Hunt: Showdown is just incredible

It only took a few moments for me to realize that Hunt: Showdown might be one of the most visually stunning games I've seen in years. Two hunters skulk through a swamp. Behind them, pale moonlight is diffused through a ghastly fog while the silhouette of one hunter presses through gnarled and twisted trees. In a field only a few meters away, two teams of rival player hunters exchange fire, their muzzle flashes giving away their location as the one I'm watching and his partner slip quietly by. To call Hunt: Showdown moody would be underselling it.

There's no shortage of survival games, but Hunt: Showdown feels more like multiplayer Stalker-meets-Resident Evil.

Anyone who has played DayZ or Playerunknown's Battlegrounds can tell you that survival games are often remarkably tense. But Hunt: Showdown's stunning lighting and festering bayous are stifling. I'm sitting in the Crytek booth at E3, watching a hands-off walkthrough of a multiplayer match, but even without a mouse and keyboard in my hands, I can feel the dread mounting with each step the hunters take.

When Hunt: Showdown (then called Hunt: Horrors of the Gilded Age) was first announced in 2014, it felt like a kind of Left 4 Dead clone. But then Crytek stumbled into financial woes and the fate of the project seemed uncertain. Watching it now, it's obvious a whole lot more has changed than just the name. It's practically an entirely different game. And it's one of my favorite things I've seen at E3.

Creepy crawlies

Hunt: Showdown is now a PvP horror sneakfest where five teams of two players set off to track and kill between one and three demons in exchange for bounties that'll advance their characters in various ways. Each team spawns on the edge of the map and must skulk through the darkness avoiding monsters and each other to find clues about where the demonic targets are located. Once they find a target, they'll have to choose whether to attack it and try to exfiltrate the map with the precious loot or let another team take it on and ambush them when they're vulnerable. It's evident that, like a good survival game, critical decision-making is going to haunt you every step of the way.

I say 'haunt' because decisions in Hunt: Showdown can have serious consequences: If your hunter dies, they are gone forever. Weapons, equipment, and even some of your abilities will be gone, while some passive 'bloodline traits' will carry over to your new character. With such punishing consequences for death, it's easy to see why you won't want to go running and gunning across the map in pursuit of your mark.

A Crytek spokesperson told me that Hunt: Showdown is all about gut-wrenching risk versus reward. During an early portion of the demo, the two hunters stumble upon a group of zombie-like enemies and decide that—because they were fairly confident the other teams were far away—they should engage them. Environments in Hunt are dark—and I really mean dark. Killing a zombie might seem like a good idea until you realize there's another 12 hiding in the trees. One of the hunters decides to launch a flare and bathe the surrounding swamp in flickering blue-white light, and the ensuing fight with six more zombies just about kills them both.

Fortunately, the map has several resupply zones where hunters can heal up and grab more ammo. But again, there's a major risk as the camps are illuminated by torchlight and entering them will reveal your position to any teams who might happen to be waiting in the darkness.

Once the team heals up, they set out to track one of their demon targets. In Hunt: Showdown, between one and two targets can spawn randomly in any number of compounds that litter the map. These areas are extremely dangerous and full of weaker monsters, so it's best not to enter one unless you're sure a demon is inside. To find that out, hunters can search for hellish portals, which temporarily allow them to see through the demon's eyes and figure out where it might be hiding. If you activate three portals, a marker on your map will automatically mark the boss enemy.

The two hunters manage to figure out one demon's location and track it to a farm, and decide to tackle the monster head on. It's here that Hunt: Showdown's dreadful atmosphere becomes full-blown horror. As they creep into the hayloft of a barn, they find the demon tarantula skulking in the corner, clicking and gnashing its mandibles at them. The moment one opens fire, the demon charges at them. I'm not usually bothered by spiders in games, but this one is so unnerving and spider-like I feel myself tense up every time it darts from one corner to the next. It clings to walls, darting out a ceiling window unnaturally quickly before reappearing.

Once the monster is dead, the hunters begin the process of banishing it back to hell. Doing so drops the loot they need in order to progress their characters, but it also notifies every other team on the map so they can try to intervene. Banishing starts a countdown that takes several minutes to finish, leaving plenty of time for PvP between teams battling for the bounty.

Once they start banishing, another team rushes into the compound to try to steal the bounty. That's when one of the hunters starts the compound generator, turning on all of the lights and drawing the attention of nearby monsters. The area devolves into chaos as both teams exchange fire while also dispatching the zombies flooding into the area. In all the commotion, the two hunters are able to grab the bounty and make a break for the exfiltration zone at the end of the map.

There's no shortage of survival games on Steam, but Hunt: Showdown feels more like multiplayer Stalker-meets-Resident Evil that just happens to feature permadeath than something like DayZ. I can't wait to play it for myself and see if that delicate balance between risk and reward is really as engrossing as it appears to be. At this time Crytek is unwilling to talk release date, but told us that it will invite players in to test the game before release—it's unclear whether that means Early Access or a closed beta.

With more multiplayer survival games branching into horror territory, Hunt: Showdown could easily get lost in all the noise. I hope that doesn't happen because it feels like the one PvP survival horror game that could actually deliver.