Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: Hard Reset

First person shooters seem to sprout like acne on a teenager's face these days, but a lot of them are heavily inspired by Infinity Ward's apocalyptically smashing hit Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. More concerned with set pieces and going out of their way to take control away from you, it gets annoying when you realize a game that you happen to enjoy would somehow influence companies to copy it and miss the frigging point. Hell, it says something when Infinity Ward themselves miss the point and develop what amount to shallow parodies of the first Modern Warfare! Needless to say, travelling back to the early/mid 2000s and taking gameplay concepts from there is like breathing in a refreshing aroma scent after somebody does a really smelly fart. Enter Hard Reset, a game that feels like Serious Sam and Painkiller in that while levels aren't necessarily complex, open or mazelike, they're filled to the brim with waves of enemies and plenty of weapons for you to destroy them with. In that sense, it's like a roller coaster ride with twists, turns, loop de loops and even the occasional atomic death ray. Sounds like a lot of fun, hey guys? Well, more or less...

Roller coasters unfortunately have their boring bits, and this one's boring bits involve the story. In the future, humanity is mostly destroyed and entire cities are populated by robots. But there is one city left out there with humans. Unfortunately, that doesn't last for too long as robots are killing them all. Major Fletcher, a cyborg soldier, has to take them all down. Now, it could work out really well within the context of a shooter that's really all about shooting down robots, but then they introduce conspiracies and all this extra crap that does little if anything to actually grab your attention. It's one of those stories that tries to be Blade Runner by adding in themes of AI and what it means to be human, but given that the story is glossed over in favor of action, it falls flat on its face.

At best, the story is cute, like a three year old trying to draw its favorite animal; and at worst, you start to wish that there was more put into the story because in its current form, it's more convoluted than Metal Gear Solid. In other words, it's filler that gives justification for your actions, though due to its fillerific nature, there isn't much put into it, and unfortunately, the whole “what it means to be human” stuff that they slap onto the game is left underdeveloped and confusing as all hell. Not to mention, this game is about four/five hours long – if it was any longer, it'd have more space to stretch itself out a bit, not to mention that it could have a more conclusive ending. Thank god that it is, indeed, fillerific.

If you've never played Painkiller or Serious Sam, simply put, the idea is to go through levels and shoot down waves of enemies. You'll mostly fight robots that can cut you up, bash your brains in and blow you up via explosive shots or by blowing themselves up near you. There isn't much to their AI other than “kill all humans” and since you kind of look like a human, that's exactly what they're going to do to you. Unfortunately, one problem I had with this game about an hour in is the balance of difficulty... now, I expect twitch shooters like this to be harder than a porn star's tits as that's what keeps them enjoyable despite shallow gameplay, but only if it feels balanced. Sadly, Hard Reset is about as balanced as an overworked uni student's life at the worst of times – I've often found myself the victim of many different cheap deaths.

You see, Hard Reset can often feel like a two on one handicap match with oftentimes cheap enemies that can do plenty of damage, sometimes juggling you on one end; and explosives and electricity holding you by the arms for the enemies to beat the crap out of you. A fair amount of the encounters boil down to your usual twitch shooting formula of circle strafing while firing at enemies. Those are the fun scenarios because with many enemies to take down before they take you down, it's fast and frenetic. That's when Hard Reset is firing on all cylinders. The few bosses that you'll fight throughout the game are an even bigger treat – they huge and have hard to find weak spots, but fighting them is plenty of fun as these fights are also fast and frenetic due to their onslaught of attacks forcing you to think on your feet. These are easily the best part of the game. But then there are encounters with plenty of bigger enemies in smaller rooms where they can force you into a corner and unless you're lucky enough to fire some shots that'll give you breathing room to exhibit some good old circle strafing, these will lend you reservations six feet under.

