Despite sharing a camera perspective and the common goal of blasting dudes away, first-person shooter titles vary a lot. Quake is not the same as Red Orchestra, and Team Fortress has virtually nothing to do with Rainbow Six. However, since Call of Duty 4‘s massive success, the genre has grown a lot less diverse – or at least, the number of notes that me-too shooters crib from Call of Duty has increased to imitating the series wholesale. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the straightforward cinematic experience many modern shooters aim for, it’s a shame that other styles seem to have fallen by the wayside. Hard Reset is a throwback to classic PC shooters, an attempt to take the genre back to its roots and remind people that these games don’t need to have a scene where the main character almost dies after every mission.
It’s certainly not wanting for pedigree, either: Hard Reset‘s developer, Flying Wild Hog, is made up of ex The Witcher and Painkiller staff, people who know their way around making a PC game. Everything about the game’s presentation makes use of the platform: the texture resolution is incredibly high, bits of debris fly everywhere during combat, and there are even in-game interfaces that can be used without entering a separate screen, much like the computer terminals in Doom 3. Hard Reset takes advantage of its platform, and people with high-spec computers will be well rewarded. The art direction certainly helps the visuals pop, too – Hard Reset takes place in a cyberpunk distopia reminiscent of Blade Runner, where dull grey urban environments are covered up by garish neon colors wherever possible. The menagerie of enemies are a bizarre bunch of clockwork monsters, ranging from scrappy little robots to disgusting cyborg hybrids.
However, Hard Reset is not quite an early 90’s shooter with a new coat of paint. For the most part, the game involves running towards an objective and shooting everything in the way, but the level design is fairly cramped, and dare I say it: contemporary. Most missions are a straight shot, which, given how old-school PC shooter the game feels in other places, is a bit disappointing. There are open areas that serve as arenas for magnificent giant fights, but most of Hard Reset is spent being funneled through alleys and hallways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but people coming into the game giddy about the idea of returning to classic shooter mechanics will notice the decidedly straightforward level design. There are plenty of distractions like hidden secrets and the sheer amount of stuff on screen at once, but strip away the neon lights and debris littering the streets and the simplicity of it all is quite apparent. This doesn’t mean Hard Reset is bad, though – far from it. While the game does consist of running in a fairly straight line, shooting all the guys in your way is a ton of fun.
Hard Reset technically only features two guns: a machine gun and a plasma launcher. These can both be upgraded to sport different firing modes that check all of the classic shooter arsenal boxes (shotgun? Grenade launcher? All here) and add some more inventive options too, like electric mortars. Upgrades are purchased with N.O.V.A, which serves as a form of experience points – find enough N.O.V.A, earn an upgrade point, etc. Hard Reset‘s two guns begin to feel like a full anti-robot Swiss Army knife after just a few upgrades. The combat is loud and satisfying, and there are environmental hazards like gas cans and electrical terminals everywhere, allowing for some fun strategic kiting and strafing in the bigger arena battles. It’s incredibly easy to get blown up seemingly at random in tighter corridors, so scanning the environment for anything that might explode is a good habit to get into before attempting to mow enemy robots down with a machine gun.
By this point, it should be mentioned that Hard Reset has a plot… ish. It’s paper-thin, and is essentially reduced to loading screen cutscenes (which, to be fair, have an awesome comic book feel to them). Characters will occasionally pop up on the screen to remind you of your objective. For the most part, the logic of each level requires no explanation. Every minor puzzle or backtracking segment serves as a way to open the way forward, and secret areas contain health and N.O.V.A, not story tidbits. The plot threads will take you through lots of gorgeous locales, although it does end rather abruptly after only a half-dozen hours or so. The simple level design really does begin to wear thin after a while, though, so maybe the short experience is justified – without a strong narrative or a radical shift in level layout, the whole thing starts to become a bit of a blur.
Shooting robots in Hard Reset is a damn good time, and the whole thing looks incredible. However, for all of its dedicated PC pedigree, it’s an oddly slim experience in some ways. It’s a wonderful touch when a score screen pops up at the end of a level instead of a cutscene where you fall out of a helicopter, but at the same time, the levels aren’t as labyrinthine as Duke Nukem 3D‘s or Blood‘s. There’s a classic health bar that requires pickups to fill, but the game still puts an ugly red veiny filter over the action when the player is taking damage. These are oddly modern conventions for a game that otherwise harkens back to a different kind of first person shooter. In the end, though, they don’t hurt the game dramatically – and if there’s one modern shooter convention Hard Reset needs to follow, it’s the release of a sequel.