“Sir, You Are Being Hunted” – The whole tweedy steampunk/affected “chappishness” aesthetic does less than nothing for me, and I raise an eyebrow at anything which advertises its “Englishness” as a selling point, because it usually means awful pandering-to-Anglophiles apples’n’pears kitsch. SYABH was a tough sell on that alone. But I gave it a try, and I’m extremely glad I did.
You start (with a disappointingly un-plummy voiceover) in the middle of one of five procedurally-generated islands, each realised according to a different beautifully designed “biome” (misty rural, redbrick industrial, Dear Esther cragland, wide open fens, National Trust Scheduled Ancient Monument in t’woods), and each of which has a few smoking pieces of the inventory-filling macguffin you need to take back to the standing stones in the centre of the main island. Increasing numbers and varieties of creepy steampunk robot patrol the islands as you progress.
You’re alone, initially unarmed, foraging for food and equipment among the junk in villages empty but for mechanical killers in tweed. If one sees you, he’ll call others. If you shoot him, the gunshot will bring cyber-toffs from miles around. Running and hiding are the order of the day, inventory management is critical, weapons are clumsy and ammo is scarce. If this sounds like DayZ, it’s because it is, and has the same in-your-face survival mechanics which made DayZ so compelling (despite it being an utterly and increasingly broken game).
It has a great deal of what I like about the STALKER series (which are without a doubt my favourite games ever): a wide-open sandbox where you can see enemies miles off, limited player resources, a total lack of scripting (NPCs have actual AI and move around of their own accord), and fearsome NPC lethality. These all combine to give you a hugely immersive degree of player freedom and player responsibility: you make your approach on your own terms, engage based on your reading of the situation – but if you’ve misjudged or missed a cue, if you’re a little clumsy on the approach or slow on the draw, at best you’ll waste a lot of your limited resources getting away alive, but most of the time you’ve had it.
Most of the time, fighting is not the best option. Much of the time, fighting isn’t even a practical option. That late-game stage when you’ve accumulated enough of the rare guns and ammo make the robot-smashing spree infinitely more satisfying than if they’d given you a piece to start with – but most of the time you’ll be crouched in a field motionless as blazing red eyes sweep the long grass and beeping killers clank back and forth, clutching a half-empty gun for comfort as much as practicality and praying they don’t trip right over you. It’s a game of patience, judgment, and total concentration.
The atmosphere is superb, and the game takes full advantage of its bleak (but frequently heart-stoppingly gorgeous) setting. Much of the game initially feels pseudo-Victorian, but as well as the ruined cathedrals and grim red-brick chimney towers there are wind turbines and modern road signs; it’s a handful of brutalist tower blocks and Business Development Parks away from reality. The enemies, for all the surface silliness of the “haw haw let’s have ROBOTS smoking PIPES” concept, are also genuinely threatening, from the poacherbot who sneaks around in the woods setting traps, to the fox-hunting cyber-toffs on rocket horses and the slow, horrible, two-storey-tall Landlord who stamps across the moors keening mournfully and shrugs off bullets like rain. The audio design is really, really excellent, informative but subtle, and relentlessly atmospheric.
Despite the procedural generation, I’m not sure how much replay value there really is to the game – past a well-designed but limited selection of weapons and tricks to deceive/blow up your robot pursuers, and a menagerie of robots which are differently horrible but all basically to be avoided as much as possible, there’s not that much really in there. Loss of inventory on death coupled with respawning mechanics for items might add a bit of return value, as when you die you load a previous save with all the useful kit (maps, artifact-scanner etc) you had then. But it’s absolutely worth playing through the first couple of times.
I wasn’t expecting “STALKER: Shadow of Northumberland”, but I got it, and it was a very nice surprise after Betrayer (which seemed like it could be “STALKER: Call of Roanoke Colony”) turned out to be such a letdown past the intrinsic coolness of fighting demon conquistadors in monochrome 1604. I’m very glad I played it now, after it’s had a while to mature past Early Access stage, as middling-to-negative reviews elsewhere seem to indicate that it was a bit shonky on launch.