Hazard Ops is the latest free-to-play third person shooter to hit the world of PC gaming, developed by Yingpei Games (previously Epic Games China) and running on the ever-resilient Unreal Engine. It’s currently in beta testing here in Europe through EU publisher Infernum.
Set in the 21st Century, the game pits a money grabbing power house called the IMSA against another alphabet organisation dubbed the ICF. We have to assume the latter faction are the good guys, because they are trying to thwart the IMSA. The two military factions are now in charge of global security which, to be honest, sounds like a pretty terrible idea. Who signed off on that legislation?
Anyway, these background details aren’t terribly relevant yet as the game is in closed beta testing and the main focus is the co-op mode.
As Hazard Ops is a free-to-play game, that means there’s grindy progression for characters and the obligatory shop where all kinds of equipment is up for grabs. Said equipment can be acquired by either (guess what?) parting with cash, or by playing the game an awful lot to access the extras. It’s not clear at this stage how the inclusion of a shop for better weapons or gear will affect the overall experience, but it’s always worth keeping in mind.
Character creation involves a customisation screen which is currently quite simplistic, with only a few options to mess with. Gender, a few items of clothing and some terrible looking hairstyles are about the extent of your choices. None of the JRPG-esque hairstyle selections are likely to catch on in a big way, except with the boy band niche who are probably sporting one of these cuts already. But enough Heat magazine critiques: the main objective here is to shoot stuff.
A typical training mission teaches you how to shoot at static targets, throw grenades and heal your fellow soldiers. Once that’s out the way, it’s into the action.
With the focus on co-op play in this beta test, there’s a lobby with lists of games for you to drop in on. Not all are available at the start however, because players have to level up to take on the harder difficulties. There are enough new players to get into a game fairly easily, but to make the leap to trickier missions you need to get a fair few games under your belt.
Each game is set on a different scenario map with locations varying from a snowy base map, abandoned village, the obligatory freight terminal, and even a spooky asylum level.
The big selling point of Hazard Ops are the foes themselves. More often than not in shooters like these, the humble soldier is the enemy of choice. In this game, they at least throw you up against just about every clichéd opposition grunt to ever appear in a videogame. Robotic warriors, gargantuan spider bosses, mummies, and of course the obligatory zombies (they had to be in there somewhere, didn’t they?) One minute you can be playing a map against cyborg soldiers, in the next it’s time to blast some zombies.
Each map is structured, as they so often are, around waves. When a wave of monsters is wiped out, the level expands and more routes open up. Naturally, this also means even more monsters to take down. When you first start playing a level you’re not quite sure what will happen next. A floor may drop away from under you, or walls may come clanging down around you and your team mates. First time through, these map surprises play out like a story, though once it’s done you do know what to expect next time.
During battle, monsters will drop numerous weapons such as rocket launchers, flame throwers, and shotguns, all of which can be picked up and utilised by the player as a bonus weapon. Ammo for all weapons is limited and must be replenished from crates (which in turn required points in order to open them.) These important points are accrued by killing the enemy. Ultimately, this means players need to keep on killing to survive.
Some levels contain barred windows which the enemy can burst through. Holding the enemy back with these barriers at the end of an attack wave can buy you and your team time, so it’s advisable to get these repaired with the trusty wrench carried by each character before the next assault begins.
Hazard Ops also has a reasonably well executed cover mechanic, allowing players to duck behind boxes and take cover in doorways. Most of the time the waves come thick and fast and there’s little time to find cover, but it’s included if that’s the way you like to play a third person shooter. Using cover is probably more useful if you have passion for sniping or find yourself pinned down.
The conclusion of the standard mob waves can result in a really hard boss fight, during which the team will go toe to toe with some hideous monstrosity. Doctor Death is a personal favourite, as he has a tendency to pick players up and chainsaw them in half. Not a very pleasant chap, but you have to respect that dedication to anatomical study.
To inject some further variety in-game, power-ups appear too. There’s everything from more currency, speed boosts, and increased damage to improve performance. Any player in the team can gather them, but I haven’t yet experienced players dashing for the power-ups at the expense of their team mates. Shocking as it may sound, everyone I played with appeared to want to work as a team.
Surviving each wave is the ultimate goal, so players tend to want to stick together and make it through the finale in order to gain any bonuses at the end of the level. That reward incentive seems to be making players work together, which is a fairly positive sign for any co-operative mode.
It’s not easy to bring anything new to the third-person shooter genre, but Hazard Ops is certainly a little unusual. While the concept of levels that are so diverse may not appeal to everyone, the game is at least attempting to bring together over the top shooter action and a mix of different (if familiar) enemies.
This weekend I had the choice of playing Battlefield: Hardline or Hazard Ops and to my surprise I actually had more fun in the latter. There are a couple more beta weekends to go, after which I assume Infernum will launch an open beta test. How the finished game will turn out remains to be seen, but it’s enjoyable enough in co-op. Definitely worth your attention while the testing continues.