Thrill of the hunt
We stalk the wilderness for a glimpse of Crytek’s new multiplayer shooter, Hunt: Showdown
Crytek walks us through its innovative new take on the shared world shooter experience, Hunt: Showdown, which melds the best of horror with the pinnacle of co-op shooter gameplay
It’s the late 19th century, and the undead have taken root in the sweltering bayou of Louisiana. Lurking somewhere amid the cypress trees and dilapidated shacks is a monster that would make John Carpenter proud – huge, tough and deadly. But this fearsome predator is about to become your prey. You’re a professional hunter for hire, and killing this creature will earn you and your hunting partner a substantial reward – provided you can survive long enough to get out of the swamp, that is. Unfortunately, you don’t know where the monster is, and you’re not the only person seeking out the prize; other groups of Hunters roam the swamp.
You don’t know where they are either, or even how many are out there.
All you know for sure is that this isn’t a team effort. If the other Hunters see you, they’ll kill you, regardless of whether you’re wading through the marsh, battling zombies or even squaring off against the main target. If you happen to have already killed the creature, they’ll prise the trophy from your cold, dead hands.
Tension is at the heart of Hunt: Showdown. Every distant gunshot, every blind corner, every startled murder of crows has the potential to send all your hard work crumbling into nothing. “It’s high-risk, high-reward gameplay,” says Magnus Larbrant, creative director at Crytek. “Should you go in and kill the boss first? If you come in there early, do you have the right equipment to kill him fast, and then use the boss compound as a defensive thing? Or should you wait for some other guy to kill him, and then when he runs away you try to kill him?”
It’s a fascinating prospect, one that blends cooperative and competitive multiplayer in a way that puts a novel spin on various emerging trends in the multiplayer sphere. Showdown’s influences range from the likes of Left4dead and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds to games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Crytek’s own Crysis series.
A round of Showdown is split roughly into three “acts”. Up to ten Hunters (playing either solo or in teams of two) spawn at random locations in Showdown’s haunted wetland. They begin tracking their prey by seeking out “clues”, supernatural anomalies scattered across the map, which the Hunters can locate using an ability called “Dark Vision”. Each clue greys out a chunk of the map, and collecting three clues will pinpoint the exact location of their target.
If they so choose, players can then proceed to battle the boss. In the game’s current Early Access state, there are two of these to fight, while Crytek plans to include several more in the final version.
Each has different strengths and weaknesses, and requires different weapons and strategies to defeat.
Once beaten, there is a brief phase where the monster is “banished”
to whatever hellish realm it emerged from, after which the successful Hunters must retreat safely to one of several extraction points dotted around the map.
This is how a match of Showdown plays in theory. Chances are your own experience of it will be far from this straightforward. Complicating everything you do in Showdown is the presence of those other players. Although each match has clear phases, Hunters can encounter one another at any point. “It’s a sandbox. You can go wherever you want,” Larbrant says. “Obviously everybody is going to gravitate towards [the boss]. But also on the clue aspect, when you’re picking a clue, everybody is looking for the same clues too. So you’re gonna collide there.”
There are no rules on how you approach the hunt itself. You could follow the basic outline, track down the clues and kill the monster. But you could equally let another group of Hunters do the hard work for you, then try to steal their hard-earned winnings by assaulting the boss’ location during the banishment phase, or by lurking near an extraction point and hoping to ambush the competition. You could assign yourself the role as a hunter of Hunters, trying to take out the competition before they get to the boss. “Or you could just say, ‘You know what? I need to grind for my next unlock’, and all you do is you go and kill some grunts, and extract to keep your Hunter alive, and unlock the next rank. It’s up to you how you want to play, really,” Larbrant adds.
The reason behind this openended structure is simple: to build tension. Crytek wants Showdown to feel highly unpredictable, to engender in players a sense of anticipation and apprehension that builds with every step they take. “What’s around the corner? Could it kill me? Should I risk my life going in there? What do I hear? What do I have? Should I wait, should I not?” Larbrant says.
It’s a fitting theme for developers Crytek, whose designers have lived for many years beneath their own cloud of uncertainty. Hunt: Showdown itself arose from the ashes of another project, produced by one of Crytek’s many now-defunct studios. The game began life as Hunt: Horrors Of The
Gilded Age, a four-player, cooperative shooter in the vein of Left4dead that was being designed by Crytek USA. Composed largely of designers hired from Vigil Studios – the creators of Darksiders – Crytek USA was one of several subsidiary studios that Crytek had either founded or purchased between 2007 and 2013. These included Crytek Seoul, Crytek Shanghai, Crytek Budapest, Crytek Black Sea, and the former creators of Timesplitters, Free
if you look at the old game, it was more of a stylised, cartoon game, because i think that was the dna of that studio
Radical Design, renamed Crytek UK upon their acquisition in 2009.
