Thrill of the hunt

We stalk the wilder­ness for a glimpse of Cry­tek’s new mul­ti­player shooter, Hunt: Show­down

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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.

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