The news out of Crytek has not been the best for the past few years. The engine developer has been searching for a way forward in a world dominated by competitors like Unreal Engine and Unity. In 2016, Crytek closed several studios and laid off a number of employees, after reports of non-payment. At the time, Crytek management said that the entire studio was focusing on "premium IPs". Then we heard nothing.
Late last week, Crytek launched its next title, Hunt: Showdown, onto Steam Early Access. The game is described by Crytek as "a competitive first-person PvP bounty hunting game with heavy PvE elements". Others have compared it to the current Battle Royale trend or survival titles like Escape from Tarkov. After playing the game, it's clear that Hunt: Showdown is its own game and that might be its greatest strength.
In Hunt, players take on the roles of bounty hunters. You're dropped into a map inspired by the Louisiana Bayou on a contract: somewhere out there is a supernatural monster and it's up to you to dispatch it. The trick is, you're not the only one on the contract. There are other hunters out there-Hunt: Showdown is played solo or in teams of two-and they're not necessarily going to play nice.
Before you can even start a contract in Hunt, you need a hunter. You begin the game with $666 in cash and you can use that money to hire a hunter out of a randomly-generated assortment. Each hunter comes with a different look, various starting weapons and items, and a few traits once you're farther into the game. One hunter may start with a Shotgun for maximum damage up close, while another may have a rifle that lets you pick off targets from far away. Your recruit may have a shoulder-mounted flashlight or a first aid kit for healing in a pinch.
Better hunters cost more money to hire, and you can reroll a set for free if none of them tickle your fancy. You'll start by getting Tier 1 hunters in each draw, but as you level up, you can eventually recruit Tier 2 and 3 hunters, which come with better abilities.
Where the Hunt: Showdown gets vicious is that when hunters die, they're gone forever. If you happen to survive a round, your hunter will get a certain amount of experience, becoming stronger. But if they die, that's all gone. And if you play Hunt poorly, you'll find yourself with no money, leaving you only able to recruit Tier 0 hunters. These are relatively weak characters, but level up to Tier 1 on a win, allowing you to keep playing if you're out of money. So before you even get into a game, Hunt: Showdown has established the stakes: win and you get experience, money, and other rewards. Lose and your hunter takes a dirt nap.
You don't lose everything though, as gaining experience also contributes to a separate Bloodline level. As you level your Bloodline level higher, you get access to better hunters and more powerful equipment. So, there's still a reason to keep playing, even if you lose a hunter that has survived a few matches.
In Early Access, there's only a single map, playable in day or night, and two contracts. One is for the Butcher, a huge hulking fellow with a bull's skull on his head and a burning hook, or the Spider, a giant spider that can flit around the environment and poison you. Pick your pain and matchmaking begins.
Hunt: Showdown is excellent at seeling its overall atmosphere. The game will test your rig, but the payoff is a world that feels consumed by a supernatural hell, the creeping Bayou, and the ravages of time. The landscape is littered with abandoned homes and churches, or forgotten graveyards. Everything man-made has been worn away by the swamp, covered by a sheen of dirt and grime, with shattered windows and walls. Livestock lies dead as crows pick at the carcasses. Fires burn unattended. And once you play the map at night, the entire setting takes on a distinctly survival horror feel, like Capcom's rebooted Resident Evil 7. Crytek is top-notch at anchoring the setting, at least in the only available map.
When you're dropped into a match, your objective is to find your target. Every hunter has Dark Sight, an ability which greys out the world and highlights clues that will lead to the target. Find a clue and part of the map is darkened, indicating that the monster isn't there. Find three clues and the monster's location is highlighted on your map. This is the easy part.
You need to keep a low-profile while hunting for these clues and the monster, because other players are prone to killing the competition. Gunshots are loud, so you probably want to stick to melee. Zombies of various types roam the world; you can kill them, but it might give away your position. Your footsteps on wooden floors or the slow creak of an opening door can give you away. Disturbing a group of crows is like screaming, "Here I am!" because they'll take to the sky. Even talking to your partner is audible to other players. This is where the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds comparisons come from: part of survival is staying hidden.
Once you've found the monster, things start to get a bit dicey. Killing the monster will usually require going in guns ablaze, thus giving away your position. And once the beast is down, you have to banish their corpses to hell. This is a timed phase and every other hunter on the map can see exactly where the banishment is happening. If you happen to survive that, you then have to find your way to one of the exit points on the map. The problem is your every move is highlighted by a huge lightning storm visible in Dark Sight.
I have some issues with these latter phases, if only because banishment takes a bit too long. It's actually smarter to find a boss and then hide, letting another team waste ammo and time fighting adn banishing the creature, only to kill them as they're getting away. There needs to be more rewards for actually fighting the boss, instead of killing the hunters that just fought the boss. I understand that Hunt: Showdown is providing a tactical option, but it feels like it's one of waiting, not action.
The tension weighs upon you in every match of Hunt: Showdown, similar to Battle Royale games, albeit on a smaller scale. You're always looking over your shoulder for an errant zombie or an ambush from another hunter. The boom of a gunshot is either an opportunity, or a reason to take the long way around. Even the bosses themselves are suitably creepy, like the time I fought The Butcher in the darkened basement of a house, desperately trying to reload as the Butcher's figure popped in an out of the firelight. In one instance, I found myself in a cat-and-mouse game with another team of hunters, only for them to wander into a group of zombies trying to outflank me. I didn't even have to finish killing them.
Unfortunately, the game is clearly just out of the alpha phase. There's only a single map and two bosses. Matchmaking takes forever, which is a problem considering the entire game is multiplayer. Once you're in-game, you'll run into various bugs like teleporting or stuck hunters. I killed a boss in one round, only to have the game hard-lock my computer in the banishment phase. I could still talk to my partner, but once I had reset my PC and logged back in, I lost my hunter and only received half of the bounty because I died. And as I said before, Hunt: Showdown will test your rig, as optimization isn't done yet. My frame rate is all over the place.
But there's a hint of something special here. The core of what Crytek is building here is compelling, with further tweaks and additional content. The fact that Crytek has built a game you can't easily describe using another game is a boon in this industry. There's nothing else quite like Hunt: Showdown and I'm looking forward to seeing where Crytek takes it.