It was a period of rapid expansion for the Frankfurt-based company – perhaps too rapid. In June 2014, it was reported that Crytek had missed wage payments and withheld bonuses to both Crytek UK and Crytek USA. Shortly after this, the company issued a statement that it was in a “transitional phase”, and began shuttering its subsidiaries even faster than it had acquired them. Crytek UK and Crytek Black Sea were sold to Deep Silver and Sega respectively, while the Seoul, Shanghai, Budapest and USA studios were all closed down by the end of 2016.
Despite the chaos happening around them, the Frankfurt office continued making games, releasing VR titles The Climb and Robinson: The Journey in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, the unfinished Hunt: Horrors Of The Gilded Age was brought over from Crytek USA so that the Frankfurt studio – where the engineers behind Far Cry and Crysis preside – could assess its potential for the future. Given the wider instability across the company as a whole, logically the best thing to do would be to finish Gilded Age as quickly as possible and get it shipped. Instead, Crytek decided to ditch the entire project, except for two things: the name (or at least one word in the name), and the 19th century Louisiana setting.
Considering the context, this decision seems like madness from the outside. So what prompted it? Larbrant explains that the decision was made at a “high level” on the basis that the title’s style didn’t fit with the ethos of the Frankfurt studio as a whole. “If you look at the old game, it was more of a stylised cartoon game, because I think that was the DNA of that studio,” Larbrant says. “Our DNA is not that. Like a lot of us made Crysis games and Far Cry, stuff like this.”
In short, the Frankfurt studio’s design output is founded upon certain key pillars. Realism is one, emergent play another. Horrors Of The Gilded
Age was a linear, highly stylised action game, all of which are far removed from what Crytek is familiar with as a developer. Hence a message came down for Larbrant from management; make a new game that focuses more specifically on the word 'Hunt'.
“The direction I gathered was,
‘Do a game where the anticipation is more of a thing,’ he explains. So this is exactly what Larbrant focused on. “We had to break hunting down in to puzzle pieces; what does it mean? Well, it’s the unknown. What is the unknown? Well, it’s what I can’t see. Why am I scared? Well, if I hear something horrible from what I can’t see and I don’t know where it is, well, that’s creepy. And then we started to break down the whole game like that.”
This led the team to make some immediate decisions. They scrapped the four-player, cooperative side of the game entirely, instead opting for a hybrid of competitive and cooperative play. “It’s you and your buddy,” Larbrant says. “As I said before, our game is based on high tension, that anticipation, that’s what it’s all about. Your buddy getting scared makes you scared.”
It’s worth noting that it is possible to play Showdown on your own, but unlike, say, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, solo players reside on the same servers as the two-man teams. They also miss out on certain advantages, such as having another player able to revive you. “Playing single player, it works. It’s just super hard,” Larbrant says. “What we want is to push the social aspect. But we don’t wanna shy away from single-player guys either.”
Crytek also switched the experience from third person to first person. “If we had a game about the unknown, if you’re playing third person and you can always see what’s around the corner when you’re moving around then we’re losing that DNA”, Larbrant explains. Crytek did, however, decide to retain Gilded Age’s setting, as it fit their concept of hunting monsters in a strange and unpredictable environment. “I think everybody is a bit intrigued by that time and era, the possibilities, the mystery, the new things being invented,” Larbrant adds. “I call our style “Dark Realism”, where it’s all dirt, mud and blood, it’s all about that.”
Although the setting itself was saved, Crytek ditched the linear, sequential levels of Gilded Age, redesigning the experience around a small open-world map, which Larbrant explains is the same size as a level in the original Crysis. This map itself comprises a mixture of wetland
wilderness and what might generously be called settlements – pockets of dilapidated buildings; churches, fishing villages and farms. These are hidden among thickets of trees and bushes where it’s difficult to see what’s ahead of you, and separated by large expanses of open marsh that players regularly need to wade through, slowing their movements and leaving them highly exposed.
“It’s a very tactical sandbox,” Larbrant says. “We’re hiding a lot, but we’re also telling you a lot through audio, and based on the audio and your gear, we want you to make different choices… you always need different options to get into one of those compounds where the boss can be. You can risk running there quickly on the open field, or you can run in the cornfield. On the other hand, the cornfield starts moving. So somebody in a high position could see you. Or you can take the long way around in the woods, right? Now, obviously different AI are specialised to work in these spaces as well.”
