Shooting zombies should not be this frustrating. Third-person multiplayer shooter The Haunted: Hell's Reach has great promise but runs into major trouble because of absurd difficulty and a number of questionable design decisions. This is a hardcore shooter aimed solely at serious players with a lot of skill and patience, due to swarms of spawning opponents, combat mechanics that veer between straightforward shooting and melee scrapping, and ridiculous restrictions on things like regaining health and reviving fallen allies. Instead of the M rating, the game is so brutally unforgiving that it might better have been labeled with "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
The Haunted: Hell's Reach started off as a mod project that won the Make Something Unreal competition in 2010. You choose one of four generic damned dudes (they look different but play the same) and head into arenas where you blast the minions of Satan in all of their creepy forms with pistols, shotguns, and submachine guns. There are two single-player modes. Inferno sees you work your way through four waves of monsters in one of the game's eight levels until a big boss battle in hell, while Survival is all about clocking the highest score possible before an endless wave of undead/demon thingies slice you to bits. Multiplayer is the main focus. Four multiplayer modes offer a bit of variety. You can play Inferno and Survival just as you can solo, and also two other more interesting games called Battle and Demonizer. In Battle, up to four humans tackle up to four undead, while in Demonizer, every slain human player goes over to the dark side and must hunt his former pals.
Whether you play alone or with friends, the action is pretty simple and straightforward. The maps are all spooky takes on standard shooter locales such as abandoned mines, ancient temples, and old cemeteries. The sedate, creepy music fits these settings, although not the action itself, which seems to lend itself more to a grungy or speed-metal soundtrack. Most of the audio comes from the weapon sound effects and your regular quips about how cool you are, which are so dim-witted that they make Duke Nukem come off like David Mamet. Creature types are limited; you fight mostly zombie-like humanoids who do little more than charge straight at you with barely a growl. Some of the creeps are a little inventive at least; mixing things up are giant club-wielding brutes, flying bug demons, a guy who spins around with big blades in his mitts, and another metal-jawed freak that spouts fire, but combat is always a straight-up affair with you pitted against hordes of mindless baddies.
Of course, this doesn't have to be a bad thing. And The Haunted: Hell's Reach does move along quickly enough to hook you. Everything is simple and repetitive, but there is something about the routine that keeps you coming back for more, just like a really good hack-and-slash role-playing game. But the bloody carnage is weighed down by questionable design decisions. The most noteworthy issue is difficulty. This is an extremely hard game, even on the so-called "easy" difficulty setting. It can take forever just to get good enough to survive a single wave of enemies, let alone two, and getting through the full four is near-impossible. Surprisingly enough, though, the excessive challenge doesn't come via a crazy number of enemies. Your minion-killing mission runs aground due to how ammo and health are doled out. Ammunition is far too sparse. Drops take place only rarely, so you are constantly running low when surrounded by goons out for your blood. Health is another problem. In place of the usual random drops of health packs, a healthstone appears every so often at random locations on the map. If you can get to it, you can shoot it to heal up. Unfortunately, this nifty arcane device tends to pop up a long way from you. And if you don't blast it to release its healing goodness within a handful of seconds, a minion steals it and takes off running.
Making matters worse, a similar-looking doodad called a chronostone regularly shows up in the same way, though if you don't get to it before its very brief timer expires, it goes off and triggers murderous environmental effects like tornadoes, a storm complete with lightning strikes, fireballs from the sky, and blinding fog. So, no surprise, staying alive is rather tough, especially given that you're generally trying to find these stones on large, mazelike maps packed with narrow corridors while fleeing from a dozen or more monsters who are gleefully nailing you from behind with rotting flesh missiles, flames, some kind of pestilence thing, spiraling sickles, and other murderous projectiles.
You don't move all that quickly, either. If anything, you tromp along, pausing every time you take a shot and taking forever to load a new clip or pump another round through the shotgun. At least each of the three main weapon types can be upgraded as you play. Max out the upgrade bar, and you get a weapon drop that turns your plain-Jane shotgun into a powerful sawed-off variant, your wimpy pistol into a Dirty Harry-style cannon, and so forth. Regardless of the boosted weapons, the overall feel is reminiscent of Resident Evil, which leads to some serious annoyance given the number of enemies. You're best off taking your time and using the right mouse button to line up headshots or target other vulnerable places on monsters (some come equipped with Gwar-style helmets and chain mail). Find a safe indoor spot to camp, which gets you away from most of the chronostone-initiated weather assaults, and then ignore both the chronostones and the healthstones unless they spawn in right on top of you, and sit back to take potshots until you get to the number of kills needed to survive the stage. This slows enemy assaults and gets dull, but running around crazily tends to lead to being overwhelmed and slaughtered.
As much as The Haunted: Hell's Reach looks like a run-and-gun shooter, it's more of a slower-paced hybrid that forces you to ditch the guns for brawling charges and roundhouse kicks. Oddly, melee doesn't get good until you drop to 10 health, when a rage mechanic fires up and you can turn enemies into a thick red goo with a single boot. This can be very satisfying, because you can feel the impact of your attacks, and the demon blood flies so thickly that it pretty much covers the entire screen. You also regain a little bit of health with each melee kill, making it possible to plunge into huge crowds of foes and emerge a tad healthier than when you waded in. Still, the way this works is counterintuitive. The combination of insta-kills and health regeneration makes the game considerably easier to play when you're near death than when you're rolling along with health maxed out, so at times it's not a bad idea to let yourself take damage so you can freak out and play Rambo.
Multiplayer is packed with other irritants. Although the game has clearly been designed to be played online, there are enough serious problems that it can be a lot more enjoyable to play solo. Enter a match midway through a round, and you have to sit and wait for it to end before getting involved as anything more than a spectator. Because there is no way to tell how long a game has been in progress from the server screen, you can easily enter one that has just started and have to wait around for several minutes before you can start playing. So players tend to pop in and out of games. Spawning is another issue. You don't revive automatically every time you get killed; instead, your soul gets sucked into a soulstone that randomly appears somewhere on the map. The only way you can get back into the match is if one of your allies redeems your soul by blasting the thing to bits. Of course, your pals tend to be too busy saving their own skins to pull off immediate rescue missions. And just like with the other two stones in the game, if you don't quickly gun down the soulstone, a minion grabs it and takes off. Get killed just once in a map, which is essentially unavoidable due to the difficulty, and you have to wait a few minutes or more before being allowed to get back into the action.
What might be most frustrating about The Haunted: Hell's Reach is that it could clearly be a lot of fun if some of the game options were dialed back to make the difficulty more palatable. A lot of the appeal of the game's blending of ranged and melee combat is lost because of the steep learning curve and peculiar design choices. The game is so unforgiving and loaded with off-putting features, such as the multiplayer spawn issues, that it seems likely to scare off a lot of its potential fans, which seems to be happening already given the sparse number of players online during launch week. Hopefully the developers will listen to feedback and make changes, because the game does have potential if given a little more time on the drawing board.