"Fast and agile" is how Crytek describes the spider, one of Hunt: Showdown's two currently available boss monsters. "Fast and agile", oh, and "immune to poison". I've spent a few hours in the creature's rough vicinity now, listening to its feet rattle across the ceilings of barns and slaughterhouses, and I worry this is selling it short. "Fast and agile" makes me think of doomed management consultancies and Lucio from Overwatch, whereas the words I'm searching for have no consonants and far too many vowels. They are words lifted direct from the 50 million-odd lines of genetic code human beings share with fruit flies. They are words that always end in exclamation marks.
Once a linear co-op shooter subtitled "Horrors of the Gilded Age", Hunt has mutated following the closure of its original developer Crytek USA into a sweaty, abrasive, sporadically brilliant mixture of DayZ and Evolve. Out now in Early Access, it's a 5-10 player survival game in which you scour a diseased chunk of 19th century Louisiana for an eldritch horror of some kind, gathering clues to track down the creature's randomly situated lair. Once you've found and killed it, you must banish the monster to hell, which involves defending the corpse for a few minutes while it is consumed by ritual energies. Then you'll need to pick up your bounty and head to a stage coach to end the match. Gosh, how straightforward I've just made all that sound. Rest assured that there are twists in the tale.
While following trails of blue light to clues using your character's "darksight", you must deal with lesser foes such as zombie dogs, walking insect hives and giant leeches. Sprinkled across the dense swamps and woodlands with devilish abandon, these aren't so much threats as speedbumps, forcing you to creep along or take circuitous routes while racing to the prize. The beefier varieties pack a nasty wallop, but the real danger of fighting them is drawing the attention of other hunters. The game's balance of PvP and PvE is exceedingly unforgiving: there's currently only one boss per match, and rivals can always ambush you while you're fighting it or relieve you of your winnings on the way to extraction. Having located the lair, the question is always whether to risk an attack or let somebody else soften the beast up before taking over.
Hunt is also a pretty unsparing stealth experience. There are no traditional HUD aids like minimaps, kill notifications or enemy-tagging systems, though bounties are marked on the world map once dropped, so you'll need to work out where everybody is using your eyes and ears. The landscape is a bit of a camper's paradise, alternating twisted thickets with lonely elevated buildings and stretches of horribly exposed waist-high water. It's strewn, moreover, with tacit alarm systems, from the telltale snarls of aggroed enemies to flocks of crows, patches of crunchy broken glass, dangling chains or injured horses who whinny when a player approaches. These sounds travel long distances. You know what else travels long distances? Bullets.
It's a recipe for sizzling paranoia, excitement and frustration when you're caught unawares, not eased by wobbly Early Access servers that occasionally drop your connection on the brink of victory. And then there are the bosses themselves: the Butcher, a swinish juggernaut equipped with blade and fire, and the spider, which, ha ha ha. Let's talk a bit about spiders. You'd think video games would have treated us to more truly repulsive virtual specimens, given that they're among the creatures humans fear the most. One possible reason we dread them is evolutionary inheritance - our ancestors hailed from Africa, at a time when venomous arachnids were very abundant, and those who thought spiders were cute were correspondingly less likely to breed - but there's also something about how these largely harmless animals look and behave that trips certain circuits in the human brain.
We prefer smooth curves and light colours, for example, and spiders are typically made up of dark shades and sharp angles. We're also stressed out by unpredictable motion and spiders tend to move suddenly and erratically, in part because their modes of perception - compound eyes, ultra-sensitive feet - are so different. On top of all that, spiders are the consummate enemies within, infesting our dwellings much as they scuttle about our psyches, multiplying in the cavities and blind spots created by furniture and architecture. There could be one under your chair right this very moment. Come to think of it, there could be one under my chair right this very moment. Oh shit! Hang on. OK, I think we're clear.
