Interplay makes their Xbox debut with a bang...
Interplay has been synonymous with fantastic RPG titles for the PC. They've even published a good shooter now and then (Descent). Interplay decided to combine with White Wolf Publishing (Vampire: The Masquerade) and High Voltage Software (NBA Inside Drive) to develop an incredibly fun game for the Xbox called Hunter: The Reckoning.
Many game players will be very intrigued by the subject matter and the game's "Mature" rating--it definitely sucked me in. Fortunately the gameplay is there as well to keep you coming back.
The back story behind Hunter is this: Vampires are controlling the prison in Ashcroft. These creatures are treating the inmates as experiments and killing them for their own pleasure. Said dead inmates then rose from the dead and lashed out at the living until the vampires quashed the uprising. At an execution there were four people witnessing the process: an 'avenger,' a 'defender,' a 'martyr,' and a priest. The execution released the evil spirits once again and now it's up to these four witnesses to save the town from these evil spirits--'you are the reckoning.'
Doesn't that sound cool? Well, it sure does play cool as well. At first glance, with the 4 player multiplayer options and hack-and-slash third person perspective, you may think you are playing Gauntlet. While I can certainly see the comparisons, this is certainly a much better presentation.
Each one of the four characters has unique attributes, called 'edges' which can help them save the town. An 'edge' requires a certain amount of conviction to perform and you can pick up conviction by killing more of the evil spirits or finding a special conviction glyph. Some of the edges include "ward" which is kind of like a shield for your character, and "cleave" which gives your weapon extra power. Unfortunately, each character has their edges predetermined--you can't select 'cleave' for the Defender character.
Basically, if you've played Diablo or Gauntlet, you'll be familiar with the gameplay--hack and slash everything in your sight. If you play a multiplayer game, you can turn friendly fire on or off, which can make for an exciting challenge with the zillions of monsters you'll have to fight.
What is a Holy @#$% game?
What differentiates Hunter from the other titles is the creativity in the weapons and monsters and something I like to call the 'oh (expletive)' factor. The 'oh (expletive)' factor is that 'oh my god' feeling when you see the amazing monsters scare the crap out of you in the game--and believe me they will. Whether it be a poison-breathing giant rat, an attack dog, or a giant vomiting teddy bear boss, you'll be impressed.
Also impressive are the graphics in this game--the frame rate is very smooth, even with all the action occurring on screen. Only at the final boss level did I notice any sort of slowdown (and I'm not going to ruin the surprise for you --you'll have to find out why).
You can lop off a creature's head or arm which causes blood to pour out all over the place. One of my personal favorite levels occurs in the sewer--your character is standing in knee deep water and you're using your sword or gas-powered chainsaw to kill the giant rats. The giant rats show signs of the attack and blood flows into the water. The effect is gorgeous (if you can say blood in the water is pretty) and really shows off the graphical capabilities of the console.
Unfortunately the camera angles aren't as good as I would like. You do not have control over the camera directly--you can zoom in and zoom out but you cannot rotate the camera, which can create some problems when fighting between buildings. Over the course of one week and many hours playing the game, the problem occurred maybe 3-4 times per game on various levels. It is definitely not a game-breaker, but it did affect my enjoyment of the game. I'm guessing they couldn't use transparent buildings because many items are hidden within, but it would have been so much better to see what I'm fighting against in those few seconds.
Hunter, best experienced while shouting catchy marketing slogans
I was impressed with the different characters reactions on various levels as well as the wide array of weapons. I would recommend watching The Running Man on DVD before playing this game with the chainsaw or flamethrower, because if you're like me, you'll be chanting your favorite Arnold lines when you pick up these weapons. Interestingly enough, the chainsaw is a 'special' weapon and runs on gas, unlike it being a 'basic' weapon in most shoot-em-up games.
There is definitely a bit of strategy needed to win this game. While there are 'glyphs' that help you recharge health, conviction, strength and accuracy, when you face a 'boss' you'll have to plan out your 'how to kill' strategy before going in headfirst. The AI is very good, but not 'too good' where they will always win. The game does use the 'strength in numbers' philosophy (i.e. you vs. 20 monsters at one time), but there's always a way for you to continue. Just in case you don't know how many baddies you've eliminated, the game does keep statistics. You also receive experience points which increase your attributes.
The level design is very good and you definitely get a feel for the horrible environment you're in. If you're in the church or the infirmary you'll know it. Each level poses it's own challenges-while one level makes you rescue 'innocents,' another will make you slash everyone in sight. Another level makes you rescue innocents within a specific amount of time, and yet another makes you responsible for the safe passage of a child from one point to another (the spirits go after the child rather than you in this level). There are over twenty levels in the game, and while you may get through them over the course of a long weekend, the replay value is still high as you can complete the game with other characters as well as in multiplayer mode.
Sound is very effective when it is used. The background music is very dark and the curdling screams of the spirits being attacked are indeed very pleasing to the ears when you're doing the chopping. I recommend you check out all the cut scenes in this game as they really enhance Hunter. For example, one of my biggest belly laughs came after defeating the Teddy Bear boss, where I was then told, "Don't take no **** from anybody's stuffed animal!" This game is just crying out for those "I just killed everyone" movie tag lines.
The start of something beautiful
This was one of the first games that I actually preferred the Xbox Controller S over the standard controller for playing. On the default setup, you'll be using the triggers quite a bit to jump and attack, and the Controller S seemed to ease the usual hand cramping that I get from playing these trigger-happy games.
Overall, while I did complete the game with one character rather quickly, I really enjoyed my experience with it--in fact, with all the challenges it presents, I would say it's the best game since Halo. Finishing the game does unlock a few extras and for one of the few times I can remember, I actually wanted to (and did) go back and play with different characters. Throw in some fantastic multiplayer action, and you'll be very happy with your purchase of this game. Hunter: The Reckoning is a very good start to what could be an Xbox franchise title.
Addendum: Since this review was originally posted, I have received a few emails asking about the difficulty levels. There is a special "nightmare" mode which is locked at the beginning of the game -- it is not selectable until you unlock it. That's the only option available--there is no 'easy/normal/hard' level select and the reason why it was placed in the 'what's not to like' section. The game supposedly scales difficulty depending on the number of players in the game.
Minimum System Requirements: Xbox