We've recently had the chance to play a preview version of Hunter: The Reckoning, Interplay's upcoming third-person action game based on White Wolf's latest pen-and-paper RPG, which is set in the imaginary World of Darkness. Fans of the popular, alternate modern-day setting will find that Hunter shares the same grim, gothic-punk style as that of pen-and-paper World of Darkness RPGs. As the introduction states, the World of Darkness is under direct assault by forces of evil that dwell unseen just beyond man's unknowing eyes. Authorities disguise the predatory assaults of vampires as random acts of violence, while werewolf attacks are explained by the media as animal maulings. Much like the horrors in other well-known zombie and vampire stories, the horrors in the World of Darkness have a distinct advantage--their existence can't be proven by those who hunt them, so the hunter is almost always seen as homicidal or criminally insane.
While still the overwhelming underdogs, hunters have been gifted by mysterious messengers with powers to help them in fighting evil and rely upon each other for support against their seemingly unstoppable foes. In Hunter: The Reckoning, a small group of hunters have for various reasons answered the call, and they hope to cleanse the town of Ashcroft of its current infestation by severing the menace at its source. Not alone in the world, the hunters can rely on their brethren for advice. These brethren communicate through the Internet, or, more specifically, HunterNet. You can access brightly colored glyphs and computer terminals throughout the game, which impart, along with a dial-up noise, useful tips and information in the guise of important messages from some of the storyline's notable characters. In the role of one of the chosen heroes, you must heed the advice presented by your friends on HunterNet, save innocent bystanders, and complete other righteous tasks to gain experience while proceeding toward the game's final foe.
High Voltage, the game's developer, has decided that to properly handle a popular license in a video game, it would have to work well within the boundaries of the source material--and so far, its adaptations of the White Wolf trademarks appear dead-on. The character and enemy models, which are used in the game's in-engine cinematic sequences, are composed of a great many polygons and look great under close inspection, thanks to the impressive shading and highlighting effects. Hunter nicely maintains a steady frame rate at about 30 frames per second, with multiple effects, enemies, and characters onscreen at once, and the final release should generally be running at a full 60fps after it has gone through optimization. The game's huge levels take place on a variety of environments, including abandoned streets and other dingier locales, and they're built around sharp, realistic designs and nicely detailed textures. Still, they remain suitably bleak in a washed-out and lifeless way. Giving the game much of its horror movie ambiance is its motion-captured animation--for the heroes and enemies, it adds much to the game's ability to let a player suspend disbelief and become immersed in the game's setting. Zombies walk in a very fitting, drag-shuffle-drag sort of way, which nicely complements their amusing death animations. Nail a zombie at point blank, and you might take off an arm or even a head. Repeated strikes will put down the undead for good, of course. The strong kick of a shotgun blast might send one of the creeping dead into an almost televised wrestling-style backflip intended to emphasize the strength of the blow. A well-aimed sword blow may even cleave the torso right off a nightwalker, and watching a pair of legs continue to slowly chase after you is quite entertaining. Capturing the other, more modern aspects of the World of Darkness' feel are the young raver victims of Ashcroft and the other present-day references and plot devices strewn throughout the game.
In addition to the visual atmosphere, music and sound will play a large part of the Hunter experience. Industrial goth rockers Coma provide their track "Numb" to the Hunter repertoire, and the game fittingly pumps hard, guitar-laden riffs when the action gets intense. The sound of a shotgun being reloaded and fired is highly gratifying, and the various subtle audible effects that have been implemented imply that the sound production is being set up against Interplay's impressive track record. While we haven't been able to identify the voice talents that bring the characters to life during the cutscenes, they seem like quite a capable cast. The music otherwise seems to be composed of dark and moody tracks, but the audio features of the current beta build weren't yet finalized.
Hunter: The Reckoning controls fairly well for a third-person action game, allowing your character a variety of moves to experiment with. You fire your currently equipped weapon with the right trigger and jump or roll with the left. Repeated attacks can in fact be quite physically tiring, considering the number of bullets you'll need to be constantly spraying. Changing between alternate weapons and special attacks is performed with the face buttons, while the left and right analog sticks control movement and strafing. Much like in Smash TV, characters in Hunter can move and fire independently, allowing for simple circle-strafe maneuvers and other such techniques. However, what Hunter: The Reckoning most resembles is the Gauntlet series, albeit with an alternate, non-sword-and-sorcery setting. The action is almost entirely combat oriented, with few puzzles to deal with, and those that do appear are largely of the objective accumulation variety. Some monsters will drop keys to locked doors, while other areas challenge you to save a certain number of innocents. What Hunter: The Reckoning boils down to is large, exciting battles with tons of monsters onscreen at once and plenty of gunplay. For the most part, enemies individually offer little challenge, but swarms of them repeatedly spawning will always make things interesting.
