Hard Reset (PC) review
"Hard Reset isn't quite able to live up to the high standards of mayhem set by Serious Sam and Painkiller, but it gets enough right to be a lot of wrist-snapping fun."
Hard Reset is a game out of time. It eschews the most popular tropes of modern shooters, like cover and regenerating health, in favor of non-stop, balls-out action in the style of Painkiller and Serious Sam. And although it isn't quite able to live up to the high standards of mayhem set by those two great games, it gets enough right to be a lot of wrist-snapping fun.
Hard Reset is built around the well-used but still intriguing premise of the decline of humanity in the face of a machine onslaught. The last human city of Bezoar, a teeming, technologically-advanced metropolis, is turned into a bloody battleground when hordes of murderous robots somehow manage to breach the defensive perimeter and go on a rampage, killing dozens of humans. That's when you get involved: as Major Fletcher, a hard drinking renegade with a talent for de-rezzing everything he sees, you're sent in to discover what's going on and clean up the mess.
If the setup sounds very Matrix-like, the look and feel of Bezoar is pure Blade Runner. It's a dirty, grimy world in which futuristic technology is laid over a base of architecture that wouldn't look out of place in the mid-20th century, and the effect, especially in the early going, is striking. You can almost believe that you're wandering through an old city that's been dragged, sometimes roughly, into the new age.
And then the bullets start flying, and it all falls apart.
Not the game; Hard Reset is a thoroughly competent if somewhat quirky shooter that keeps the action hot and heavy from start to finish. But the game world, which appears to hold so much promise at first glance, is quickly revealed to be as thin as it is pretty. Aside from the alarmingly explosive panels, consoles and generic electronica that litter nearly every inch of Bezoar, it's almost entirely non-interactive. You can look but you can't touch, except in the rare instances when you're required to flick a switch to deactivate a forcefield or raise a forklift in order to open up the next section of a level. And despite being set in a sprawling city, the game's levels are tightly straightjacketed into a very linear progression of encounters. Some locations are large and open, the sort of FPS arenas for which circle-strafing was born, but most of it is fairly tight and corridorrific and you'll move through it all in precisely the order the game tells you.
You'll also notice, as you traipse through Bezoar, that despite being the last remaining stronghold of humanity, it's entirely devoid of humans. There are none. Even the opening massacre is depicted entirely in cutscenes; not a single bullet will penetrate flesh and bone, which I suppose may help make the game a little more palatable for uptight parents more concerned with the letter of the law than its spirit, but the truth is that the absence of blood, bodies and the visceral thrill that comes from killing as opposed to merely destroying takes a little bit of the edge off. That may say more about me than it does about the game but even so, there's still a powerful emptiness to the world that lame explanations about people staying off the streets to avoid being attacked by machines just can't overcome.
Speaking of weak rationalizations, the "plot" in Hard Reset transcends the usual paper-thin excuses for wasting hordes of bad guys as not just inconsequential but absolutely incomprehensible. It's odd, because a substantial amount of effort was put into telling the tale via some very gritty, graphic novel-style interludes, but it starts to go sideways pretty quickly and by the time the inevitable, obvious plot twist lands, it's completely off the rails. I'm not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that I have no idea what the hell happened after about the middle of the game, and I'm kind of a stickler for following stories even when they're irrelevant. Maybe something was lost in the translation - Flying Wild Hog, the studio responsible for the game, is Polish - or maybe it's some kind of bizarre in-joke, or maybe it's just that bad; whatever the case, there's absolutely no sense to be made of it.
Even the obvious end-game fight isn't the end of the game, and when the end does arrive a little while later it's very sudden and entirely unexpected. It left me feeling as though some kind of strange Eastern European joke was being played on North American gamers, although I couldn't quite put my finger on the punchline.
And yet, for all of Hard Reset's many flaws and all my complaining about them, one inescapable fact remains: I had a ton of fun with it.
Its imperfections are numerous and undeniable, but they also tend to be the sorts of things that don't necessarily have a big impact on the core experience of a pure, old-school shooter. Let's take a moment to think of another FPS that served up a ridiculous story, pretty but empty levels and no interactivity beyond a few door switches. It was called Doom - you might have heard of it - and although I'm in no way suggesting that Hard Reset is the next Doom, they both do what they do very well, in large part because they don't do anything to distract from the central experience of shooting the hell out of everything that moves.
Weapons come in two flavors, energy and ballistic, with each type broken down further into the fairly conventional machine-gun/shotgun/grenade launcher/RPG on one side, and plasma rifle/railgun/electroshock group therapy thing on the other. They sound mean, they feel heavy and they hit hard, and best of all, every gun stays viable over the entire game. Even as the end approached, I often found myself using the entry-level weapons for crowd control while switching to the more advanced hardware to take on the heavy hitters. And crowd control is vital, believe me, because this game is all about hordes. You'll never be startled by a lone enemy leaping out at you from a darkened corner, but a dozen of them? Yeah. That happens.
Assisting in the crowd control department is the incredibly pyrotechnic environment, which is packed full of various equipment that overloads and explodes at the drop of a hat. These explosions and the occasional power surges that result can be incredibly handy when you need to cut enemy numbers in a hurry, and while the idea that the world is quite so ready to blow up even in a game as over-the-top as this one is patently silly, nobody's likely to spend too much time worrying about it because it's not only useful, it's also, no pun intended, a blast. It's a natural extension of the game's "runaway destruction" motif: blowing things up is fun, so here's more things to blow up.
The latest update to the game tweaks various aspects of gameplay and squashes a few bugs, but more significantly adds a brand-new "Survival Mode," available at any difficulty level, that pits players against successive waves of robots with no goal but to survive for as long as possible. Full support for Nvidia 3DVision and Surround audio have also been added, as has support for multiple displays and non-standard resolutions.
Hard Reset is a relatively short game, but that actually works in its favor. Repetition is unavoidable, so drawing to a close after less than a half-dozen hours helps ensure that it doesn't wear out its welcome. Even so, it's probably not something most gamers will want to play for hours on end. But if you're a shooter fan, you will want to play it; it looks great, sounds great and brings action by the buckets. Don't think, just shoot; that's the Hard Reset way. Stick to that plan and you'll have yourself a pretty good time.
Freelance review by Andy Chalk (December 20, 2011)
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