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How the spirit of Darksiders lives on in Hunt: Horrors of the Gilded Age

Crytek USA, née Vigil, goes free-to-play with a CryEngine-powered shooter.

I remember chatting to developers from Vigil, the now no more studio behind the Darksiders series, whenever they were in the UK, and one question would always come up: when are you guys going to do four-player co-op?

It seemed like such an obvious thing. War, the star of Darksiders, was, after all, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death, the star of Darksiders 2, was another. Why not add Strife and Fury into the mix? The games had these big open levels - plenty of room for four friends to swing all of the cats.

Darksiders co-op never happened, unfortunately. It was something Vigil wanted to do for the theoretical third game in the series, but time ran out for publisher THQ and thus any ideas the developers had for the series were snuffed out.

Or were they?

Meet Hunt: Horrors of the Gilded Age, the first game from Crytek USA, which was created by Crytek after it, for all intents and purpose, saved Vigil from its own apocalypse. It's a third-person action RPG with, you guessed it, four-player co-op. Is it the game Darksiders might have been?

"We definitely wanted to do four-player Darksiders," Crytek USA CEO David Adams tells me over Skype, reminiscing about those press tours in which he was often asked, as boss of Vigil, when are you doing four-player Darksiders?

"One of the first things we said when we got here was, we are absolutely doing a four-player co-op game. That wasn't even up for discussion. It was like, okay, here's one absolute we can all agree upon, and go from there. It's been fun to finally make something like that."

There are similarities between Darksiders and Hunt, but there are obvious differences. The setting is completely different. Hunt is set in the late 1800s, and its playable archetypes include Wild West gunslingers and Sherlock Holmes types. Character customisation is more in depth. You have full control over the way your character looks and the weapon he or she uses, Adams says. "We want to encompass the entire late 1800s globally. So it's not just going to be North America. It's not just going to be Europe. If you've seen a cool movie from that time period you can imagine a character you can probably make in this game."

Hunt is authentic to the time period in terms of the environments, characters you control and weapons you use, but the addition of mythical creatures means there is something of a dichotomy at play. This is entirely deliberate. The supernatural creatures you'll shoot are set against the "Hollywood 1880s" Crytek USA has drawn inspiration from. The idea is Hunt feels as grounded as humanly possible until you fight something completely crazy.

"If you've seen a cool movie set in the late 1800s you can imagine a character you can probably make in this game."

Crytek USA CEO David Adams
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If Hunt's announcement trailer reminded you of Ready at Dawn's PlayStation 4 exclusive The Order: 1886, by the way, it's a comparison Crytek USA is aware of. It's an odd one: you wait forever for a game set in the late 1800s then two turn up at once. There's that Penny Dreadful TV show, too. I should probably say something about buses here.

While they're both over the shoulder shooters set in the late 1800s, the similarities between Hunt and The Order stop there, Adams insists. "They're actually two completely different games. As time has gone on I've seen a wide diversion, especially on the focus of the gameplay. Even the style of the time period. Theirs is more like the BioShock version of the 1880s. Ours is actual authentic 1880s. And then the focus on co-op is a huge difference. It's just a completely different game."

Still, the timing causes Adams to chuckle. "It's like, really? Wow. It's just this weird coincidence that suddenly a bunch of people across the world went, you know what's cool? 1880."

And then there are comparisons to Valve's four-player co-op shooter Left 4 Dead, in part because Hunt's announcement trailer was set in a swamp and showed zombies. "It was an inspiration from the aspect of, it's cool to get four guys in to play through a mission, but there's more diversity in our game," Adams says. "The types of missions we're doing, even the creatures - we have all types of different creatures. It's just fun to play four-player co-op.

"When you see the gameplay footage you'll see a bunch of other creature types. Zombies are just one of many."

While Darksiders was a vibrant and colourful game, it was never considered a graphical powerhouse. Darksiders was built on Vigil's proprietary game engine, whereas Hunt is built using the latest version of Crytek's own CryEngine, so it should be a significant step up. "It was cool because, to be frank, our Darksiders engine wasn't super advanced," Adams admits.

And gameplay wise it's different. Yes, Hunt is a third-person action RPG, but Hunt is very much a shooter with an over the shoulder camera view, whereas Darksiders was an action game in the old school sense that played with a more pulled back perspective.

"You go around, you've got guns, you shoot things," Adams says, bluntly. "There are some more elements to that. It's not just shooting and shooting and shooting - but that's stuff we can get into later. But from a pure gameplay point of view it's definitely action-oriented."

"I personally made 18 bosses in Darksiders 2. I made 12 or 13 in Darksiders 1. So we have a lot of experience making bosses."

Darksiders, from Vigil.

Darksiders was considered somewhat old school, and was often likened to Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda series. That was more to do with its structure - the idea of exploring a new area, finding a new weapon or gadget that added something significant to the way the game played, then a boss fight. Going by what Adams says, Hunt won't follow the same structure, but old school design is a philosophy it's sticking with.

"I will say that old school sensibility is something we still try to carry over," he says. "I don't want to use the word retro, but we've taken some of the old school elements of shooters and reintroduce them in a new way in this game. We found that interesting because it'll be a different experience. It's not like every other shooter you've ever played."

Hunt, as you'd expect, is all about hunting horrible monsters, these mythological creatures Crytek USA has spent a lot of time building. Hunting bosses and killing them is the name of the game. So Adams and co. have worked hard to make as many of them as possible, and even when it comes to lower level creatures, it's at pains to stress the variety.

