If you're into ridiculous, kill-it-if-it-moves PC shooters like Painkiller and Serious Sam, Hard Reset is the kind of game you want to love. Armed with crazy weapons and an itchy trigger finger, you shoot robots until they erupt in brilliant displays of fire and light. The game is a cyberpunk fireworks show, all glowing neon, sizzling streams of electricity, and gorgeous pyrotechnics. The enemies swarm about and you annihilate them, the battles interrupted only by a plot so abstract and nonsensical that its entire existence is wholly unnecessary. At its best, Hard Reset is an explosive and challenging blast, rewarding clever use of your weapons with a sense of hard-earned triumph. It falters, though, its challenge sometimes lapsing into cheapness. And if you play just once, you only get to play with a too-small fraction of the game's wonderful toys before you reach the abrupt conclusion. But overall, this budget-priced game is really fun--an old-fashioned shooter treated with a dazzling visual sheen that gives it a modern feel.
Just don't expect any proper context for the mayhem. Between levels, handsome hand-drawn panels try to tell a humans-versus-machines tale. Lines of dialogue such as "It will devastate the quantum entanglements, thus scrapping the matrix," like the entire story, take a lot of time to communicate absolutely nothing at all--or at least, nothing that make sense. And that's too bad because the setting screams for elaboration. Hard Reset's world nods to Blade Runner and its science fiction ilk. Shiny skyscrapers stretch into the heavens, their gleaming signs announcing such fictional corporations as World Strategy and SBNC World News. Grungy car parks and cluttered alleyways are defaced with graffiti. Sights like the rounded fenders and chrome details on abandoned vehicles give everything an art deco vibe. The pervasive darkness is pierced by phosphorescent lights and softened by that urban glow that lights the night skies above a large city.
Indeed, Hard Reset is a looker. It doesn't push your system with extravagant textures or vast environments, but it's loaded with architectural details and energized by the constant explosions and snazzy light shows that erupt amid the chaos. Graphics aren't everything, but in Hard Reset, watching giant robots detonate in a flash of sparks and metal shards generates much of the fun. Combat arenas are loaded with explosive barrels, generators, and other objects designed to go boom. One of your primary tactics, actually, is to aim not for your enemies but at the hazards surrounding them. Generators catch little bots in their electrical radius and zap them into bits. An electronic sculpture becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Hard Reset is a colorful circus of fire and lightning that makes you marvel at all the bright and shiny things dangling in front of your eyes.
At its core, Hard Reset doesn't do much that any other shooter hasn't done in the past decade. You move from shoot-out to shoot-out, occasionally stopping to press a button, ride an elevator, or jump across some beams. There aren't a whole lot of different enemies; little scurrying automatons, some explosive spheres with legs, and giant charging junk heaps are among the few. You won't encounter the typical changes of pace that give most shooters variety either. There are no turret sections or escort missions on your lonesome journey. The levels are straightforward corridors and smallish arenas, and the environments are lovely, but they rarely look that different from one chapter to the next.
It would be unfair to call Hard Reset just another pretty shooter, however. Variety comes not from mission or level design, but from the delicious opportunities your weapons grant you. You have two main weapons: a traditional assault firearm and an energy weapon. The trick is that both main weapons can be upgraded, allowing them to transform into other configurations. The CLN firearm morphs from an assault rifle to a grenade launcher, a shotgun, and more. The N.R.G. weapon lets you stream a continued flow of electricity, drop lightning mortars, and fire homing projectiles. Each form can be upgraded further, granting secondary modes of fire and unlocking a wonderful array of opportunities for zapping and scorching your foes. You can also purchase passive upgrades, such as an automated bullet time when you run low on health, or greater damage resistance.
And no matter which route you take, you'll be glad for the upgrades. Hard Reset is challenging, and the crowd control options are not only necessary to triumph, but they also make the game really fun. Let's say you are besieged by a mob of metal beasts. Start by dropping a gravity grenade that pulls nearby enemies into its orbit. Then, shoot a standard grenade into the helpless mass and watch it shatter in a mess of metal. That ground-pounding hulk giving you trouble? Toss a special mortar that produces a stasis field to slow down everything in its radius and throw an electrical mortar into the middle. The resulting blowout is a satisfying treat as you hop and sprint around, firing at the other robots charging toward you. Much of Hard Reset's joy comes from discovering new and delightful ways of sending machines to the great junkyard in the sky.
There are times when Hard Reset crosses the line from challenge to cheapness. Small combat areas are liberally filled with physics-enabled junk that can get underfoot. When you throw in two big robots or a huge mass of smaller ones, along with a bunch of explosive objects that can cause splash damage, you get a recipe for frustration. The level design doesn't always grant you the necessary room to maneuver in such cluttered spaces, so expect to encounter a few deaths that don't feel fair. The unresponsive weapon switching adds to the annoyance. The keys to switch weapons or weapon forms don't always respond properly; you may end up pressing a button (or flicking the mousewheel) several times before the game takes notice. This is a fundamental flaw in a fast-paced, run-and-gun, coverless shooter.
Yet there are plenty of encounters that are tuned just right, with you leaping and rushing about, dealing with the suicidal foes surrounding you while avoiding the gunfire of bipedal bots above. The action comes to a head in a few boss fights in which gigantic death machines contrast with the relatively small scale of standard encounters. The final battle is as exciting as shooters get: A stream of standard robots keep the pressure on you as you deal with the big boy that looms above. You fend off enemies at close, medium, and long ranges, performing your entire repertoire of tricks in a single battle like a gun virtuoso. It's too bad this final battle comes so soon: Hard Reset clocks in between four and five hours; those with talented trigger fingers might finish even sooner. The short length is amplified by the fact that the campaign far outpaces the upgrade system. You might have unlocked a fraction of the possible upgrades by the time you reach the end and not seen some of the most interesting and powerful toys at your disposal. Just when you feel like you might be reaching the halfway point, the credits roll.
On the other hand, the shooting is so fun and the weapons so fun to use, that you'll want to play again. Each level is filled with secret areas, which encourage you to explore the nooks and crannies, as well as blow stuff up to see if there's a hidden passage to uncover. If you focused on the CLN the first time, try out the N.R.G. the second time through--maybe on one of the harder difficulties. Or choose EX mode, which is a new game plus that allows you to start the game again with the weapons and upgrades you worked so hard to earn. Hard Reset has its flaws, and it doesn't think big in the way most modern shooters do. But it's a good game that will hopefully spawn future greatness--that is, if our robot overlords allow it.