Hunt: Showdown looks just like your typical paranormal, level-based shooter. You and a buddy are creeping through a dank, forsaken swamp somewhere deep in the crevices of the Louisiana bayou. Chittering ghouls, beasties, and zombies stalk the rotten pig farms and chapels hidden in the mist. You're armed with late-Victorian rifle, a trusty hunter's knife, and are tasked with tracking down an overpowered boss monster lurking somewhere on the kilometer-square map. In the demo I saw at E3, that monster took the form of a sedan-sized spider in the upstairs attic of a musty farmhouse. The two players landed bullets in the beast's hide, and ambushing muzzles started flashing around the homestead.
Suddenly, Hunt: Showdown wasn't a single player game anymore. It never was, really. The framework is just like every other competitive game – teams join a lobby and are dropped into a match that ranges between 20 to 40 minutes. There can be up to 10 duos in a game, all aiming for the same boss. If your team kills it first, you'll start a "banishing" process that will flag your position on the map. The other teams have a chance to pick the bounty off your corpses. Your final objective is to escape alive.
The structure isn't dissimilar from other survival-focused shooters like DayZ, Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, and H1Z1. But the magic of Hunt is how fully it immerses you in its world, and how quickly you forget you're in a multiplayer arena, and not a chaptered-off slice of a broader narrative.
"We have a very nice balance between downtime – where you can take your time and explore and investigate, and go after PvE threats, but there's always the chance you'll find other players,” says lead designer Dennis Schwarz. "There's the chance that everyone just gravitates towards the northern side of the map, but you can also just say 'you know what, I'm lazy, I'm just going to hang out in the middle of the map and wait for someone else to call out the hot spot and I'm going to go take it.' That is a legit strategy."
There's been some version of Hunt: Showdown in development since 2014. The studio, Crytek USA in Austin, Texas, were made up of ex-Vigil Games guys – most famous for delivering the rock-solid action-adventure Darksiders in 2010. The name they settled on was Hunt: Horrors of the Gilded Age, and the project was angled as a spiritual successor to their work on Darksiders before THQ bit the bullet and boarded up the studio. Darksiders was, of course, a hack '‘n slash Zelda-clone replete with hookshots, dungeons, and a Devil May Cry-style combo list – which is clearly not what Crytek has put together on Showdown. That's because in 2016, the publisher relocated development development to the Frankfurt HQ and started from scratch.
That news will obviously upset any diehard Darksiders fans holding out hope for a traditional sequel from the original team, but as an outsider, it certainly seems like Crytek's call is paying off. Hunt: Showdown is predictably beautiful; the steamy humidity of the bog sizzles off the screen, the zombies are all immaculately waterlogged and disgusting. But that's not even the main draw. Survival shooters are in vogue right now, but the anatomy of something like Battlegrounds doesn't go much further than a bunch of hair-triggers in a massive loot-laden forest. Instead, Hunt almost reminded me of a contested World of Warcraft zone. You're questing with your friends, drawing up strategies to slice through the encounters in front of you, but then you see a few red-named Orcs off in the distance and the tone of your adventure immediately changes. One of my favorite wrinkles Schwarz mentioned is that when you're dropped into a game of Hunt: Showdown, you won't know how many teams are on the map with you. It lets the tension boil over for all 40 minutes. There is so much grim elegance in the cold realization that the human figures in the distance are moving in the way players move.
Despite a troubled origin story, Hunt: Showdown is putting forth a really good idea. And for the first time in over a decade, Crytek is ahead of the curve.
"We always felt in survivor games you have this free-form structure, and it's hard to put a narrative behind it because it's really your story,' says Schwarz. "We wanted to combine the open feeling you get from a sandbox survival game, the feeling of the 360 threat all around you, but combining that with a match-based structure, a narrative that drives you through a packaged experience."
Schwarz mentioned some other interesting tidbits, like a quasi-permadeath system destroys any gear or upgrades your character might've been carrying, (although long-term experience points will persist between deaths.) It seems like a good way to ensure players won't bonzai their way into dangerous situations and disrupt the careful mood. Also, this being a Crytek game, you can bet on astronomical system specs and (probably) a neutered version eventually coming to consoles. They're staying quiet about a prospective release date, and given that this conception of Hunt: Showdown has been in development for barely a year, I'm guessing we're still a ways off from a closed beta or anything like that.
But that's okay. Despite a troubled origin story, Hunt: Showdown is putting forth a really good idea. And for the first time in over a decade, Crytek is ahead of the curve.