Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

The Hunt (PC, 2008, Russia): Worth Tracking Down, Heh Heh
July 27, 2011, 5:14 am
Filed under: The Hunt (PC, 2008, Russia)

While developing the first-person survival-horror brawler “Condemned: Criminal Origins” (2005), it seems highly likely that some of the dudes at Monolith got their hands on the Russian game “Chernaja Metka” (also known as “The Hunt,” “Black Label,” and released in French-speaking territories as “Traque”) and exclaimed: “Oh shit! We have to make a game like this!”

Yeah, that would be neat. Except, since we’re talking about an eastern European game, it’s the other way around. What I mean is, as usual, the developers at Orion Games in Russia must’ve obtained some beat-up, used copies of “Condemned,” which then led to a bunch of brainstorming and chin-stroking. Yup, “Condemned” (2005) predates “The Hunt” (2008) by three years, so this is yet another case of an earnest Russian developer attempting to emulate a triple-A title…and sort of succeeding. (Oh, and throw some “Manhunt” into the mix for good measure.) Mimicry is the best form of flattery, as they say.

No surprise, there are so many similarities among these titles—beyond the mechanics and extending into the atmospherics—that a lawsuit, rather than a coincidence, seems more likely. Since it is actually a highly competent, relatively high-quality title, I imagine copyright issues are probably why the game was never released domestically in the west. Of course when we’re talking about bottom-shelf games, none of that is a black mark.

For those players who have walloped their way through “Condemned,” here’s a quick list of stuff that will sound familiar: Regular hobo-type folks (though crazed) instead of monsters as enemies? Check. Dirty urban locales, burned out warehouses, underground tunnels, an abandoned church, and a dump? Checkeedoo. Emphasis on up-close brawling and melee weapons, like fire axes, pipes, wrenches, machetes, wooden clubs? Checkeriffic. Guns that are scarce and cannot be reloaded—you chuck the firearm, and snag a melee weapon, as soon as the firearm is empty? Checkeroni. You can only hold one weapon at a time, which means constant thieving of weapons from downed enemies. Checker-yupper. Generally dark, gritty, forboding fighting environments, leading to a lot of creeping around waiting for the next arsehole to jump out from behind a door and slam you in the face? Checker checker. Minimal sound design emphasizing the creaking of girders, the hissing of steam pipes, and the skin-crawling buzz of flickering fluorescent lights? Chicky check. A deliberately slow pace designed to induce dread? I’ve run out of stupid ways to say “check.”

I’d say that “The Hunt” is indeed so close to “Condemned” (either one in the series), that if you played the latter title, but then got seriously cracked on the head by a real-life hobo and forgot, someone could slide the former under your nose and you might not notice.

Of course, “The Hunt” isn’t a carbon copy. The two games do diverge. One unique element is the narrative, and in this regard, honestly, I think “The Hunt” actually comes out on top. (I don’t know about you, but the story in either “Condemned” game made my head spin). The (probably way too complex) near-future dystopian backstory in “The Hunt” goes like this: In 2025, after the 5th Reform, Moscow is in better financial and technological shape than ever. So why is everyone so depressed? Outbreaks of violence pepper the streets, all out of boredom. Citizens line up for mood-altering prescription drugs. Psychologists call it the “Mass Depression.” Then, an internet gaming sensation called “Black Mark” comes to the rescue. Nothing more than a child’s game of cops and robbers, people begin buying small kits of radio beacons and radar detectors. After planting the beacon on some unsuspecting victim, “Hunters” find the victim who carries the beacon and is accosted with water pistols. If the victim is smart and fast enough, he or she may be able to pass the marker on to some other unsuspecting player before being discovered. The game takes the country by storm, and the depression seems to lift.