Much like in the original Gauntlet, there are four playable characters in Hunter: The Reckoning, each a modern-day translation of a standard archetype and each possessing individual statistics, melee and ranged weaponry and edges--the hunters' special magical attacks. Spenser "Deuce" Wyatt, the avenger, is the hard-nosed biker who wears jeans, leather, and a bright red bandanna. He fights with a powerful ax in hand and can deal out quite a bit of damage, adhering nicely to the warrior image. Samantha Alexander, the defender and former police officer, is an interesting character, as she wears a very nondescript outfit--a red sweater, none too flashy--but she makes use of a katana against her close-range foes. Her service revolver can be put to excellent use as well, and her abilities are balanced overall, like those of the Valkyrie. The trendy young martyr, Kassandra Cheyung, is one of the more eye-catching characters--dressed in platform shoes and an ultrashort miniskirt and boasting brightly colored spiky hair, she looks more ready to go to a rave than fight off evil. Her high speed makes her twin pistols and knives effective weaponry, and fans of Questor the elf should take a liking to her. The judge fits into quite a number of stereotypes that have been established for zombie and vampire killing stories--Father Cortez is a priest who fights off evil in his leather duster, armed with his crossbow, holy cross-shaped sword, and faith. The judge's edges are particularly effective, allowing him to freeze his enemies in a temporary stasis of judgment or extinguish their un-lives with a ray of light--he's a modern-day wizard in every respect. Each of the four characters has a distinct personality that comes through both visually and in the markedly different way in which they play.
The quartet's proprietary missile weapons are mildly effective but will often be used thanks to their infinite ammunition stockpile. Against foes who are particularly tough or even invulnerable against ranged threats, the hunters' melee weapons prove invaluable. Picking up weapons that are found throughout each of the levels, both in plain sight and secretly tucked away, can also expand upon the hunters' arsenal. The variety of weapons is quite impressive--using machine gun ammo are both the SMG and M-16, while shotgun shells work in both the twin-shot pump-action shotgun and its more powerful automatic counterpart. Flamethrowers can be used to set enemies ablaze, while chainsaws can rend zombie flesh to stunning effect, complete with animations that emulate Leatherface's classic horse-powered movements.
While the hunters are well equipped to combat their enemies, the task at hand remains a challenging one when the opposition is taken into consideration. The traditional hunter foes have been included, such as rots, shamblers (different types of zombies), and of course, vampires. While many of the zombies in Hunter look nearly identical to one another and for some reason appear out of thin air, spawning from mist, they are far more formidable than those in many other games, as they are capable of equipping a variety of armaments--such as pistols, shotguns, and flamethrowers. Other lesser-known threats will also be encountered, such as ravenous flesh hounds, animate stone gargoyles, and of course, large mutated gross things with awkward-looking appendages.
Cooperative play modes are rare enough in games today, but up to four players will be able to complete Hunter's missions together. As with its spiritual predecessor, there are no split-screens in Hunter: The Reckoning--all four characters appear onscreen at once, with the camera striving to keep up. For those with a desire for greater difficulty or to more accurately simulate realistic combat, friendly fire can be set to indicate player-vs.-player hits or even to deal full team damage. In true RPG fashion, leveling the characters in the single-player mode for future use should also be quite satisfying--experienced characters can take and dish out more damage, move faster, and have more powerful edges. With 23 hack-and-blast levels and a variety of character types and difficulty settings to choose from, Hunter: The Reckoning should be one of the most substantial action game offerings available in the near future.
The beta version of Hunter: The Reckoning we played was relatively early, and while it did have substantial stability, camera, and audio issues, it was quite playable and gave an exciting indication of what's in store. Fans of visceral action-driven games should be looking forward to Hunter, as it will fill a niche that the Xbox's current lineup hasn't filled. If the four-player cooperative game can maintain a steady frame rate, then Hunter may be one of the most promising multiplayer games in the Xbox's immediate future. Check out our screenshots of Hunter: The Reckoning and stay tuned for more as it approaches its upcoming release in March.