When going through these games, I’m admittedly prioritising the short games in the name of trying to make the pile feel less daunting. I’m also avoiding adding to it (much), at least as long as I can resist the lure of really cheap Steam games. For the most part I’m succeeding – any time I see a game up, I can tell myself, “I have something like this already waiting for me to play it.” For Assassin’s Creed 3, that game was Velvet Assassin. For Far Cry 3, the game was Red Faction: Armageddon. Nothing in the sales bin can compare, however, to this strange little beast, Hard Reset.
If I could, I’d divide the review into two parts, where I can talk about Hard Reset as an arcane relic of bygone years, and the other where I talk about it in light of being a game designed and developed in 2012. The first review would be a very long one, talking about the innovative, clever ideas the game has to spice up shooters, that exist in a world after Duke Nukem 3D, but before Halo, a world in which Call Of Duty had never been. In that world, Hard Reset is a fascinatingly clever game, and a worthy successor of its brethren such as Quake II and Doom.
That’s not the world in which we live. And crucially, Hard Reset doesn’t have to compare itself to Halo, it has to compare itself to Half-Life 2. A world in which story and combat in FPS have changed from being unconnected, crude and interstital elements kept in two separate, distant jars, and rather one where an FPS has the opportunity to shape narrative through the eyes of the most important camera; that of the player’s eyes.
In writing the review, I have to weigh up which I find more fun; beating this game for its biggest failings, or praising it for its greatest strengths? Unlike many games, Hard Reset is both god-awful and utterly fantastic, and these two elements sit alongside one another with an uneasiness that leaves me convinced that either will explode if touched too much.
Hard Reset‘s good points are almost worthy of a comparison to Cave Story, and that’s utterly insane to say aloud. Cave Story is a game where every single element was chosen. Nothing in Cave Story is actually bad – the game sets boundaries on purpose, but there’s no example of a place where the developer was trying to achieve a particular scenario and fucked it up.
This is true for Hard Reset too – it does everything it wants to do, and many things that may seem like ‘mistakes’ are instead very deliberate. Almost every single combat breaks out in an area with defined, limited boundaries that will not open until everything is dead. Once upon a time, you’d point at that as a memory management issue. It’s not so, though: Hard Reset is a game about short interspersed arena fights where you have to manage the resources in your environment and your person.
Nonetheless, the levels are smoothly designed, with coherent elements that create these arena-style combats, without feeling contrived. A variety of different pieces of futuristic construction create a wonderful range of different ways forwards, dotted about with secrets that reward exploration. Oh yes, secrets indeed, those old wall-cracking affairs where you could find all sorts of extra things that made future conflicts easier, or even routes through parts of the level. Very satisfying to solve them, too – even if all they do is make you better at murder.
The visuals of the game are also very good; enemies are brightly lit with a handful of clear, distinct lights, with colour keys to show you things about how they and their environment behave. Enemies in blue have electrical discharge, orange ones explode, and red ones favour melee. While enemies only fit a small number of models, each model has two or three different behaviours, colour coded. This could be annoying, I suppose, but I find it added instead to a feeling of skill, where identifying enemies was as important as targeting them. Some needed precision at range, some needed immediate dispatch and knockback.
One complaint about Hard Reset from a game perspective was that, back when it was new, the game was rather remarkably short – with only two boss encounters, the game ended very abruptly. I never experienced that form of the game. I played through a version which had what I’d consider four bosses – though apparently, only three of them conuted by the game’s normal rules. Still, with the Exile DLC, it’s a decent length, and the truly controller-snapping frustration comes from the second half of the game.
Hard Reset even brings with its some modern tech. Rather than filling the game with armour pickups, ala Quake and Doom‘s families of games, you’re instead equipped with a regenerating shield that ensures some minimum level of protection between encounters. This armour doesn’t replace health, though – it just reduces incoming damage. Also, there’s a weapon upgrade system that adds to your arsenal throughout the game, or to your base values, with upgrades providing clear, additive benefits. No +1% to a % of things, for example – no, each upgrade adds a distinct difference to the way the game plays. Another neat trick is that you have two weapons, with two different sets of versions; you have a shotgun, a machine gun, a rocket launcher, a grenade launcher, a mine layer, on one gun, and swapping between those is remarkably fast. Less than a full second to shift. Then your second gun, which is drawn slow, Doom-style, can do the same thing, shifting between a rapid-fire pew-pew-pew stick all the way up to a sort of rail gun. To delve back into mechanics that were first shown in Wolfenstein 3D is a pretty ballsy move.