Hunt: Showdown's spider captures all of the above like no game I've played, and it's the size of a cow to boot. The first time I saw it, a flurry of dusty grey limbs in the murk of a cave, I threw my oil lamp at my co-op partner, ran outside swearing and was promptly cut down by another player team (pro tip: voice and text chat can be overheard, too). The second time I was the only hunter left standing on the server, more through luck than skill, and was able to spend a restful half-an-hour clambering around the creature's flooded farmhouse nest, shuddering at that staccato patter of feet and peering in at the thing through gaps in the woodwork. Say cheese!
Bosses never leave their lairs, but the possibility of player ambush is a strong incentive to stay inside - and once you're inside the spider, especially, very much has the edge on you. You are confined to the earth while it can make free use of the vertical axis, dancing in front of you only to drop down a floor, run along the ceiling and pop up behind you. You are hindered by the gloom and wreckage while it is seemingly able to track your footfalls through surfaces, retreating to some bolthole only to flash out at you, fangs splayed, when you try to reposition. In reality, the spider's almost chaotic behaviour is the product of contextual scripting, but the feel is nonetheless of stepping across a giant web, your every movement firing certain synapses in your adversary's horrible brain.
The creature also always seems to know when it's being looked at, darting away the second you train a gun on it, which a) ensures that you don't perceive certain technical shortcomings, like limbs passing through objects, and b) creates a terror of actually laying eyes on it reminiscent of the sanity mechanics in Frictional's Amnesia series. Repetition kills off some of the fear, of course, as do point-blank shotgun blasts, but even now I find myself cringing in doorways, eyeing the unhelpfully insectile furniture and trying to hear myself think over the white noise of panic. Is it downstairs or upstairs? Is it hiding from me, or am I hiding from it? Oh god, does it know where I am? Does it know where I am?
Not even Limbo's infamous forest arachnid has given me quite so many chills, and much as my skin might crawl, the urge to load up another session is irresistible - it's an itch I have to scratch. But alas, for every match you spend wrestling with the spider (or whacking the butcher, who is a less unsettling though equally formidable foe), there will be two or three where you are unceremoniously wasted by other players in the opening minutes. Hunt's blend of open world sneaky-shoot and bossfights is bold, and with the right combination of skill levels, it can lead to some thrilling bouts, but if one player is significantly better at the game it's not much fun for everybody else. This isn't so much a problem as a mark of the very distinct, merciless kind of shooter Hunt aims to be, but I did find myself yearning for a simple bossrun mode with no pesky campers to worry about. Hopefully, that's something Crytek will add as the game moves through Early Access, along with better matchmaking.
Hunt's handling of levelling and permadeath also feels rather anti-competitive. Die, and you'll lose all of that hunter's upgrades, including extra health bar segments and perks such as faster stamina recovery, sabotaging your chances significantly in subsequent matches. You'll still earn a pinch of XP and currency when you fail a mission, enough to recruit another character (all male at the time of writing) and perhaps kit them out with a beefier gun, but all the same, it seems a system built to reward the top third of players at the expense of the less able. A mode that removes permadeath but from which you earn no XP would be one way of rectifying this.
These are definite rough spots, as are those server wobbles, but the game as a whole is strong - stronger than you might expect from Crytek right now, given the company's rather cataclysmic fortunes over the past few years, and stronger than what I saw of the original Horrors of the Gilded Age. I don't want to disparage Crytek USA's hard work, much of which is presumably retained in Showdown, but this second incarnation of Hunt exerts a pull Horrors never quite did. The latter was more of a comicbook shooter, a jolly roping-together of B-movie munsters from throughout history, redolent of the studio's previous Darksiders projects as Vigil Entertainment.
It looked entertaining enough - I recall being shown a hectic bossfight with a ghost who could smack players into different dimensions - but it never made my hair stand on end. Showdown, on the other hand, is the kind of game where you don't realise how tense you are till the cat brushes your leg and you kick her across the room. There's a long way to go, but this is already one of the year's more fascinating, and upsetting, releases.