I think Hard Reset is what would happen if I rubbed a lamp, wished for a game and then the genie took advantage of loopholes in my wording to screw me over. It’s a gorgeous-looking, single-player only, PC-exclusive, old-school first-person shooter with a few interesting mechanics, some excellent weapons, plenty of secret areas to find, and hordes of robotic enemies to dismantle in a variety of amusing ways.
It’s also not without some significant faults. Bloody genies.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the game, I want to hold aloft the engine as an object deserving of the highest praise. Now, I’ve said before that my PC is not the most cutting-edge of devices – I mean, hell, I have to shovel coal into it every few hours. Regardless: Hard Reset is an astonishingly beautiful game that runs with practiced ease even on my computer, and (as the screenshots show) looks good doing it. It even Alt-Tabs safely. I know! I’m amazed too!
The game looks fantastic. Part of it’s down to the art-style; a melange of Blade Runner/cyberpunk/dystopian future-chic, complete with World War 2-style propaganda posters about the dangers of hacking. Neon lights illuminate the crumbling, rain-spattered, graffiti-stained brickwork; huge electronic billboards dominate the skyline; electronic terminals spew out holographic adverts and ask you to buy, buy, buy. It’s beautiful, and the superb lighting and particle effects only add to it. It’s probably the closest first-person gaming has come to letting you explore Los Angeles circa 2019 (assuming Blade Runner got it right).
Not that Hard Reset is set in Los Angeles. The setting is Bezoar, one of the last remaining human cities, and it’s constantly under attack by robots that desperately want to feast on the Sanctuary – a sort of network of digitised human minds. The player character, Major Fletcher, is a disillusioned soldier for the shadowy Corporation, and he’s the one who goes in guns blazing when robots get into the city at the start of the game.
Sounds fairly promising, doesn’t it? Well, er… the best thing I can honestly say about the story is that it’s there. It’s told with astonishing style through motion comics that mark the start of each chapter, but it’s entirely throw-away, rarely bears much resemblance to what you’re doing, and makes very little sense. At all. There’s also one other little problem with it, but we’ll get to that a bit later.
Still! All of this, really, is just a backdrop to the pleasantly solid shooty-bang-bang action. Much as Hard Reset is a throwback to older FPS titles it’s not a parody like Serious Sam, nor is it quite as intense. While your robotic foes assail you in hurried waves the pace is a little less frantic and a little more measured, and the title honestly reminds me more of the earlier Quake games than it does the constant, fast-moving action of Sam.
It’s also hard as coffin nails. Hard Reset has four difficulty levels, ranging from Easy to Insane, but even Normal will provide a solid challenge to experienced gamers. This is a Good Thing, to my mind; I enjoy a fair challenge, and I respect that the devs know their target audience well enough to make Normal a difficulty level that actually deserves to be called a “difficulty” level.
Hampering my goodwill is the bone-headed decision to use checkpoints instead of adding a save-anywhere mechanic, which is only a good idea if the checkpoints are sensibly placed. These are not. They’re usually fine, but all too often a checkpoint will be placed far too far back. I ragequit on several occasions because the prospect of repeating a few minutes of walking, switch-flicking, and enemy-blasting just to get back to the point where I almost instantly died three sodding times was simply too depressing to endure.
It’s not even an issue of wanting the player to marshal their health and ammo reserves; if you survive a fight, chances are good that you’ll find enough medkits and ammo packs that you’ll be in top condition before the next one, which makes me wonder why the hell there wasn’t a checkpoint in between. I can’t think of any word for it but bloody-minded.
Still, at least the shooting’s decent. You have two guns, one material-based and one energy-based, each of which has five very different forms that can be unlocked through a choose-your-own-upgrade system as the game goes on. You can also spend your sporadic upgrade points (acquired by killing enemies or finding canisters, usually tucked away in secret areas that might require some light platforming or some crumbling walls to be blasted open) on tremendously useful secondary fire modes, further upgrades to guns, or more personal bits and bobs like higher maximum health.
But the guns! Oh, the guns. Your basic assault rifle can shift into a shotgun, a grenade launcher, a rocket launcher, or a proximity-mine sprayer. The energy gun has far more interesting applications. It starts out as a rather dull rapid-fire plasma gun but can shift into a railgun, an electric mortar, a “blaster” that shoots out arcing bolts of electricity (resembling a hilarious weaponised plasma globe) and a smartgun which can not only lock onto enemies but can see – and shoot homing projectiles – through walls. It’s a wonderful toy, and because there’s no multiplayer there’s no real need to balance the weapons against each other. They’re all powerful, they’re all useful, and it’s pretty difficult to completely dick yourself over with poor choices.
Environments are hugely destructible, too. One fantastic setpiece takes place on a half-constructed rooftop, with pretty much every wall in sight having being torn down by stray rockets and rushing enemies by the time the dust settles. While bigger, charging, Gorilla-type enemies are stymied by walls and pillars, they won’t think twice about rushing through flimsier obstacles to get to you, sending debris flying. Most battlefields are littered with objects that cause destruction, too, be it explosive barrels or electronic devices that send out huge bolts of electricity when shot. These aren’t occasional things used in setpieces – they’re everywhere.
It’s just a bit of a shame that the foes don’t share the variety of the weapons. There are three or four types of smaller bots (that rush you), there are a couple of larger types (that rush you), and there are a couple of enemies that attack from a distance. That’s pretty much it, barring the bosses. Oh, and some of them get a late-game upgrade which makes them harder to kill. Not particularly exciting.
Although “late game” is a bit of a misnomer, too. Even taking into account the myriad deaths I suffered and the myriad times I had to walk back through sections I’d already done repeatedly thanks to the bloody checkpointing, Steam clocked my game completion at four hours. This is where the aforementioned story problem comes in: the game just ends, unceremoniously, at the point where it feels like it should be moving into high-gear for the last act.
I like Hard Reset. I just don’t like it nearly as much as I want to. For everything it does right (the weapons, the upgrade system, the action, the world design) it gets something wrong (the checkpoints, the enemy variation, the length – or lack thereof). I’d thoroughly enjoy the experience for a 20-minute stretch, and then something would make my blood boil, and that frustration is really what I took away from this. It’s a game that’s much, much easier to complain about than it is to praise because it comes so close to true greatness, and then it annoys the hell out of you.
For once, I think the experience can be summed up by the main menu. It’s very pretty. It also has a transitional animation, in between sub-menus, that lasts four seconds. Want to change your graphical settings, then load an old game? You’re going to spend about thirty seconds just watching a transitional animation repeat. Pretty, functional, and then hopelessly irritating for no good reason: that’s Hard Reset.