While Crytek is known primarily as a visual powerhouse, it’s in the discussion of the game’s audio that the developers seem most animated. “There’s a lot of sound around you,” says Fatih Özbayram, a producer on Showdown. “You hear player voices, You hear enemies, you hear the world, and you need to find the right balance to actually emphasise on the right sound that players should know, or should be able to read.”
It’s not surprising that the developers seem particularly excited about this. Within a couple of matches, it’s clear that sound plays a huge role in Showdown’s play. Each gunshot echoes right across the map – as does voice chat and footsteps – clueing you into where other groups of hunters are and how far away they might be.
Meanwhile, the map is crammed with what Larbrant refers to as
“Sound traps”. These range from pens containing chickens or dogs that start making noise if you startle them, to chains that dangle from factory ceilings, clinking as you attempt to shuffle past.
Successful hunting in Showdown relies on remaining unheard as well as unseen, such as dispatching AI zombies with melee weapons rather than signalling your location to other hunters by shooting them. “The audio doesn’t make use of jump scares, but what is really scary is if you’re in one location and you hear somebody reloading their gun,” says Özbayram.
Mechanically, Showdown is certainly formidable when it comes to ratcheting up the tension. The prevalent sound traps and wandering AI enemies encourage slow, methodical play, checking your angles, trying to stick to cover, and listening intently to the environment. The game forces you to make constant small-scale choices, whether to fight a particularly tough zombie or work your way around, to explore a cluster of shacks for health and ammo, or press on to face the boss before somebody else gets there. Showdown is particularly intense when played on its night-map. Visibility is much lower, making it much easier to stumble unwittingly into a cluster of enemies. Equipping a light source will naturally solve this problem, but will also turn you into a beacon for other Hunters to literally shoot for.
When combat erupts, a calm head and a steady hand is important. The weapons herald from the tail-end of the 19th century, an arsenal that includes revolvers, double-barrelled shotguns and repeater rifles. Even the most basic weapons are weighty and powerful, but they tend to be slow to fire. Your limited carrying capacity also means you need
the audio doesn’t make use of jump scares, but what is really scary is if you’re in one location and you hear somebody reloading their gun
to equip your team appropriately for a fight. Shotguns, for example, are very useful in the game’s close-quarters boss fights, but aren’t so helpful if you’re exchanging gunfire with another hunting team on the far side of a swamp. Balancing your equipment against that of your partner’s will help provide you with an edge in the hunt.
The core of Showdown demonstrates plenty of promise, but it isn’t without its problems. Some are easily fixable, others less so. The game’s slow pace is currently made ponderous by glacial loading times, which is especially galling if your hunter is killed early in a match. Moreover, the undead enemies aren’t exactly the most thrilling to fight, while a couple, such as the “Wailer” zombie that shoots clouds of poisonous insects at you, are downright infuriating.
Showdown also employs a novel yet somewhat convoluted permadeath mechanic. Your general level and available unlocks are governed by your “Bloodline”, which accrues XP across the whole game. Individual hunters, meanwhile, have their own XP and ability unlocks, which only last until that hunter dies.
On its own, this is fine. But new Hunters can only be recruited using money earned from previous Hunts, hence a spate of poor performances can leave you destitute, unable to afford anything but the most basic Hunter. Part of the problem is that the game consistently rewards you with XP for everything you do (such as killing zombies or other players), but only rewards you with cash for certain achievements (finding clues and killing the boss). It’s understandable that Crytek want to focus the big rewards on the big game hunting, but surely one less zombie in the world is worth a few quid.
Crytek’s immediate focus is to stabilize connectivity and reduce loading times, after which the company plans to begin adding new content. These will be small things at first, like scopes for weapons. But further plans include deployable booby traps and the addition of female hunters. “The good thing is there is positive feedback,” considers Özbayram. “Some of it is in sync with what we want to do and some opened our eyes and made us think twice.”
Showdown has arrived at an opportune moment. It is evidently inspired by some recent innovations in multiplayer gaming. How much this factored in the decision to entirely rework Horrors Of The Gilded Age remains unclear, although it’s telling that the developers repeatedly emphasise the “social aspect” of Showdown. “We want this game to really be a Twitch game,“Larbrant says. “Like an openworld sandbox map, players having fun together, recording videos together.”
Showdown provides an experience that is distinct from the surging Battle Royale genre, offering more nuanced ways to play and a more interesting tactical challenge. Whether or not Showdown’s Damoclean dread truly is a form of catharsis for Crytek, there’s little doubt that the studio understands its chosen theme well.
Environments are littered with “noise-traps”, like dangling chains and broken glass.
The more built-up areas of the map are often mazy and tricky to navigate.
Playing cooperative has certain advantages, like being able to revive each other.
The basic zombie mobs are easy to kill, but have a habit of sneaking up on you.