My gaming life has been a revolving door of competitive shooters. The day I finally made the jump from console to PC is the day shooters suddenly got more serious. I briefly got into CS:GO, then Overwatch for a while, and then Rainbow Six Siege for many years. I like all of these games for very different reasons, but they all share a few qualities that I've come to resent: the pressure to do well accompanied by a badge or rank that symbolizes your worth.
When friends want to jump into a ranked Overwatch match, I'm usually the first one to suggest we stick to Quick Play. My hesitation has nothing to do with the mode itself—ranked modes often represent the most robust, fairest format that a game can be played. My problem is that every time ranked raises the stakes, the game itself becomes less interesting.
As players become committed to winning no matter the cost, strategies stagnate as both teams feel like their only option is to play the best, strongest, meta-approved combination of characters and guns. I went down that road as a platinum Siege player, paved with nothing but boring Ash mains and toxic teammates. I don't want to do that again.
The Hunt difference
It's exactly the reason why my most-played game of 2021 and 2022 is Hunt: Showdown. Hunt defies traditional FPS balance with a format that encourages asymmetrical power struggles. I can buy whatever gun I want before entering a match, including powerful bolt-action rifles that are better in every way than most other guns in the game. The only catch is that good guns will quickly exhaust hard-earned Hunt Dollars. Hunt guns are balanced in a way that everything from a $9 revolver to a $500 bolt-action rifle is viable. Even the LeMat, a clunky $95 pistol/shotgun combo gun that I love despite its bad stats, can beat out a $700 Dolch pistol if I score a headshot.
My first few hundred matches of Hunt were full of players who, like me, treat Hunt more like a performative cowboy fantasy shooter than an ultra serious esport. While we were still learning the game, we'd often encounter players with novel loadouts or those who were willing to negotiate out of a fight via voice chat before firing on sight.
For a while, I believed Hunt: Showdown's novel approach to balance meant it was immune to the competitive obsession with metas and ranks that brings the worst out of other games. I think for the average player, that's actually true.
But as we kept playing, we kept getting better. We slowly started climbing through Hunt's 6-star ranking system, a simple MMR setup that judges your personal kill/death ratio and ranks you based on recent performance. For a long time we floated somewhere between 4 stars and 5 stars, but a few months ago, all three of us became 5-star hunters at once. Once we hit that threshold, every server we'd join was now full of other 5-stars (or in other words, the top 15% to 20% of players in our region). It seems like such a minor difference, but it was like a flip had been switched. Gone were the goofy loadouts and talkative combatants: we had entered the domain of sweaty tryhards, and it stank.
Hunt has over 20 sidearms in its gun shop, but if you're a 5-star player, there's actually only one: the Caldwell Conversion Uppercut. The Uppercut is a regular-looking revolver with an abnormally large chamber capable of firing massive rifle bullets out of a small gun ("uppercut" refers to its massive recoil). It's one of the most expensive pistols because it's also the most powerful. Once you get used to the recoil, it's easily the most versatile gun in the game (so much so that Crytek is in the process of nerfing it). It's useful up close, far away, inside, outside, and everywhere between.
I don't have a problem with the Uppercut being dominant. That's sort of the point of the gun: for the steep price of $275, you get a pocket cannon that's difficult to master. You're not really meant to use it all the time, so it works out.
The Uppercut has been this good since we first started playing Hunt, but we didn't start seeing it in every single match until we became 5-stars. The pistol has become so common that its constant presence is getting on our nerves. Finding an Uppercut on the corpse of an enemy has become the symbol of a player seemingly more interested in winning and ranking up than getting the most out of what Hunt has to offer.
Another encounter unique to 5-star lobbies is the K/D farmer, a player typically identified by their expensive long-range sniper rifle outfitted with Spitzer ammo to increase its muzzle velocity. These players are particularly annoying because they choose to ignore Hunt's main bounty hunt goal and instead spend the entire match in bushes picking off players who actually play the game. The goal is to boost their kill/death ratio and rank up as easily as possible. Anybody who isn't a K/D farmer pretty much hates K/D farmers. They have as little honor as they have shame.
Sometimes, they'll go as far as to kill themselves to preserve their stats or Alt+F4 before you can finish them off—a wimpy tactic that, unfortunately, works. We've been picked off many times by a trio of K/D farmers, and they're usually maxed out at 6-stars.
It's striking to me that even in a game like Hunt with a diverse collection of guns, perks, traps, and tools to play with, some players still choose to distill it all down to the best, most broken, or easily exploitable tactics to win. And for what, really? Rank matters even less in Hunt than it does in Siege or Overwatch. There are no account badges, exclusive skins, or shiny gun charms to be earned for reaching 6-star and there's no lucrative esports league to graduate into.
And yet, the players at the top have the power to make the game less fun for everyone else. As much as I hate to admit it, a lobby full of Mosin rifles and Uppercut users who sit in bushes all day does make it harder to enjoy my crappy LeMat pistols. It often feels like, if we don't want to lose the first fight we get into, we should lean into the meta that 5-star Hunt is shoving down our throats.
I don't want to do that either. If I'm not occasionally saying "screw it" and running headfirst into enemies with a Bomb Lance, then I might as well be playing CS:GO. I really just want to go back to 4-star Hunt, where dare I say, the cool players are. We have briefly returned to cool Hunt after losing a bunch and getting booted out of 5-star, but we inevitably return to Hunt Hell after a few successful matches.
At least it's actually possible to find peak Hunt. The majority of players don't take the game so seriously, something I wish I could say about the other shooters I love. Thankfully, Hunt is too good of a game to be ruined by its top-level meta. But the last few months have been a rude awakening that if there is a game to be spoiled with obsessive competition, somebody will do it. I hope that upcoming balancing changes will make Hunt's least interesting strategies less reliable.