Preview: Hunt: Showdown puts a monster-hunting twist on the battle royale genre

You and your co-op partner keep your voices down as you creep through the dark foliage and water of a Louisiana swamp in the late 19th century. You're bounty hunters, and you're tasked with locating, killing, and then "banishing" an inhuman monster that lurks somewhere in the map around you. If you can complete the banishing ritual and escape alive with the spoils you'll be rewarded, but that's a task that is much easier said than done.

This is the world of Hunt: Showdown from Crytek, a game which bares little resemblance to the spiritual successor to Darksiders which the title originally was, back when it was called Hunt: Horrors of the Gilded Age. This is a co-op multiplayer first-person shooter that will be instantly recognizable to fans of Playerunkown's Battlegrounds or similar Battle Royale-style games, only now players are competing for a single shared objective: monster hunting. 

Four teams of two players will spawn into a game of Hunt without knowing where other teams are, how many monster "targets" are hiding in the map, or what sorts of monsters they will be hunting. The first stage of the game unfolds as a search for clues that will help teams narrow down the location and nature of their targets. In the second stage, a team will confront, kill, and then begin to "banish" a monster (literally sending it back to Hell, performing a ritual that takes a few minutes). In the final stage, teams will attempt to escape the map alive with the valuable loot dropped by the target monsters. 

What takes Hunt to the next level, if the demo I saw at E3 2017 is any indication, is the fact that hunting other players is just as viable a strategy as hunting the monster targets. 

The world of Hunt: Showdown

Hunt is set in the late 19th century (which means no fancy M16s for you) on an Earth that is being invaded by evil. Monsters from Hell itself have begun to creep into our world, and bounty hunters have come forward to kill and banish these abominations (providing the price is right of course). 

The Hunt developers stressed that they wanted to feature locations not typically seen in games set in this time period, so don't expect to see industrial London in Hunt. Instead players will be visiting "the dark corners of the world," exploring wilderness and isolated rural areas. Right now the only map the team is speaking about publicly is the one I saw in the demo, a Louisiana swamp at night dotted with a few rundown buildings, but the plan is for the game to eventually feature multiple maps. Everything in the E3 demo looked absolutely gorgeous (as should be expected from Crytek), with occasional flames and flashlights standing out in stark contrast to the deep black of the swamp trees and water. 

Hunt match will task the teams with defeating between one and three main monster targets, the exact number being one of the things you have to find out by exploring and gathering clues. These key monsters will be lurking in random locations throughout the map, and gathering clues (which come in the form of visions which show the player their monster target's perspective for a few moments) will be essential in order to quickly narrow down your search area. Of course finding your target isn't the same as killing it, and in the E3 demo the target was a horrible giant spider which scurried around the ceiling and walls of a ramshackle barn, attacking fiercely before disappearing into the darkness again and again.

The spider looked like a formidable foe, in addition to being one of the most unpleasant enemies I've ever seen in a videogame. If the infamous spiders in Skyrim bother you, this one will send you screaming into the hills. 

The world of Hunt is populated by more monsters than just your main targets. As you explore and hunt for clues you'll frequently come across AI-controlled enemies, including zombies, giant leeches, dogs, and special elite foes like the massive "Meathead" or a humanoid infected with insects known as "the Hive." These beasts are gruesome to look at and almost all make loud and horrible sounds, sure to alert other nearby players of your presence. 

Maps in Hunt are about a square kilometer in size, which means finding your targets (or other players) won't be easy. In a traditional deathmatch-style FPS this could be a problem, but Hunt looks to use its large map effectively to create long periods of quiet searching and preparation broken up by frantic action. It's perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the game, which the developers say is all about tension and fear. 

Character progression, permadeath, and sound

If you die in a Hunt match your teammate can revive you, but if your teammate is also killed then that character is permanently dead. Hunt will feature a progression system involving both XP and in-game money, which will allow you to level up different hunter types from a pool of classes and to purchase new weapons and items for your characters. While some progression will carry over in the form of something called the "bloodline" system, you'll lose the weapons and items a character is carrying permanently if your team is wiped out. The developers said they wanted to bring "the fear of death" back into shooters with Hunt, and a serious consequence for dying is definitely one way to do that. 

Paranoia is a major theme in Hunt, and that extends to the game's sound design. The game is designed to use built-in VoIP based on in-game proximity so players can potentially "overhear" other players who are nearby. Most of the game's weapons and items make loud noises or bright lights that can be detected from range, and engaging with the non-target monsters that fill the world always involves deciding whether possibly attracting attention is going to be worth it. You'll need to kill these enemies to uncover clues (and to earn XP), but getting into a messy firefight with zombies is a great way to make you vulnerable to another team of hunters sneaking up behind you. 

Hunting the hunters

While I haven't yet fallen victim to Battlegrounds fever, Hunt: Showdown looks like a fascinating game to me. A big reason for that is the way the core monster hunting objective plays into player vs. player combat. While Battlegrounds forces players to fight one another via its gradually shrinking map, Hunt puts the responsibility for initiating conflict squarely on the players. One team is going to get out alive with the spoils of monster killing, but whether that team is the one that actually killed the monsters is far from certain. 

If you spot another team off in the distance, it might be better to just remain unseen if you're making good progress towards a monster target. Or maybe you believe that team is further along in terms of clue gathering than you, and it might be best to just start following them, hoping they will lead you to a monster. You could let that team attack the monster and do the hard work of killing it, then swoop in while they are weak, kill them, and take the treasure for your own. 

One particularly devious strategy highlighted by the devs could come about if a team stumbles upon a monster target early, by sheer chance rather than by gathering clues to narrow down its location. In this case, the team might decide to leave the monster alive and wait in ambush for other teams to come along once they've followed the trail of clues to the same location. Once the other players have engaged the monster, the first team can pick their competitors off with the element of surprise. 

When a team begins the "banishing" ritual that will kick off the final stage of a Hunt match, all the other players on the map will become aware of their location. In the E3 demo, we saw a team kill and begin to banish the horrible giant spider, and then they needed to defend themselves as other teams came running. The defending team pulled a switch which turned on external floodlights, illuminating the attacking teams, and began picking some of them off. At the same time, though, zombies were attacking all of the teams indiscriminately, making for a chaotic scene where it was tough for any player to know which way the biggest threat was coming from. 

Once the banishing ritual was complete, the team that killed the spider grabbed the loot at starting running towards a designated "exit" point that appeared on the map. As they ran they were pursued by the remaining players, and bullets whizzed by until a well-thrown firebomb cut off the other teams and allowed the spider-killers to escape and claim their reward. 

If you like the idea of Battle Royale games but want a smaller, tenser experience with more polish, flavor, and style, Hunt: Showdown is a game to watch. 

Check Out Our Full E3 2017 Coverage