Thursday, 22 August 2013

First Impressions: Sir, You Are Being Hunted

While this may carry a review tag, it's not really. Because, you see, Sir, You Are Being Hunted is currently in pay-to-enter pre-release alpha. So everything written below will probably be irrelevant before too long, much like everything else I write.

I'm sprinting through the Fens, clutching a stolen shotgun and carrying a rucksack full of tea and chocolate biscuits. I approach a rusting fishing boat lying on its side and clamber aboard to ransack the tiny cabin. Two dead rats, a lump of stilton and a bag of mints. I haven't eaten for a while so I start with the stilton and finish with the mints, in case I meet someone I'd prefer not to suffocate. I leave the rats and take the opportunity to look around me.

It's a grim Norfolk morning and the rising mist means I can't see far. Just on the edge of my vision there's a cluster of cottages so I head off, running at full speed through the long grass. I can't shake the feeling that something's not quite right. It looks like Norfolk, but there's a sense of unease and sadness - more so than usual, I mean - and every so often I see a ball of blue light flit away over the marshes. I round the corner of the cottages and run straight into a group of murderous robot gamekeepers dressed in tweed and sporting shotguns of their own. Ah. Definitely not Norfolk. They've all got the right number of limbs.

I'm now definitely dead so I suppose this is the time to explain just what's going on. Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a survival/exploration game in a procedurally generated landscape. Just who you are and what you are doing is something of a mystery. There's a brief hand-drawn introduction in which we hear something about an experiment gone wrong and needing to collect a set of McGuffins to escape the islands while evading the robot gentry who are hunting you down, but almost nothing about the player character is revealed. From the clues available (swimming as fast as I run, can breathe underwater, cast no shadow) I assume I'm some kind of fish-vampire. Like those ones in Doctor Who.
So those robots are pretty justified in trying to kill me, then.
Doctor Who is perhaps a good place to begin, because, like that venerable show, this game is Relentlessly British. To be honest, this is actually something that worried me when I heard about it. So many attempts to be 'British' produce abominations like Tardis teapots or Union Flag bow ties (or just bow ties in general). It's the kind of mistake made by foreigners and advertisers with demographic classification charts instead of souls and teenagers searching for a stereotyped identity. Thankfully, however, Big Robot have realised that the most British quality of all is perhaps restraint, and the tone is absolutely perfect. Oh, there's tweed and top hats and pipes and so on, but it's all done so gently - the kind of implementation that leads to a quiet chuckle rather than a forced, wincing smile - that it's never allowed to get in the way of the game. It's there in the small things, such as a 'flask of lukewarm tea' being the most restorative drink, and chocolate biscuits and jars of marmalade being the most common foodstuffs.

Of course, the most British thing about the game is the landscape. The team behind the game have clearly taken great care in producing their British Countryside Generator, and the results are superb. There was one village in particular I was almost certain I'd actually visited a few summers ago, and the general feel of the countryside is uncanny in its accuracy. The generator creates a set of five islands, giving you a choice of biome for each. For now there are only three: Mountain, reminiscent of Wales and parts of Scotland; Fen, which is as it sounds; and Rural, a desolate northern landscape. More biomes are apparently planned (including one massive castle-island), which is good because I'd like to see something that better represents the south (particularly the south-east), though I appreciate that the cosy gardens-and-orchards nature of Kent is perhaps slightly at odds with the bleak, desolate feel created by the rest of the game.
The Fens
If I've been talking a lot about the 'feel' of the game so far, that's because it's what has struck me the most. However, I probably ought to mention the mechanics. There's the basic set of controls (WASD, sprint, crouch, jump) and two resource bars: health and vitality. Vitality constantly drops, though slowly, and can be replenished by eating or drinking scavenged food. As previously mentioned, tea will fully restore vitality, and other foods by a lesser amount. If vitality reaches 0 it is assumed that you starve to death, which means that you have to make incursions into housed (and frequently patrolled) areas to search for food. Your health cannot be artificially restored - it regenerates (very slowly) if you have high vitality - and bandages, which are fashioned from scavenged cloth, are only used to prevent bleeding (which causes your health to drop constantly until a bandage is applied). Some foods, such as dead rats and mouldy bread, will actually reduce your vitality (as does smoking a pipe - very health conscious), and others, such as toadstools or whiskey, will restore it but apply some other negative effect (drunkenness, mostly). You can also find (and apparently catch, though I haven't seen that yet) game, and cook it over fires if you have the matches and don't mind the flames and smoke acting as an instant ideolocator for every robot on the island. Doing so rewards you with cooked meat, which has the double benefit of being highly nutritious and very small.

