Better late than never? Not where Hired Team: Trial Gold is concerned. This game, which despite its ambiguous title isn't a demo or time-limited shareware program, was originally released in Russia back in 2000 and has now finally seen the light of day in the US. If you're a shooter fan, you'll want to shove Hired Team back into a dark hole and forget about it. Hired Team is a shameless mishmash of Quake III: Arena and Unreal Tournament, two great games that helped redefine the shooter genre in 1999 with their focus on pure multiplayer carnage over single-player action. Even if Hired Team had been released back then, it would have been crushed by those illustrious, hugely popular competitors. It would have been too far behind the times in terms of both gameplay and technology back then, and it's doubly so today.
Like Quake III and Unreal Tournament, Hired Team technically has a story--a truly disposable one. It's the year 2064 and crime is out of control, so a new team of supersoldiers needs to be trained in virtual reality combat arenas. The "Trial" portion of Hired Team: Trial Gold is the equivalent of a single-player campaign, in which you work your way through progressively tougher levels, fighting with and against computer-controlled bots. Game modes include old standbys like deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture-the-flag, and domination. You also get infiltration mode, a watered-down version of Unreal Tournament's assault mode, with just one simple objective: capture or defend a single flag. Playing these modes online against humans, bots, or a mix of the two is no easy task. The game's server browser either doesn't work, or there simply weren't any servers out there (the latter is a distinct possibility). Even when you're hosting a server, you should be ready for some lag.
Hired Team plays out in a motley assortment of arenas, including factories with industrial hazards, castles, and the now-obligatory neo-gothic cathedrals with cheesy heavy metal names like "Halls of Suffering." All told, you'll get 28 maps, which would be all well and good if only you could remember any of them five minutes after playing. For the most part, they're uninspired, unoriginal forays through terrain that every shooter fan has seen countless times before. Imagine third-rate, fan-created Quake II maps, and you'll get the idea. A few bounce pads, elevators, and vats of deadly goo are about all that the levels offer in the way of interactivity.
Hired Team's arsenal similarly works hard to prove that there's nothing new under the sun. You get a predictable assortment of boring weapons, like a pistol, a shotgun, a rocket launcher, a grenade launcher that works and sounds remarkably like that of Quake III, and so on. None of these have the alternate firing modes that make the weapons of Unreal Tournament so much fun, nor do they have the visceral power and colorful visuals of Quake III's weapons. They're also horribly unbalanced. The default pistol, for instance, is so wimpy as to be essentially worthless. Most all of the other weapons are grossly overpowered and can kill opponents almost instantly.
You'll find extra ammo scattered liberally and arbitrarily throughout the levels. The same goes for armor and health items. It's a shame there aren't more inventive items or even just the equivalent of something like Quake III's quad damage or Unreal Tournament's antigrav boots. Hired Team is so dull that it seems to desperately need that kind of variety.
When a shooter jettisons storytelling, scripted events, and the other trappings of single-player games to focus on pure combat, it needs to sweat the small stuff all the more. As in most departments, Hired Team falls far short where finer points like physics are concerned. Character movement speed is spot-on for a game of this type, neither too slow nor too frantically fast. On the other hand, the "feel" of the weapons, their apparent heft and strength, leaves lots to be desired, since you never get any sense of your weapons' power. You don't get any decent feedback on damage taken or doled out, either. You'll have to settle for a few generic groans when someone gets blasted. The fact that characters simply vanish when killed (in deference to the game's virtual reality back story) sure doesn't help matters.
Hired Team doesn't do nearly enough with its computer-controlled bot opponents, either. You'll fight a few boring-looking humanoid robots and a few humans with evocative names like Ron. You can select from four bot skill levels that affect their basic combat abilities but sure don't make up for their lack of smarts where coordinated games like capture-the-flag are concerned. You can issue commands to bots through a branching menu, but they seem to ignore your orders. Adding bots to an online game is a tedious chore, requiring you to select each one individually and assign its team manually.
As far as its presentation goes, Hired Team offers loads of fancy graphics configuration options. However, they don't matter, because the game's graphics engine can't compete with today's shooters built around the Quake III, Unreal, or Serious Sam engine. A lack of technical polish could have been overcome with artistic imagination and skill, but Hired Team adamantly refuses to offer that. Instead, the game has ugly weapon and character models and boxy maps gratuitously filled with garish lights and mirrored textures like some futuristic disco. The game's sparse, amateurish sound effects similarly fall well short of the mark.
Hired Team: Trial Gold has arrived at about the worst possible time. It's a budget-priced game, retailing for around $20, but these days you can buy Quake III or Unreal Tournament for about that price. With either of those, you'll get a vastly better game served by a huge mod community. What's more, Unreal Tournament 2003 is just around the corner, which is sure to make Hired Team: Trial Gold look that much more like the uninspired, antiquated, and poorly designed copycat it is.