Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Sir, You Are Being Hunted

Post-Launch Review
Sir, You Are Being Hunted
Developer: Big Robot
Released: May 2014
Played: complete in 3h:19min; messed around for 30min in second world


The experiment has gone terribly wrong. You are trapped on a small archipelago until you can repair the machine by finding the pieces scattered across the islands. But you're not alone - robots patrol the islands, aiming to kill you before you can escape. You are being hunted.

At Launch

Sir, You Are Being Hunted earned average review scores of 63%. Reviewers enjoyed the visuals, atmosphere, and dark humour, but criticized it for a lack of depth and unrealized potential.

Post Launch

The 1.1 patch added options for custom biomes, customization of robot spawn frequency and type, some visual options (including a robot visor colour picker to help colour-blind players), and a few bug fixes.

Before I even started playing, I loved the idea of this game. A procedurally-generated survival horror that's different every time you play, so you can never predict the locations of your objectives and enemies? Awesome.

In practice it doesn't seem quite as awesome as I had expected. For one thing you can't enter buildings, merely check the doors for loot. This is already a bit of a letdown, since I was hoping to at least be able to scout terrain from high windows while watching my back for robots. Also, the level geometry doesn't seem particularly complex - most of the terrain is very open and there's little height variation. The greatest obstacle to finding the machine parts is the render distance, not a dense environment or close pursuit. And I experienced little variation between island biomes - the architecture, vegetation, and topography felt quite similar in most areas, such that I couldn't usually tell which island I was on just by looking around.
On that note, I was just beginning to get frustrated with finding small parts on large islands when I killed a butcher bot and found a scanner on its... corpse? I guess? Anyway, the scanner seemed great at first - it pointed me towards parts more quickly and very accurately. But after finding a few parts with the scanner my opinion swung the other way - the range of the scanner is so high that I no longer felt like I was searching, merely walking from objective to objective. I would fix both extremes by a) letting the player know that the scanner exists without requiring a kill, and b) reduce the range and/or the accuracy of the scanner so the player still has to do some work.

I didn't find myself particularly tense or frightened. Most of the robots aren't especially tough, so early in the game, the main concern is ammo: sure, there may be only two robots guarding this part, but you'd better make sure the surroundings are clear or you'll be facing a dozen backup bots and their hounds with only six bullets in your revolver. The tension does ratchet up quite a bit over the course of the game - more and tougher robots appear as you find machine parts. 
But still it never quite feels like horror. The robots are a little too goofy to really be scary. It also rarely feels like I'm actually being hunted. It's obvious that most robots are assigned to guard a specific location, like a building or a machine part. When the majority of the robots are just kind of shuffling around a small area, I don't exactly feel like the enemy is hot on my heels and I need to keep moving and hiding to survive. There are patrol groups that travel around the map, but the islands are large enough that they're fairly easy to avoid. Even when searching for the last piece I still had plenty of room to sprint around without being spotted.

Even when you are spotted it's usually very easy to hide. The long grass maximizes your stealth, so much of the time the solution to being spotted is to sprint until you find long grass, then crouch and keep moving. I'd appreciate more ways to hide - a more complex landscape, or caves/hollows to duck into, as opposed to simply lying down in the grass every time.
And there are a surprisingly large amount of distraction options, despite the overabundance of junk items. This is pretty neat - you can set a toy train to drive forward and pull robots away, throw rocks quietly but far or bottles loudly and closer, or set an alarm clock to ring after a delay. You can light fires to cook meat, but I actually found them more useful for drawing tons of attention to somewhere I no longer was. The item balance is a little odd: if you spend a lot of time searching houses, you'll have too many useful items to carry, and you'll never be at risk of starving and always have several options to tackle the robots. I found it too easy to scavenge supplies - I never had to risk using dubious rotten food since I always had access to the good stuff.

After all this criticism I thought I'd give the game a second chance and generate a new world to see if I was wrong about the variability and generation. This time I messed with the island generation and discovered that there's a biome I missed the first time around - I'd generated two rural islands without realizing it on my first play. In total there are five biome types, and you get five islands. When I paid closer attention to how the environments differed, moving quickly between the different island types, I appreciated the variation a little more. Mountains have more height variation, fens are flatter and harder to hide in, rural is fairly balanced with lots of grass. The castle is a bit of a disappointment, since it's mostly just large, straight ruined walls, but the industrial area - the one I missed the first time around - is probably the most unique. Smokestacks, electrical towers, canals, garbage dumps... It feels the most different and impressive since its common architecture isn't repeated anywhere else.

I also found a few new items the second time around, such as wire cutters for recovering placed traps, some letters and books you can read, and a mysterious talisman that turns you invisible for 20 seconds, which is a powerful item that's great for the endgame when you're struggling for your last pieces. There is more to this game than met the eye the first time through.

The custom options help the variability a bit, but they're a little hidden. You have to go into the game options to enable custom biomes at all, because it's possible to generate areas that kind of break the game. Robot customization is easier to find, but unless you want to disable robots completely it's better left alone until after you know what each type of bot does.

So after a rather lackluster first playthrough and some newly-noticed details on the second, how do I feel about this game?
A custom biome

Recommendation: don't play it.

Despite some fun and clever elements, my overall recommendation has to be no. The artifact hunt is too much of a needle-in-a-haystack... unless you find a scanner, and then it becomes too easy. The landscape and item array are somewhat monotonous and lack variation. Most importantly, Sir, You Are Being Hunted failed to sell me on its premise - that I was being hunted. It felt more like there just happened to be hostile robots around, not like I was being actively sought out.
I must note that I did feel a sense of potential. With more visual variation, tweaked scanner range/functionality, more complex terrain generation, and more aggressive or intelligent robot AI, this could be a really tense and interesting survival game.


  1. Sir your review has gone terribly wrong....
    you seemed to have missed the fact that this is not a survival horror but a open world stealth survival game, may I ask what you were expecting from a dynamic open world -a scripted story perhaps, of course the objective is going to be to find things and bring them back to something- it gives you a reason to move around the map and get into dangerous situations, if the AI was actively pursuing you, you wouldn't stand a chance, instead they pratrol the landscape and gather where you need to be what else could you ask for. And the scanner is a rare item usually you have to rely on blue orbs which fly around the landscape and take you too you're objective.

    1. Sir, I must disagree - I feel that it is your comment that has gone terribly wrong.

      First up, if it's not a horror game, then why do the Steam and GOG store pages both call it horror?

      Second, I'm not sure where you got the idea that I wanted a scripted story, since I never mention that anywhere in the review.

      And finally, it's the developer's job to sell me on the premise. The idea that I wouldn't stand a chance if the AI was really hunting me is nonsense - it's the developer's job to solve that very problem. Would you play a Grand Theft Auto game where you can't steal cars, or a Pokémon game where you can't catch 'em all? In any case the elements are already there - the robots are slower than the player at a sprint, and there are lots of places to hide. In fact, hiding is often too easy.