Demo Driver 8: Hard Reset

Yes, that's for you.  You know who you are.

Robot rocked.

Let’s start this real simple-like: Hard Reset is what Serious Sam wanted to be.

I wasn’t too fond of Serious Sam, partly because my love of old-school FPS games is strongly tempered by the fact that I do not have a love of old-school FPS games.  I acknowledge them, sure, and I had fun with Doom and Marathon back in the day, but that love faded fast and can now be found only in a handful of things here and there.  But also because it was, well, kind of boring.

By contrast, Hard Reset‘s demo makes it very clear that it understands why these games worked and what parts were vital.  It is by no means flawless, and it has things that others have pointed out as being kind of odd hiccups in the whole “relentlessly old-school FPS” layout, but it is clearly hitting the notes it wants to.  Heck, I was enjoying it quite a bit, and I’m not even the target audience.

I assume, anyway.

“Hello, you’re probably wondering if I’m a metaphor for humanity’s over-reaching zeal for perfection and a disconnect between the physical and the mental. Turns out I’m actually just a bullet sponge.”

The game’s plot is unimportant.  “I am Shooterguy Manheap, living in Cyberpunk City.”  They even call the faceless corporation that will inevitably turn out to be evil “the Corporation,” neglecting to even put the minimal effort in that you would expect for this sort of thing.  While the game calls itself cyberpunk, it seems far more happy treading on the surface elements rather than getting at the meat of that genre, aping the neon skyscrapers and grimy alleys without bothering to jack into the sense of oppressive dread or helplessness, the methodical shifting of human beings to tools, the subtle knife of capitalist greed carving away at you until you’re just another cog – or deflecting you to the dark corners of cruel brutality in the streets.

Look-wise, though, it nails it.  Streets are lined with garbage, ramshackle mechanisms, and neon kiosks screaming for attention without the vaguest hint of self-awareness.  There’s a hard-edged heft to the world around the game, made all the more tangible with the two shifting weapons that you wield.

Yes, two.  There’s an electrical discharge weapon and a more conventional weapon, both of which then allow you to swap between various add-ons to produce the usual array of grenade launchers, shotguns, and so on.  I cannot say if there’s a very decisive difference between the two core weapons from the demo alone, perhaps something becomes very obvious further on down the line – at a glance, they have the same functional upgrades, but maybe there’s a key element that makes one better than the other at times.

All of that is secondary to the actual gameplay, and this is where the game shows its roots.  There is checkpoint saving rather than old-school quicksaves, and weapons are unlocked through upgrades rather than by finding them lying about, but you still find yourself herded into an arena with gun in hand and told to open up on a relentless stream of enemies.  No reloading here, just an ammo counter steadily decreasing, and when it’s out, so are you, without so much as a kick to dispatch a lingering enemy.

The whole thing is tuned just right, though.  The challenge comes not from trying to do bullet-dancing in first person but in having the reaction time necessary to mow down enemies before you’re in danger and making the most of your environment.  Your ammo counter goes high enough that you never feel like you can’t afford to miss, but not so high that you can just spray bullets and hope for a win.  And carefully using different modes makes a big difference, as does hitting environmental elements to provoke showers of electricity arcing into robots.

Well, when you're good at one trick.

Come for the shooting of robots, stay for… actually, more shooting of robots. That’s our thing. Robots and shooting.

During these sequences, the game sings.  Mostly.  It does have an obnoxious problem with not allowing you to swap weapons whilst you have projectiles on screen, which makes a certain amount of sense but also makes mixing weapons rather tricky in the middle of, you know, a firefight.  It also prevents you from using things like the grenade launcher to their full potential.  Instead of being a tool you can use to lob explosive death followed by a stream of lead to force enemies back, it’s just a weapon with a lead time before it explodes.  Bit of a missed chance there.

But the actual shooting is solid and balanced, and the enemies you’re shooting are both distinct from the arenas and feel meaty enough.  The one downside is that it’s hard to tell if you’re having much effect on some of the larger enemies, as they can soak up a lot of bullets and don’t flinch or anything.  I suppose a flinching death-bot would look odd, but it would at least help reassure me that my bullets were having an effect of some sort, yes?

And, naturally, there are various hidden alcoves and such with more ammo, more health, and more upgrade items to be grabbed.  The upgrades in general are oddly more modern than the rest of the game, marking it less as a relentlessly old-school experience and more as a game that’s aware of what it can do whilst not discarding genuine improvements.  You know, the way retro games so rarely do.

I suppose that’s also what keeps me so enraptured by it.  Yes, it is clearly a student of older game design, but it’s a student with an eye toward what has been made better over time.  Rather than looking back with a wistful eye and the assumption that shooters used to be better, it’s an appeal to a certain playstyle wrapped in many of the sensibilities you’d expect from more modern play.  It doesn’t manage it perfectly, but it does capture that joy of being a walking weapon and mowing down waves of targets while acknowledging that not everything from before was uniformly brilliant.

It’s got some rough patches here and there, but by and large Hard Reset is a worthy purchase if you want to take on a core of old-school shooting wrapped in a thin cyberpunk-ish shell.  It aims for that, and it hits the mark fairly well; the missteps I’m willing to accept more as part of the target than anything.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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