Diablo. Gauntlet. Dungeon Siege. Smash TV. What do these games have in common? For the most part, they all subscribe to the same theory of adventuring - that an overwhelming enemy populace and the organised redistribution of their limbs and souls across the pavement is conducive to a good time. Based on the White Wolf roleplaying books of the same name, Hunter: The Reckoning is another such game, thrusting you into a possessed town and throwing monsters at you relentlessly.
To get a game like this absolutely 'right', you must first bind it to a decent backbone - a strong and detailed story. In Hunter's case, the idea is that during the execution of a chap called Nathan Arkady at Ashcroft prison, demons erupted forth from the ether and possessed just about anybody who took their fancy. Only four people had the vision required to see and repel these demonic invaders, and these were the Hunters, who after a hard night's slogging managed to lock the demons away in the prison, and then presumably retired to the pub. Unfortunately the townspeople of Ashcroft are pretty dim, and for some reason decide to hold a rave on the very same spot exactly one year later, and naturally all hell quite literally breaks loose. Before long, the Hunters are back.
The four Hunters - each of whom is at your personal disposal - are extremely cool characters. Each has their own particular strength and an 'edge', Hunter-speak for magic. There's the Avenger, the strongest Hunter, an enormous biker with a huge axe and an eight-shell shotgun reminiscent of Arnie's from Terminator. There's the Martyr, a nippy little minx with John Woo-style dual pistols and knives for slicing, and then there's the Judge, a Mexican priest with a massive cruciform sword and a crossbow. And finally, the Defender, an all-rounder with enough speed and strength with her pistol and sword to cause some serious damage; she's also the only character with a healing ability.
Conviction the key
Hunter has some RPG elements to it, another of the genre's tenets. Character ratings are increased by completing levels and garnering experience, improving ratings in several key areas - strength speed, accuracy, stamina and conviction (magic). Each character can also supplement his or her arsenal with further projectile weapons left strewn around as limited-use, disposable power-ups. At first you find double-barrel shotguns and uzis, but by the end you'll be clamouring for rocket launchers and worse.
When the Hunters arrive in Ashcroft, zombies are patrolling the streets, spawning everywhere, and you have to carve your way through them. There are no real missions apart from wreaking constant havoc and carnage to bring an end to the demonic street party, but there is also the need to rescue civilians, and the game will reward you with one of two endings depending on how many you save.
Playing to each character's strengths is the only way to survive - if you just go in and try to melee-swipe your way through the game you will find yourself up against it by the end of the second level. You don't necessarily need to go it alone, either. You can play Hunter with up to three other people, and you can pick up a quest in any state and use as many characters as you like. So you could quite happily polish off the first level as the Avenger on your own with no assistance one night, and then invite a couple of friends over for a romp on the second. The game just throws more or less enemies at you depending on the number of players.
Hunting for sport
Moving further down the list of important hack-and-slash staples we have the control system. Hunter's may take a bit of flak for being slightly fiddly, but it really grew on my party after only a few minutes. The left analogue stick controls movement and the right analogue stick controls aiming, but because Hunter is played from the third person, you can run in one direction whilst separating a zombie from his head with a shotgun over your shoulder. It's really quite intuitive, and allows you to act out some crazy scenes worthy of any action movie, with the Martyr hopping about firing in all directions like a crazed Monty Python bunny, the Judge carrying out God's good work, and the Avenger racing into a pack of bad guys and pirouetting with his axe to split them asunder. My only criticism here would be that adjusting the aim can seem a little less than fluid at times.
Attacks vary; simply tugging the right trigger performs a basic attack, but you can also hold it down for a couple of seconds to charge a nice alternative, and in multiplayer you'll probably want to play around with your tactics quite a lot early on. You could have the two lasses sat at the back with their ranged weapons helping the Judge and Avenger to avoid being struck from every direction, but perhaps having the Avenger's awesome shotgun cover the others would be better. Or perhaps you just want him to wade in with his axe swinging and let the little Martyr dart around with her blades while the other two attack.
If you are planning to hunt en masse though, sooner or later you'll start to get sick of the camera, which can only be zoomed in or out slightly. It can impede your party's progress if you're fighting at opposite ends of the screen, and can often get you caught in awkward and painfully indefensible tight spaces. There's also the invisible barrier factor, turning the game into a bit of a tug of war, and the fact that although your characters can jump around firing weapons from all angles and decapitating zombies face to face, they apparently can't leap small metal fences, wrecked cars or anything like that.
Of course, Hunter would be nothing without excellent visuals, detailed locations and various types of enemy. The graphics are very nice, with burnt out cars, shadowy alleys to lurk around in, a lovely rippling water effect in the obligatory sewer levels, and a boatload of different ways for your troupe to reintroduce zombies to death. And it's not just zombies either; there are little exploding spiders, hanging translucent spectres and enormous robotic gargoyles amongst others.
Limb separation animations are plentiful and satisfying in a perverse way, and you can splatter them across so many different things. Your trail takes you through the subway, the streets of the town, the tunnels beneath, various buildings (including the token dull environment, a thankfully short hospital level), and throughout these are piles of debris, shop windows to break and their mannequins to eviscerate. The quality of texturing is also very impressive. Character modelling is another strongpoint, with lots of detail on each of the Hunters, right down to the Martyr's swinging locks and the Avenger's buckled leather trousers. I particularly like the way the Judge's cruciform sword looms up over his image like God perched on his shoulder. There is a bit of a Catch 22 here though, because although the close-up camera view is very detailed and easily the best looking of those on offer, you need to zoom out in order to actually see anything. Rounding out the package is a neat soundtrack, which alters pace and volume depending on your circumstances, with ambient chimes and some thumping melodies for when you're in the thick of things. The voice acting is also of a consistently high quality, although we wanted the Judge to be a badass and the Mexican accent made him sound a bit whiny - oh well.
Staples of this sort of game are an enjoyable story, detailed visuals, interesting level design, a varied selection of enemies, good combat mechanics and a bit of room for character development, a rocking multiplayer mode and a decent lifespan. Hunter is strong enough in most of these categories, but if there was one thing which would keep us from buying the game, it would be its length. I made it through the thirty plus levels in about seven hours with a few retries, and although you get some alternate Hunter costumes and a new difficulty level to play with, that's largely it. It's an exhausting experience to play the game too, so you'll probably play it with friends in two or three hour stints, max. In terms of replay value, death and carnage doesn't get too boring, so you should still be playing this in a couple of months, but beyond that I'd question the game's lifespan.
Have you a thirst for the obscenely violent? Do you harbour a penchant for the gothic fairytale or the Dusk Till Dawn style action movie? Hunter is a game which offers fast-paced, hectic, varied and bloodthirsty action with a huge number of enemies to overcome. It's a bit short, but if you have a few friends after roughly the same thing, this should certainly be on your shopping list. A few rough edges don't do enough to spoil the experience.