The size of these things is important, because Sir employs the revered practice of inventory tetris. In addition to your bulky binoculars, you must find room for a variety of weapons such as revolvers and shotguns, which can be found in houses and on the remains of slain robots, ammunition for those weapons, traps, pliers to free yourself from traps, rags for bandages, matches, rocks and bottles for distractions, an axe as a melee weapon, and, of course, food. The space is limited, which forces you to have to make choices about what you can carry, and prevents the game from becoming a Skyrim-esque exercise in hoarding. You can, however, use the houses to stash whatever you like. This is particularly important because none of these objects exist outside the inventory windows, so if you discard something you can't see it fall and then pick it back up.

You can't actually enter the houses, the reasons for which are explained in a long and rather defensive post by the developers, but to be honest being forced out into the countryside is a big part of the game, and I think being able to hide in houses rather than outside would ruin it. Hiding's a big part of the game because of how hard it is to kill the large numbers of robots, and as in Thief there's a visibility meter, which is modified by stance, speed and vegetation. Most of the stealth comes either from line-of-sight or from hiding in long grass. As far as I can tell shadows have nothing to do with it. There is a day/night cycle, though I think it's mostly cosmetic and it passes a little too quickly for my liking.

Sound is another big part of the game. Again, like Thief, being able to hear the sounds of your opponents is crucial, though, unlike Thief, the robots' intentions are indicated by beeps and whistles rather than proposed trips to the bear pits, with a nice little MIDI sequence replacing 'guess it was nothing'. This is more important than it you might think, because the thick vegetation and the fact that half your time is spent squatting in reeds means that often you'll hear the robots before you see them.

The robots themselves are a joy, strutting mechanically along, smoking their (electronic?) cigars. As was previously mentioned, combat is a challenge, but an achievable one. At close range you can normally kill the common gentry hunters with one or two shotgun rounds, or a few more revolver shots, but large groups are best avoided and I was only able to get my first kill after finding one having a quite smoke alone. At long range they lead their shots in a fairly realistic way (they don't realise that they have hitscan weapons), so zig-zagging actually works when you're running away. The best thing about them, though, is the AI. It's not tremendously clever but it's far in advance of the industry standard. If they have pre-set patrol routes they're complicated enough that I couldn't tell what they were - no waiting here for them to walk down a corridor, stand for five seconds, and then turn and head back. Instead, they roam the island looking for you, reacting to noise and other indicators such as smoke from fires and searching from your last known location. This can be used to your advantage - lighting a fire will cause nearby robots to come and search near it, drawing them away from their location, and stones and empty bottles can be thrown to create distractions.

Should all that fail and you die (this will happen a lot), you'll be returned to your last save point. The problem is that you can only save at the boats connecting the islands. Now, I can see the reasoning behind this. Being deprived of a quick-save makes the game infinitely more tense, because having your past achievements removed is a Big Deal and makes you want to protect them. It also makes experimentation risky and meaningful rather than something you do on a whim. And of course it's not as though you can't simply get back into the water and swim around the island until you hit the boat to save again - much like games that require you to close to save, it's a time-penalty more than anything else. The feeling of having collected my first device fragment and trying to sneak back across the island to save was simply fantastic. I'm just a little concerned that the motivation should come from an external, meta-game source such as wanting to save, rather than an in-game one. But I admit that I can't think of anything better.

There are of course other problems, most of which are related to the game's alpha status. Vitality, for example, appears to decrease at a constant rate regardless of activity, and while I do appreciate the ability to sprint for more than a few seconds (Deus Ex:HR, I'm looking at you here), being able to do so indefinitely with no penalty is a little odd and makes simply running to the coast a boring but reliable way to escape from the hunters. Possibly the default rate could be slowed and then increased while running or swimming (oh, and that's another thing - again, swimming not being painfully slow is nice, but it really shouldn't be as fast as running, simply going around the coast becomes too tempting in a game where safety is given such a high priority by the save system.) It would also be rather nice if having the inventory screen open didn't prevent you from doing anything else - if I can sprint at full speed while using a pair of binoculars, I'm sure I can move while eating a biscuit, and having something to do on the long runs through the empty bits would be nice.

There are also some odd performance constraints. It's not a terribly hi-fidelity game (though it is often quite beautiful), but my PC, which is a fairly sturdy beast, got noticeably hot under the collar about the whole affair and there are occasions, particularly moving with binoculars, in which the frame rate noticeably drops. As with the other issues, I expect it'll be touched up before release. There are also no audio options, which is odd.

Don't let that put you off, though. The game's available in alpha for just under £13, which is an absolute bargain. It's by far the most absorbing and engaging single-player games I've played for a couple of years at least, and has the potential to approach Thief levels of immersion. The part of my brain which manages my English Literature degree is trying to work something out concerning the class aspects of the game (I've seen people refer to the hunters as 'torybots', and the apparently 'middle class' squire-bot being perfectly peaceful until you disturb his property is interesting), but I'm going to reserve judgement until I can see the final product. To be honest I hope that they don't try anything along those lines - hardly anyone on the left seems to understand rural politics - but if anyone can manage it, it's these chaps.

So, go and get it.


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