In the right light, Hunt: Showdown is a revelation, a daringly-original give-and-take between hunters and hunted that stands right next to truly innovative multiplayer titans like Left 4 Dead. You team up with a friend to crawl your way through a spookified Gilded Age of the late 1800’s, complete with black-powder rifles and bayonets. You upgrade your antique equipment by jockeying for bounties with others duos - but if you fall prey to one of them, your character is dead forever, and you must recruit a fresh one. It makes for an exciting time, but there’s just one problem: even for an early access game, in its current state, Hunt remains egregiously unfinished, and its veritable mountain of technical issues prevent those magical twilight moments from striking very frequently, if at all. Still, when all the cards fall just right, it’s easy to see why Crytek has sunk so much time and energy into an unlikely concept that somehow transmogrified from a little-known spin-off of the Darksiders franchise - one set in an entirely different era than those medieval-inspired environs - into one of the most promising pulse-pounders of 2018. That depends, of course, on whether or not it survive the trevails of early access.
As creative director Magnus Larbrant continually points out, Hunt: Showdown might conjure up the same sense of electric tension as a good game of PUBG, but it avoids most of the typical battle royale trappings - there are no ever-tightening wall of death to run from, or conspicuous piles of loot to rummage through. “We started from the same basic emotions - fear and tension. But we wanted you to get it from running through the woods, scared shitless. Hunt isn’t a run-and-gun game, though it has moments of that. It’s much more about hunting something down, getting away, and building a better Hunter.” Hunt diverges sharply from similar titles by abandoning the pure player-vs.-player schema of traditional multiplayer, instead tying progress to AI-controlled “bosses” that each pair of players independently pursues by collecting “clues” scattered throughout an open playfield. Once a team wipes out the boss, they must spend valuable time casting it into the depths of Hell to collect its “bounty,” which reveals their location to the other duos, who scramble to slay them and take the prize for themselves. But if you die yourself - either to the crack of a rifle bullet or the claws of a skittering ghoul - your hunter is dead and gone, and all of your accumulated traits and loot gets buried with them.
While these harsh consequences for death might seem overly punitive to some, Larbrant emphasizes that this “permadeath” embodies a core design element of Hunt: that of fear. “I would call it ‘soft permadeath,’ he says, laughing. “If it were up to me, it would be a lot worse for the player. If you don’t have anything to lose, you don’t have anything to fear. I think players are afraid of the word permadeath.” Larbrant points to the game’s recruitment system, which allows you to create a roster of Hunters with disparate traits and equipment, rather than just a single player character. “For us, we think of it as a poker hand - by playing a Hunter, you’re betting on them. When you buy traits, when you buy loot, you’re betting more - you’re putting more chips on that Hunter. But even if you die, if you killed something, you get experience, you get money. Even if you lose your chips, you’re still always gaining something.”
Right now, however, lacking optimization, content, and - worst of all - consistent matchmaking, Hunt: Showdown is a creaking skeleton of the game that Larbrant and company want it to be. (To illustrate: I spent roughly half my time with the game over the past week staring at the same error message due to Crytek’s unfortunate but presumably necessary decision to stick a player-cap onto its servers.) But while you can certainly question the wisdom of Crytek shunting Hunt out into the deep sea of Steam in such a half-baked state, if it manages to tread water long enough, I personally think that the German developer will have a massive tidal wave of a hit on their hands before the year is out.