But then everything changes. A powerful television station, in partnership with the totalitarian government, creates a new show with the same name “Black Mark.” Only in this version, called an “important social experiment” by influential politicians, a new twist is added: Death. At random, innocent citizens are implanted with a viral tag that, if removed, will kill the recipient. Then sanctioned groups of brutal Hunters track the victim, who can remain alive only by evasion or by standing toe-to-toe with the psycho hunters–all of it televised, not only for the public to see, but to also place bets and win money. Ultimately, the idea behind the televised event is to quench people’s bloodlust so that they stop randomly terrorizing each other on the street—and also to show the populace that violence (specifically, violence not sanctioned by the government) will be dealt with swiftly, even to the unsuspecting.

In the midst of all this, you play an unassuming, 30-year-old web designer, Nicolai Kamalov (I’ve also seen it as Nicholas Comolo) who lives in a small apartment. A phone call wakes you up one average evening, and the stranger on the other end of the phone explains, simply, that you’ve been given the black mark as you left a bar the night before. You are now the not-so-proud owner of the viral tag that makes you the unwitting enemy for all the hunters and the star of the TV show. You turn on your TV to confirm, and indeed, according to the female host of the “Black Label” television show, you are the new “Running Man” (I didn’t say that out loud, did I?), and the hunters are on their way to your place. Shit.

Unfortunately, there’s one hiccup. While the marker can be passed surreptitiously from one victim to another to escape a violent end (you can basically let someone else die in your place if you’re sneaky enough), there is, eventually, an “end of the line,” where the marker can no longer be handed off. You, as it turns out, are the last recipient of this particular marker, and you’ll have to see it through to the end. The voice on the phone says he might be able to help you eliminate the marker—through the efforts of an underground social movement who are radically opposed to this brutality, called the “Anti-Label” or “White Label” group. So, off you go into the dark streets, empty subways, sewer tunnels, (and a freaking bizarre amusement park, more on that in a minute) to try and find the promised help. And who knows? Maybe you’ll take a side trip to the damn television station that is airing this awful program to give the management a piece of your mind.

Things go sour pretty quickly. Almost as soon as you open your apartment door and step out into the stairwell, you are accosted by freako hunters with drooling lips, hideous masks, and big, bladed whatzits—all of them looking to rip you apart. Better get running!

As you run, and attempt to defend yourself, you learn bits and pieces of the current state of affairs (the backstory)—through laptops strewn about filthy basements and industrial sites. Also, interestingly, you’ll come across televisions that you can turn on, and the same live host of the “Black Label” TV show will discuss your latest victory clobbering some hunter, while urging viewers to call in their bets. Sound like the movie “Running Man?” (Wait a minute! I didn’t mention that again, did I? This is a videogame blog, not a movie blog.)

One thing never really discussed in a sensible way is the mark itself. What exactly is this “black mark?” Well, wanting a precise definition is simply asking way too much. In some cases, it seems like it is something that can be foisted upon you, like a piece of lint from the bottom of your coat pocket, or someone else’s $80 parking ticket. But then in other instances, it is called “viral” (and it sends out a signal that actually allows the hunters to locate you), and it can only be removed by an injection of something or other, although removing it may cause death. While this might make sense, then a new question arises: If it is biologically implanted, how can you obtain the marker without being aware of it (which is exactly what happened to the character you play)? Also, how precisely can it be passed from person to person? Literally, the game says if you want to get rid of it, you can secretly pass it onto someone else, who then has the bullseye on their forehead. Either way, it’s never clear exactly what the marker is…but hey, it’s the near-future, and you wouldn’t understand it anyway. And stop asking questions before I hit you upside the head with this lead pipe…