It sounds like a headache, having to come up with more and more creature types, each one more fantastical than the last. But again, here, the developers are channeling the spirit of Darksiders, which was praised for its creature design.

"There's a lot of cool creature diversity," Adams says. "And that's something we did a lot of in Darksiders. We have a lot of experience making creatures. I personally made 18 bosses in Darksiders 2. I made 12 or 13 in Darksiders 1. So we have a lot of experience making bosses.

"The creature variety in Darksiders was pretty insane. We had 50 or 60 unique characters. And that's not something most people do. You look at shooters or something like that and if you really tally up the enemy count you get to maybe a dozen, and that's pretty typical. We built up quite a bit of expertise on how to build these things quickly and iterate them and get them to a playable state. So we built a game that's designed around that - hunting bosses, killing creatures."

And here's another key difference: Hunt includes something the announcement press release described as a "content generation system". What this refers to is a game mode that revolves around a procedurally generated hunt mission. The game changes what players do, the enemies they fight, the layout of the map and even the time of day. "You can just go in and hunt but you'll get a different experience every time," Adams says.

"If you're fighting in a swamp it's still a swamp, but beyond that, the elements change every time. The idea is you can hunt over and over and over again but you're not going to get the exact same mission twice."

Structurally, Hunt is designed as an online experience, but Crytek USA wants to support single-player play. There isn't a linear story of the kind we're used to from, say, The Last of Us. It sounds like the game is more about players learning about the world as they play and finding clues from old diaries and journals. Through this you'll put the pieces of the puzzle together to form an image that will help you track down and kill the game's bosses. "That's the experience we want to create for the player," Adams says.

"Imagine a game you want to play and you would totally buy, but it's free."

There are a lot of differences, then, but players should see "a lot of the DNA" of Darksiders in Hunt. But there is another big difference that's less to do with the gameplay and more to do with, well, money.

Darksiders was a boxed product in the traditional, THQ sense. You paid your money and you got your game. Hunt is free-to-play.

This, it seems, is an edict that comes down from upon high by the bosses of Crytek. Crytek boss Cevat Yerli has in the past insisted that all future games self-published by Crytek will be free-to-play. "We made boxed retail games, then we came to Crytek and the first thing they said is, hey, we want to move into free-to-play," Adams explained.

Now I know what you're thinking. If it's free-to-play I'm not interested. I want out. Crytek USA and Adams are aware of the job they have convincing gamers to think differently.

"Our approach has always been, we're just going to make a game," he says. "If we made this game anywhere else we would sell it for $60. We're just making the game as if we were making a retail boxed product. In our head, our goal is people see it and go, I would totally buy that game for $60. That looks amazing. That looks like any other game on the shelf, but, you get it for free."

Adams won't go into detail on the monetisation, but it sounds like you'll be able to buy cosmetic items like outfits. The proof will be in the pudding. If you can buy items that give you an edge in combat, then there's a problem. If you have to pay to keep playing for extended periods of time, then there's a problem.

Hopefully with Hunt, there won't be a problem. We won't know for sure until the game goes into beta on PC later this year, but for now, Adams is saying all the right things.

"I'll admit I've had similar reactions in the past," he says. "But the way I think about it is, imagine a game you want to play and you would totally buy, but it's free. That's the angle we're taking with the game. And I think we'll deliver that experience, where someone could look at it and go, yeah, I'd pay $60 for that. Oh wait, it's free? Sweet!

"That's a good way for me to think about it because then it's like, if you buy an outfit or whatever we monetise, until you spend $60, you're in the green as far as not having spent as much. We don't want to create an experience where somebody looks at it and says, that feels like a free-to-play game. We want to create an experience where they go, that feels like a triple-A boxed product."

"We were told we didn't have jobs on a Friday and by Sunday we were signed up to work for Crytek."

Crytek USA got Hunt up and running pretty quickly, and while it won't let people play the game at E3 next week, it will show gameplay footage. It's set for beta later this year on PC, and, according to the press release, undisclosed consoles.

This means PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, obviously, but Adams can't say that yet. "If you're not fully approved with a console manufacturer you can't say you're going to be on that platform," he explains.

"That's all I'll say. It's just timing for us. We're only a year in. We haven't gone through a lot of those hoops. But it'll definitely be on console. When you see the game you can imagine what consoles it'll be on."

So how will Hunt's free-to-play monetisation work on console?

"I've played some of the free-to-play games on PS4," Adams replies, without going into detail. "You just download them and play them and you buy stuff through the PlayStation Store. I don't think Xbox One has an analog for that right now, so I don't really know."

Crytek USA is a relatively small developer, at least in terms of Crytek studios, with 50 staff all focused on Hunt (a few helped out with Xbox One exclusive Ryse). It was founded in January 2013 after Vigil went down, then started work on Hunt in March. It all happened very quickly, it seems.

"It was definitely pretty surreal," Adams remembers. "We were told we didn't have jobs on a Friday and by Sunday we were signed up to work for Crytek. I literally never talked to anybody at Crytek until Friday afternoon. It all went really fast, but it was great. We got to keep a lot of the core guys. Coming into the new office was pretty interesting, because it was like a bunch of us just relocated to a new location. We even had the same computers because Crytek bought the computers from THQ, so that was surreal in of itself.

"It was weird feeling. It was sad to lose Vigil, but it was also exciting to do something new.

"So bittersweet I guess."

For Darksiders fans, Hunt could be just the tonic.

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