"Want to come die in a swamp with me?" That's how I convince PC Gamer magazine editor Robin Valentine to join me in the competitive survival shooter Hunt: Showdown. This game is not a glamorous power fantasy. You sneak around very carefully, only firing your guns if absolutely necessary. If you're lucky, or clever, you might get to your final target without firing a shot.
You aren't just dealing with a cruel roster of special zombies; you're in a race with other human teams who have loaded into the same map looking to gather clues and isolate the hidden boss monster before anyone else. Every shot you fire echoes across the map, and the sound distorts realistically over distance.
The game sensibly recommends you play with a headset. This doesn't just enhance the game's tense, paranoid atmosphere, but it makes you better able to survive. Strong directional audio gives you a lot of information about what's happening beyond your line of sight. The echoing report of a rifle blast from a nearby village is a cue to avoid that location, or charge towards it if you're feeling aggressive. Just one shot: probably taking down a basic zombie. Multiple frantic shots: there's probably a big creature there, or a pack of zombie dogs.
The developers like to use sound to toy with you. The swamp is littered with audio traps. Twigs snap underfoot as you traipse through woodland. Hanging chains in shacks jangle noisily if you're foolish enough to go through them. In the open roads and fields you need to be wary of startling a conspiracy of ravens pecking at the dirt. Their squawks alert nearby zombies and players, and the sight of them taking flight gives opponents a strong visual clue to your whereabouts.
Even talking brings risk. Your words project into the game world realistically from your character, reflecting the direction and distance of your separation from your co-op partner. It gets harder to hear Robin if I race ahead, and of course other players might be able to hear our chatter too if we're jawing too loudly. As I yell "CROWS TO THE RIGHT, CROWS TO THE RIGHT," there's a chance I'm making as much noise as the birds would if we spooked them.
Then there are the horses. Horse carcasses are everywhere but a few of them aren't quite dead yet. Venture too close and they can writhe and scream very loudly. Robin compares them to car alarms in Left 4 Dead.
Hunt's detailed audio presents a tense traversal challenge as you rush to gather clues in the first stage of the round, but you can use noise to your advantage. A great big zombie was sitting on a clue we needed. Robin snuck away and rang a bell, and the creature lumbered towards the noise, allowing me to slip in and grab the clue.
It's not a revelatory sequence, but the game didn't need to explicitly tell us that such a tactic would work. The detailed audio simulation merely behaved as expected—an emergent moment of trickery arising from Hunt's intricate sonic sandbox.
I still have a long way to go in Hunt: Showdown, but after my experiences in the first few hours I have a feeling it might be extremely good. Consider giving it a look if you're looking for a grueling, fascinating new co-op experience.