I‘m sure everyone had their own rituals for getting through 2020’s biggest craze: pandemic lockdowns. Mine involved logging in to the PSN (and later Steam) with friends every night at 9pm, before getting insta-killed by a single bullet to the head from a mystery gunman.
After a few hours of this, you head to bed for a few more spent staring at the ceiling to relitigate all the terrible choices you made over the course of the previous session.
That’s Hunt: Showdown in a nutshell, though I appreciate that’s not the kind of elevator pitch that developers Crytek would be keen to put on the box, so I’ll have a second go. How is it that someone with no affinity for online shooters got so addicted to one of the most punishing around?
Hunt: Showdown is a game that sees you and up to two other friends stalking giant monsters across an imagined region of 1890s Louisiana swampland. The monsters – a giant spider, a headless obese tank, a strange crow man and a being made out of bugs simply called ‘The Assassin’ – are obviously fictional, but the weapons you use to take them down feel firmly of their era. In other words, they’re largely one-shot rifles or clumsy pistols that sway like a barfly at closing time, and they take an absolute age to reload.
The ultimate goal is to get out alive with a bounty for successfully locating and then killing whatever giant monsters have spawned on the map. If your hunter dies, they’re lost forever, but if they survive, you can upgrade them with perks to make the next run that bit easier. Maybe they’ll be less susceptible to bleed damage, can move more quietly, or are able to carry a second larger weapon.
The twist to this period survival horror nightmare is that you and your teammates aren’t the only hunters looking to kill the bosses and collect on that bounty. A total of 12 players may (or may not) be on the map with you, and unless you can physically count the bodies around you, you can never truly be certain you’re alone. And even then, players can be revived by teammates if they’ve not been set on fire.
With limited health and a propensity to bleed without a longwinded healing animation, Players in Hunt quickly learn that running around blasting is a surefire way to end up in said dead pile. Because of the deliberately old-timey nature of the weapons, sensible players crawl around in the dense undergrowth, finding cover and only taking the shot when an opportunity presents itself – because if you miss, well… this gun isn’t going to reload itself, and you’d best set some time aside for that animation to play out.
That means that, when played properly, Hunt is a deliciously slow-paced game where you approach every area with abundant caution, knowing full well that every weapon can be a one-shot kill in the right hands. The audio is truly spectacular, and essential for figuring out if you’re alone. Footsteps, dogs barking and crows being disturbed: all indicate the presence of careless human players, even if they’re not shooting up the joint, and getting the drop on them is all important if you want to be the last team standing. You can even sample the gun sounds from various distances on the main menu, just to calibrate your ears to sound travel on the 1x1km maps.
The brilliant game design got my group well and truly hooked, and ensured that we kept returning to the Bayeux, night after night. Was it the thrill of the occasional round where everyone gets a couple of kills and you leave with two bounties and XP to spend on improving the survivors? While that high is one of the greatest I’ve ever experienced in gaming (you really feel like you’ve earned a win, even – maybe especially – when you get lucky), I think that’s only half of the story.
Rounds last on average somewhere between 20 minutes and an hour, and the slow and steady pace makes it perfect for socialising, in the same way a day’s fishing would if Covid laws allowed such simple pleasures. Hunt: Showdown allowed for natural catching up, without the intense pressure of staring at distant faces over a video call, or the enforced faux-cheer of virtual drinks. In the world of Hunt, conversation flows naturally as you collect clues and dispatch zombies, but you have to be ready for action at any moment. A sudden “SHH” might indicate a teammate has heard something suspicious in the distance and needs quiet to figure out where, while a panicked shout of “HUNTER!” should be self explanatory. Either way, chat turns tactical until the bodies can be officially counted.
Hunt: Showdown proved to be the perfect pandemic tonic for me because it united friends separated by circumstance. Hundreds of hours spent trudging across the virtual game world, learning every inch of the terrain, and having something else to talk about other than how mundane life had become. Hours spent sat in virtual scrubland listening to everything except social distancing discourse, hand washing guidance and the unlikelihood of a vaccine before 2023. Intense focus on something utterly engrossing and rewarding without having to connect to another bloody Zoom quiz.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ways Hunt was not the ideal game for these socially distanced times. The default feel of the game is ‘grossly unfair’, which is not exactly ideal when life seems pretty damned unfair in every other conceivable way. I’m already dealing with the unfair reality that I haven’t been inside a pub in 16 months, so why would I want to add having my hard-won bounty snatched by a silenced Sparks LRR camper to my list of grievances?
I assume that’s why Animal Crossing proved so popular for a more sedate flavour of escapism, but unless it’s been patched since I last played, Animal Crossing doesn’t give you the simple satisfaction of hearing your enemies scramble as you sneakily toss a big dynamite bundle through an open window.
We’re easing out of the pandemic now, thank God, but as things begin to open up again, I’m still stalking the Bayeux, hunting the same monsters with the same people. This is one aspect of lockdown life I won’t miss, and silly as it sounds I owe the developers an enormous debt. Thank you, Crytek: your intensely punishing world really did keep me and my friends together when the world tried its best to isolate us, and we can’t wait to learn the intricacies of the third map when it arrives. Even if 1x1km is a lot smaller than the real world that’s free to explore again, we’ll be there, learning the best spots to sit tight and wait for our prey to stumble into our iron sights.
Hunt: Showdown is out now, and playable on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One.