Not to mention that this game has a thing for explosives and electrical currents... that may work against you by completely frying your circuits, should you shoot an explosive that will trigger a suicidal chain reaction. Also take into account the old school health system where you need to find refills instead of waiting for it to regenerate and the checkpoint system (as opposed to a “save anywhere” feature found in other twitch shooters), and Hard Reset is pretty damn hard, but it's hard to gauge whether the next scenario is hard because your reflexes aren't up to snuff or because of cheap enemy variety, small rooms and explosives that you might not want to shoot even in a moment of desperation out of fear of dying. To some people, it seems like I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but when I'm dying not because my reflexes were up to snuff but because a section worked against its design (lots of big enemies in a small room), I'm sorry – this is stuff that needs to be pointed out. Besides, not every section is like this. In fact, most sections are more like the fun old twitch shooters that separated the men from the boys – especially the boss fights - but there were most certainly enough of the cheap sections for me to want to warn you about them.

One thing Hard Reset has going for it is its weapon variety. You're given two guns, but each of them have five upgrades that... are actually different weapon modes. You have a CLN rifle, which turns into more traditional guns like a shotgun, an assault rifle and a grenade launcher, while the plasma pistol turns into more futuristic guns like a shock blaster, a plasma rifle and an electric mortar (basically a grenade launcher, only it fires balls of electricity that slow down enemies rather than just blowing them up). There is a good variety to be found here and unlike the rest of the game, it's pretty well balanced. The more powerful the mode, the more ammo it'll eat up for instance as each mode shares the ammo with whatever gun it's a mode of. You'll start off with just one mode for both guns, but eventually by finding orange orbs and killing enemies, you'll acquire enough experience points to unlock new modes, upgrade the modes with more devastating secondary or primary effects, and maybe even make Fletcher himself stronger in combat. You won't be able to unlock everything in your playthrough so if you want to do that, you'll need to play the new game+ mode. But either way, it'll open each playthrough up to be different depending on how you choose to upgrade everything. Whether you prefer the traditional modes, the more futuristic modes or a balance of the two (though both will be weak if you go that way), you'll be required to change up your strategy quite a bit. I have to admit, it's actually impressive how they implemented this feature.

Hard Reset is a brilliant looking game. On a high end PC, it looks downright amazing. The textures are crispier than freshly roasted cashews and the framerate is mostly very smooth. But where it grabs me by the hair is in its Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk style. The city is big with neon and holographic lights to signify that it takes place some time into the future, and they do a fine job of contrasting with the gritty cityscape. Said grittiness gives off the feeling that the world has become a hellish robotic wasteland devoid of human life, which goes with crappy plot established quite well. The scenes – which are played during the load times, by the way – are done in a hand drawn style that looks rather nice too. It pans out like a comic book with some oily drawings within panels, with speech bubbles showing what's being said. If it was an actual comic book series, I'd at least enjoy the look of it despite the lousily written story.

The bad writing could explain the rather mediocre voice acting. Just about everybody here sounded fine in the technical sense, but not a single syllable was able to grab me. It just sounded like they were more concerned with appearing to be realistic and good without having anything resembling a soul or conviction. The music is good though – a lot of it manages to pump you up with their hard and fast electronic beats. Nothing is overly memorable, but they manage to get you going during the intense firefights. During the cutscenes, the music does a good enough job of conveying a serious ambience to go with the serious story, so it's not as if the composers aren't trying. The music is generally good, it's the voice acting that lets the sound design down.

Hard Reset lives up to its name of being so hard you'll reset often, but not always for the right reasons. It's very much like the arena shooters of old, but at times, it seems like they ramp the difficulty up too high with cheap enemies and crap level designs that go against themselves. It's a shame because when the rooms are big enough to breathe in, Hard Reset can be a lot of fun to play through. The bosses are easily great. But games have two big goals to accomplish – one is to achieve what it strives to attain, which Hard Reset mostly does; and the other is to be the least bit fun or worth your time in some other way, shape or form, which Hard Reset does on its best day. But on its worst day, it's frustrating, and the overall rushed feeling of the single player campaign doesn't really help. I guess if you're starved for a twitch shooter to the point where you'll try anything, there's not much harm in playing through Hard Reset, but personally, I'd prefer that you play Serious Sam 3.

6/10 (Above Average)

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