Here’s an FPS which lives up to its name, if nothing else. It is indeed hard, and, in being so unforgiving, the messy drudgery of its combat and cheap instant deaths often see you blasted back to the last checkpoint. If only they had called it Rewarding Progress and extrapolated the design from there.
In the future, the robots have gone bad. So you have to kill them, while pressing any buttons that are green. Comic-book cutscenes gibber about nanotechnology and AIs and corporations and mercenaries who say "fuck” a lot for no clear reason, but it’s no more a narrative than listening to the inebriated cast of Jersey Shore try to recount the plot of The Matrix.
Despite this, Flying Wild Hog’s artists and technologists have built a dystopian world that, if not original in conception, is a fabrication of solidity and occasional beauty. As you trundle beneath the obligatory neon-strung, advertising blimps of downtown, through the murky flickering coils of the subway and onwards to the world’s least sanitary hospital, you may see little that other fictions haven’t already depicted, but it's well-crafted and testament to a talent that is done a disservice by the inchoate plot and tiresome, cruel action.
With the story all but written off, this should be game of combat mechanics, revelling in the explosive potential of its toolbox arsenal. But the gunplay proves little more coherent. The idea is to detonate the environment, setting off explosive canisters or triggering arcs of electricity to fry the circuits of advancing robots. Every setting is crammed with potential pyrotechnic carnage for you to unleash with a judicious round or two. Firing directly upon your foes, meanwhile, feels as deadly as pelting them with dried lentils.
Nonetheless, as your first victim spasms in an electric field, you think the system might just work. But it quickly becomes rigmarole, and the need to lure enemies to their deaths enforces constant back-pedalling, catching on invisible walls and jutting bits of scenery as you retreat. The propensity for the environment to explode also means you're liable to be detonated by your own fire, and enemies’ dying blasts will likely take you with them, too. When alive, they're lethal, too, with each wave of scuttling robots devolving into a disempowering melee. Victories here are panicky and arbitrary, and failures many.
Your two guns - a rifle and a hoopy-looking plasma pistol - are upgraded to enable multiple modes, essentially extending your arsenal. But it barely helps: there is simply no space in this game’s mayhem for a slow-firing power shot with a long reload. Stasis grenades, meanwhile, emit a field that lasts only as long as it takes to switch to a more useful firing mode - a command which doesn’t always take first time, either.
As well as gamely tossing you on to difficulty spikes, at some point Hard Reset decides that you should experience other forms of instant death, and drops you down lift shafts, punts you off cliffs (where elsewhere the game rigidly enforces your route with invisible walls), or squishes you beneath a robot that is like all the other robots except for being, in this scripted instance, invincible. Pray that the last checkpoint wasn’t on the other side of a unnecessarily long and arduous battle. Oh and best not mention the boss encounters.
You can see things worth admiring here. The promise of sandbox combat emerging from the interplay between environment and gun-modes never comes good, instead devolving into a repetitive, gruelling bedlam - but that promise alone is more than many shooters offer. To make anything of it, however, Hard Reset would need to go right back to the drawing board.