We'd been waiting a little while to learn something concrete about Creative Assembly's long-rumoured first-person shooter, but when Hyenas was finally revealed, the response was maybe a little muted. Hyenas was a surprise: Creative Assembly had been an entirely strategy-based studio for decades until it released Alien Isolation, a small, considered first-person game. A multiplayer, co-op, character-based shooter with a loud and brash tone doesn't seem like the most natural follow-up.
But then, Alien Isolation wasn't exactly a natural follow-up to Total War, and speaking to Eurogamer at Gamescom, product director Alex Hunnisett explained that, actually, these games are rarely interlinked - despite some staff from within the studio moving across to work on it.
"Really, when we were looking at Hyenas, it was a case of going, well, what are folks enjoying playing at the moment, for starters, and the great thing about working in a studio is often you're enjoying doing something, you've got enough capable people around you just go, 'let's just do that then.'" Aside from the fact that both games are set in space, he said, that's really where the similarities or shared inspirations end. Hyenas, like Alien Isolation before it, is very much its own thing.
I watched a roughly 10-minute, behind closed doors demo of Hyenas that gave an overview of how a match might play out. There are five teams, three players per team, and you're on a kind of floating mall in space trying to secure some loot - or to be more accurate: some branded tat, frankly, but there is a sort of explanation for that - and then escape. There are a significant number of non-player enemies called Murphs, of varying classes - drones, riot shields, big tough ones, the usual stuff - and there are things that take some time, like opening doors and drifting through zero-gravity areas that play with the pacing of your movement through objectives. Usually, that means fighting through areas, sprinting for loot, getting held up by something, and running away with it again.
Hyenas actually sounds like it features the best parts of a squad-based battle royale
This set-up, and the weirdly tatty tone it's opting for, somewhat undersells Hyenas, at least from looking at it purely hands-off. There's genuine potential here, most notably in the type of games Hyenas reminds you of when you watch a match in action. The real crux of it, for instance, seems to be in how you deal with other squads of human players - the kind of instinctual decision-making that's at the heart of some many wonderful games in this genre. You can treat Hyenas stealthily, for instance, taking advantage of something Hunnisett called a "front of house, back of house element" where there are routes through vent shafts and the like, as well as the obvious ones out in the open, or you can act as the predators of the map, seeking out and ambushing or just plain attacking other teams, as they busy themselves with objectives or AI enemies.
Towards the end of a round, you'll need to not only obtain the loot but, when you've filled up something called a clout gauge, also get to an evacuation zone and survive until the end. Put all this together and it starts to ring a few bells. A shooter, with multiple small teams, trapped in a confined space, with a small ending zone that forces you together, and a rolling tactical choice of whether to fight, hide, or ambush each other - Hyenas actually sounds like it features the best parts of a squad-based battle royale. It's just achieving the same ends via completely different means.
Hunnisett raised an eyebrow when I put that comparison to him, mind, so I might be stretching things with my interpretation. But it's ultimately these kinds of ever-changing, strategic - "emergent", as a marketer might put it - moments that really elevate the more tactical team shooters out there, the things that players come up with themselves that might evolve the original intention of the game. Hyenas looks like it has a bit of that.
There are still some question marks about the tone, although these are a matter of taste and, again, helped by the additional context we're starting to see. The half-naked character some people worried was an old-school representation of an in-game woman is, in fact, a drag queen called Galaxia, for example. Creative Assembly has been "mindful" about getting its representation correct, Hunnisett told me. "There's definitely been conversations both internally and externally, with folks who can definitely point us in the right direction," he said.
The recognisability of the objects is more of a fun nostalgia play than anything else
The steal-some-tat angle, too, is actually a bit of a jab at the whole state of the world, with Hyenas taking place in a future where Sonic figurines are the only things left for the super-rich to collect. As jabs go, it's an unsubtle one, which Creative Assembly would likely say is intentional. Intentional or not though, unsubtle is unsubtle, and the Hyenas zingers will likely run the risk of growing tiresome because of it, regardless of whether they're throwing their obvious punches in the right or wrong direction.
On the topic of those branded objects you're out to steal, Hunnisett did reassure me it's very much not a metaverse play, or an attempt at copying the model of Fortnite or jamming in some NFTs. "That's not the angle I see it as," he said, "although it's interesting you've made that remark. For us it was a case of: we wanted to tell the story that we're telling, and as part of that, obviously, it's the idea that the world's blown up, people are going back to get this stuff." The recognisability of the objects is more of a fun nostalgia play than anything else. "I'm assuming you watched Toy Story growing up, so to me it's a case of: you could have had any generic toy in there. But the thing that really resonates is 'that's an Etch-a-Sketch!', right? I recognise that and that makes it feel more tangible, and makes it feel more authentic and closer to home." He wouldn't, however, rule out bringing in more properties beyond the purely Sega-themed ones Hyenas has at the moment.
All the other typical things we like to worry over with shooters like this are things you can potentially relax about, too. There's matchmaking for two other party members if you don't have a couple of mates to play with (albeit no fully solo play - it's a squad-based game). And the progression system and monetisation are being worked out based on what suits the game: "It's not really a focus of ours at the moment, in terms of the business model. It's more about gameplay, figuring out what the game is, and that's where we're zeroing in. Right now, we're focusing on that mode."
This comes back to Hunnisett's explanation of how Hyenas came about, which is from the team playing around with the game, using pre-existing assets just to block things out, testing different ideas, until they settled on something that they feel really works. The studio's taking that well-worn line of this being a "player first" form of development, but it does feel that way, with a genuine emphasis on trying things out with players testing it in alpha (a proper alpha, not a glorified demo) and no commitment to any meaningful release window until the studio's happy with how Hyenas feels to play. And I maintain: it looks like it could play pretty well.