micro-transactions inherent to the game store for legendary hunter skins, legendary weapons and even for respecc-ing but the amount of in-game currency generated even by failed hunts is generous and paid-for currency can be rewarded by a successful one, so there isn’t a sense of greed about the proceedings.
As mentioned, new bounties and at least one map are promised by the developer and they’ve even committed to implementing a PvE mode as well. Platform cross-play and character appearance customisation are listed as community requests that Crytek are keen to honour and these are encouraging aspects for the game’s future.
Games like Hunt: Showdown are notoriously niche, relying on good relations with their community to continue to grow and Crytek seem to be doing right by the product. While not having the mass-appeal, marketing and bankroll of Rainbow Six: Siege, Hunt: Showdown does offer an intriguing mix of strategy, teamwork and communication that deserves to find its audience.