A few other interesting mechanics diverge from “Condemned” as well, and most of them work. While in “Condemned” (the first one anyway), Agent Ethan Thomas conducts investigations of crime scenes to further the plot, in the “Hunt,” you have a PDA which serves as a similar “something to do other than brawling” gameplay device. All around the dirty urban landscapes, there are “wifi” connection points which your PDA can access (you have to run around with your PDA in your hand—instead of a weapon and hence vulnerable—tracking signal strength…sort of like an investigation, I guess). Once you get close enough to a wifi point (there are actual wifi junction boxes stuck to the walls that are hard to see, but they are always there where a signal has been detected), you can connect and open locked doors, scan for lurking enemies through cameras, etc. Also, at some of these wifi points, you may place your own bets on your own performance on the show that you are unwillingly starring in, just like all viewers can. Want to place a bet that you’ll be able to stealth your next enemy and take him down with a special finishing move? Then go for it! (By the way, there are some timed-sensitive neckbreaking moves that are nothing special, but stealth kills get you out of having to take damage if you can successfully sneak up behind a hunter.) But beware: If you end up not using a finishing move but instead alert him to your presence and have to chop him into pieces, you lose your money. If your bets are accurate, it is one way to quickly increase your cash reserves, which can used at vending machines throughout the game (placed here and there) to buy medkits, mines (which are damn fun to use on the violent hobos and mask-wearing freakos), nightvision goggles, degradable armor, etc. Why can’t the vending machines outside Walmart sell cool stuff like that?

One last mentionable that strays from the “Condemned” recipe: “The Hunt” makes some attempts at dark humor and half-succeeds. There is one chapter of the game that takes place in a garishly bright, neon-colored, sunlit amusement park that has been inhabited by bloodthirsty clowns, all of whom are hunters out to kill you with their yellow and red clown axes and their bright blue, ridiculously-oversized clown hammers. Pretty fun, and it reminded me, at least in flashes, of running around the amusement park in “Left for Dead 2.” There is a forced minigame in this section (a shooting gallery), and you also get a paintball gun to splatter the killers (which is pretty much ineffective, except as a gag.) Orion got this dead-on right.

In fact, there’s a host of gameplay elements that Orion Games got right. First, you’ve got pretty much a full screen to play in, with a dissolving HUD.  Love it. While the guns feel weak (they aren’t really the focus of the game anyway), the sledgehammer , fire axe, and crowbar—indeed all the melee weapons—feel appropriately weighty, and they swing like they are heavy weapons. They look realistic too. The enemies gradually get tougher as the game progresses (and ultimately you defend yourself against “The Censors,” who are basically paramilitary troops with automatic guns who work for the television station that you infiltrate), and the game doles out suitable weapons to do the job, but you never feel overstocked or cocky. So Orion nailed the resource management part of the game. The gameplay never lagged—the path was usually relatively clear, though some sections took some thinking, and I never really felt stuck. I did, however, get wonderfully lost in the game’s tension, just like when I played the “Condemned” titles, and that says a lot. Overall, this really is a gem—utterly and completely an unapologetic “Condemned/Manuhunt” ripoff—but it is exceedingly well done, really from beginning to end. (Though warning, the end falls off the map entirely…why do these Russian games always melt under their own weight at the end? But ah, that’s part of their…uhhh…charm.)

ENGLISH TRANSLATION STUFF: If you want to play the English-spoken version of the game, the voiceovers aren’t that bad. To get the English-spoken version, you should look for the game as “Traque,” which is the French version—yes, the French version is English-spoken. Otherwise, you’ll have Russian voices. The problem is that all the text in “Traque” (menus, notes, etc.) is all in French. So, you should also pick up the translation materials created by yours truly (they are not perfect but serviceable) that will put most of the text in the game into English too. So, if you play the French version “Traque” with the English translation materials inserted, you get the game in all English, yay. Following is a link to 3D Shooter Legends. Just use the search bar and type in “Hunt” then look for the translation materials link:

Tiny postscript: Orion Games also developed the mindbendingly wtf “kitchen sink” title “Hellforces” (see discussion here on this blog). Unbelievably, in one room in “The Hunt” right before a mini-boss battle, I came across a wooden crate stamped with the words “Hacksley: The New Dawn,” just sitting by itself in the corner. I immediately stopped. Why the hell did that sound familiar? What does it mean? It took my brain 5 minutes to engage properly, but then it dawned on me:  Hacksley is a character (and The New Dawn is his religious group) that plays a prominent role in the absolutely bizarre, confusing plot in “Hellforces.” Talk about an inside joke. But lo and behold I got that inside joke.

And that most assuredly makes me a mega loser.