The Good: Snazzy cyberpunk setting. Some cool weapons. The Bad: Convoluted, pointless plotline. Brutally difficult. Kinda short. The Ugly: Overly relies on tricks and traps in level design.
I’m finding Hard Reset a difficult game to review. On the one hand, it provides a kind of frenetic FPS action that has been lacking in the market since Serious Sam. It furthermore has some really nice game mechanics going for it, the enemies and setting are well drawn, and the electricity-based weapons are cool and kind of different. On the other hand, the difficulty setting is seriously out of whack. It uses frustrating variations of the ‘slam the door behind you and dump enemies on your head’ approach all too often, which combines with a checkpoint save system that is virtually guaranteed to have you playing through the same sections half a dozen times or more. And just when you’re getting the hang of it, just when you sort of get used to the cadence of the action and which weapons you like and find a method to stop dying, the game ends (something like 5 hours total single player gameplay) and there’s no multiplayer at all. As a budget title it perhaps gives you just enough bang for your buck, but is unlikely to inspire anyone to sing its praises from the rooftops.
The plot, what little there is of it, is told via partially animated graphic novel panels. In a distant future (year unspecified) the humans are at war with the machines a la The Matrix. You play as a cop of some sort, trying to keep the robots from getting into the human sector, but wouldn’t you know it, some robots got in somehow and killed a slew of humans during your shift. It’s up to you to deal with the robots and investigate how they got in. From there is takes a sharp left turn into gibberish, spouting bits about interior AI and nanos and overwriting the matrix. I seriously tried to make sense out of the cutscenes, but if there’s a plot in there I missed it.
You have essentially two weapons types in the game – a gun based upon typical ammunition (bullets and grenades and such) and a gun that shoots kind of boiling balls of electricity. Both can be upgraded to give them additional firing modes (mortars, rockets, emps, plasma bursts), though to look at the weapon it can be a little difficult to tell which mode you’re wielding, requiring you to read what upgrade mode you have in your hands in the lower left corner. That is unsurprisingly not easy to do during combat. The game has itself one doozy of an electricity-modeling engine, and the electricity weapon sends lightning bolts zapping off in every direction. The environment, like some kind of OSHA nightmare, is a rabbit’s warren of poorly-insulated high-voltage electrical components and explosive barrels. The environment becomes one of the more engaging elements of the game, as you choose between shooting directly at the incoming enemy hoard (which for early, unimproved, weak weapons is a bad idea), or shooting the electrical subpanel nearby them and letting a fury of chain lightning do the killing for you. Along the way you collect cash (the game calls it plasma, though it functions like cash). At booths that are scattered around you can purchase weapon and armor upgrades.
My greatest complaint is the way the game uses traps in the level design, often (very, very often) locking you in somewhere and then pouring enemies on you from hidden doorways in the walls or ceiling. Walk into a room, the door slams shut behind you, the music swells, enemies appear from every direction, you destroy them, the music fades, and suddenly the door is unlocked, or some other way out appears. It feels artificial, and that happens a lot in Hard Reset. Even as a sometimes fan of this type of game I must confess that I find that cadence gets frustrating, especially when the trap throws so much at you so quickly that death on the first go through (and the second, and sometimes the third) is almost guaranteed. I remember one scene early on where I jumped over a fence and was hit by a flood of smaller robots, then some bigger robots, then some smaller robots again, all while a set of robots high above on a catwalk with good cover sniped at me – it took me half a dozen tries to even realize that I was being sniped at. This kind of thing surpasses frenetic action and morphs into desperation, and I found myself furiously backpedding as I tried to find choke points I could hold or strafing like mad hoping not to get stuck on some piece of the scenery. I would also find that setting off an explosive barrel or blowing up an electrical panel would sometimes set off a scenery chain reaction that would ultimately catch me in the blast. There are likely some who will disagree with me, but at times I found that Hard Reset simply had too much action going on.
There’s no multiplayer, no leaderboards, none of that jazz. At the end of each level you’re given an accounting of how many enemies you killed, how many times you died, how many of the secret stashes you found, how much damage you caused, and a score. The game doesn’t give you any indication of exactly how that score is calculated, so I have no idea what impact dying one less time or finding one more secret might have on that number. There’s nothing to do with that number other than have another go and try and improve on it, so perhaps I’m overthinking the whole thing.
I love a game that completely draws you into its world, something like a Dead Space or a Bioshock that creates a narrative so compelling that you’re almost not playing the game for the action, but for the story. Hard Reset is not that game. Hard Reset puts you on the streets of a splashy cyberpunk city, atmospherically lying somewhere between the Matrix and Blade Runner, a world of crumbling glass skyscrapers, and unleashes the enemy hoards. Strategy? Sneaking? Sniping? Not here. If it moves, blast it, and try like mad just to survive. For those of you looking for another Serious Sam, you will likely find that Hard Reset sort of fits that bill, but be prepared to die, often.