Now, that’s not to say Hard Reset has it all over its mechanical angle. The character reacts to incoming damage a little too easily, and will grunt as readily at taking 1 point of damage as taking 40 – indeed, a few times I leapt out of safe spots because I was taking 1-2 points of damage because the game’s sounds convinced me I was taking much more. Sometimes the weapons can seem to have the impact of a wet noodle, and environmental damage really does have much more impact than your own guns. Also, some of the checkpoints are positioned at just the wrong side of a really big, nasty fight.
If this game was just its mechanical core, it would be a great game, certainly. It even has a nice debris feeling, with its hordes of mechanical enemies creating a very different style of character to a gleeful mass-murdering psycho you see in characters like Lara Croft and JC Denton. Why then, the hesitation?
… Hard Reset‘s story is one of the worst-executed I’ve seen in a videogame in recent years. I am including the painfully obvious Deadlight in that. The game was developed by a Polish group, which explains the bad voice acting and awkward pacing of English dialogue. It also explains the odd connection our protaganist has with the word ‘fuck.’
A story is fundamentally made up of three basic components:
- The setting, where the story takes place, and whose elements are things that anyone could interact with and experience; the world, essentially.
- The characters, who express through their voice and their development the passage of time and the realities of that setting.
- The events of the narrative. The things that transpire, cause and effect, to drive the plot forwards and give the characters reason to interact with the setting elements that cause development.
Hard Reset fails in all three of these. The setting has potentially interesting elements to it, but is badly explained and explored, even with the Exile DLC. It’s literally a postapocalyptic multinational corporate dystopia, with humans becoming software to attain some immortality, and a landscape full of warmachine AIs that have both achieved sentience, and require that same human software entity as a way to overcome their own built-in limitations. You will learn every single thing you know about this setting element in the first cut scene, and never again will it be mentioned.
On a character level, you have effectively two half-characters; our protaganist, Fletcher, and the Professor Novak. Thanks to what is either a coincidence or a plan, Fletcher has the unique ability to absorb human minds into his own, and also the ability to absorb AI control matrices. He can, essentially, control AIs. The professor shoots himself – no spoilers here, really, it’s so not worth it – and is absorbed into Fletcher’s head, where he spends the rest of the game offering useful advice in a stilted, badly voice-acted way. Now, the translation can’t be doing these guys any favours, but Fletcher comes across as a ten-year-old trying to convey grittiness and weariness rather than a character who changes as the story expands, and Novak is basically a fat, bald version of Navi. By the way, for consideration, look at The Two Thrones for how a passenger character can be handled in a fun, interesting way.
Then there’s the final part, the events. Well, it’s a bunch of stuff and it happens. Fletcher is off-duty when robots break into the protected city; he goes and deals with it and nobody comes and helps him, for some reason. Media blackouts hide the information while nobody goes to help; then he’s assigned to kill the professor, clean up afterwards, and then the professor assigns him some tasks. That Fletcher is the one assigned to kill the professor is the sort of coincidence that should have your ears ringing – to reveal more would be spoilers, but suffice to say, very little of any of the narrative involves a simple narrative line of cause and effect between Fletcher’s actions and what subsequently happens to him. After Spec Ops: The Line where every single event can be traced back to the first cause of Martin Walker entering Dubai, this is a jarring lack of connection.
On all three fronts of story and narrative, Hard Reset is a failure. It’s not that the plot is incomprehensible, as some critics said, or even that it was like unto a renowned science fiction author’s, like Stephenson or Dick. No. It’s a bad story, told badly, and thanks to the impenetrability of science-fiction settings, it can only fake being confusing, rather than fake being coherent.
Buy it if:
- You loved older shooters, pre-cover mechanics, pick-up health and ammo recharging, large arsenals of varied weapons and minimal story intrusion.
- You liked Wolfenstein-style and Doom-style weapon-swapping.
- You’d rather fight a small number of things in increasingly complicated ways, rather than meet new things over and over again.
- You want your core mechanics to vary little.
- You pine for game-story separation as in Quake.
Avoid it if:
- You prefer health-regen and limited-weapon models of play, ala Halo+.
- You prefer big, visually impressive setpiece moments, or vehicle sections ala Medal of Honour
- You’re a stickler for good storytelling and good writing.
- You prefer game-story integration as in Half-Life.