I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that life in the Wild West was bad enough, even before the Devil started messing with people’s lives and making it all kinds of weird and occult. It’s enough to make you feel a smidgeon of pity for Gin Carter and his gang of bandits and outlaws caught up in his wild soul-stealing schemes in Hard West 2. Then again, it is their own fault for trying to rob the Ghost Train and get one over on the notorious trickster.
Having played through the opening level of Hard West 2 earlier this year, and with the game’s release just around the corner next week, we got a preview of a mission from much later in the game. Grand Bank Robbery is exactly what it sounds like, a classic Western set up with Gin Carter eager to race into town, get to the vault, grab the gold and get back out of there. It’s a plan that’s far from the best kept secret when one of the Sheriff’s deputies turns up to try and ward him off, but Carter’s negotiation tactics seem to predominantly rely on making a barrel smoke…
So what lies ahead is an all-out frontal assault on a classically styled Western town, battling down the main street to reach the bank. It’s the kind of fight that can go one of two ways, with a fraught shootout at range with goodies and baddies hunkering down behind cover, or with a mad dash through the streets. With occult powers on their side, Carter’s gang choose the latter. A cautious XCOM-like this game is not.
Grzegorz Ziemba, Lead Producer said, “Our goal, designing Hard West 2, was to make the tactical gamepaly feel like a Western. if you’ve played any XCOM-likes, you probably know that they don’t really feel very Western – it’s more about hiding behind cover, waiting for enemies and opportunities to flank enemies, while in Hard West 2, it’s you that’s really going after the enemy. We actually discourage hiding behind cover, especially later on in the game – it’s constantly about pushing forward.”
For one thing, there’s no overwatch system, so you can’t turtle your way across a level taking cover at every opportunity – the closest equivalent is the Duellist Shot, letting a character that’s being attacked quickly draw and fire back first. For another, while you have access to ricochet shots to get past an enemy’s cover, some of them can pull the same trick, dealing a hefty blow to each of your characters’ limited pools of health.
You’re also encouraged to really go for it by the streamlined and more deterministic chance to hit. It’s just 0%, 25%, 50%, 75% and 100%, so you have a cleaner understanding of the odds. Those odds can be rigged by using Luck, which is awarded to your characters in the even of a missed attack or taking damage. With enough Luck, you can override poor odds and ensure a shot lands.
The key is really the Bravado system. Each character you have gets three action points to spend each turn, but if you manage to kill an enemy, then all your action points get topped up again. It’s immensely powerful, and with careful forethought and planning can let you go on an absolute tear through a spread group of enemies, using some of the characters’ unique abilities.
One of the highlighted characters here was Laughing Deer, the melee-focussed Native American warrior. First things first, they used Flynn’s Shadow Swap ability to trade places with an enemy and drop them right next to Laughing Deer, who then absolutely batters them with his melee weapons. From there, he’s immediately recharged with action points and can burst out of the gang’s hideout, charging toward the next enemy and using a more passive ability that powers up an attack the further he moves. Time after time after time, he can sprint between the enemies arrayed outside the gang’s starting hideout and take them down, thanks in part to these being bog standard enemies with just 10HP.
Later in the level, when approaching the bank, this flow can be turned around. Laughing Deer can rush ahead, potentially throwing in a stick of dynamite to damage several enemies and then allow for Flynn to use her Shadow Swap to switch with an enemy – potentially dealing a final 1HP of damage in the process – and then rapidly blasting away with her shotgun. With the spread of this weapon’s fire, even one enemy being killed will refill her Bravado and keep her on the go.
Laughing Deer, on first blush, does seem to be a heavily stereotyped character. A bloodthirsty Native American warrior, and one that’s all about melee attacks, he’s joined by Cla-lish, who is an expert trapper that can summon a spirit to act as a decoy. The Wild West setting and the occult themes running through this game mean that it’s obviously going to be full of cliches and stereotypes across the board, but some can be more hurtful and prejudiced than others, and it’s increasingly important for developers to be aware of this.
To their credit, Ice Code Games has worked with experts in tribal history from the region the game is set in, and has sought to ensure that the Native American characters can grow through the game. Grzegorz said, “The characters tend to start off as tropes, but they develop a lot throughout the game, and you can say that about all the characters in Hard West 2.
“We knew about the sensitivity issues, and that’s why early on in the project we reached out to Professor David G. Lewis from Oregon State University, who is a researcher and is culturally related. He helped us a lot to iron out a few things that could be potentially straight up offensive, and also he inspired us a lot, he provided us with great references for culture and imagery that we use later on in the game.”
Professor Lewis’s work has seen him researching the tribal histories of Northwest Coastal peoples, specialising in the Western Oregon Tribes. Additionally, he is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, a descendant of the Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya peoples of western Oregon.
Ice Code Games also hired voice actors with backgrounds to help further the characters. Grzegorz continued, “Also, when recording VO, we worked with Adam Gifford (Laughing Deer) and Mela Lee (Cla-lish), who are both just great. They helped us a lot to flesh out these characters and make them feel real.”
It will be interesting to see how Ice Code pulls this off in the context of the game’s overall story. We’ve seen Western games often take the anthology approach – the original Hard West was one example of this – but Hard West 2 is an adventure that focuses solely on Gin Carter and his gang.
That crew will grow through the tale, as well. From the four characters that board the Ghost Train at the start of the tale, this demo showed off Cla-lish’s own skills, most notably the ability to summon a spirit that can act as a decoy and draw enemy fire – vital if you’re caught out through a tricky turn and aren’t able to finish off a group of foes – and then there’s the intriguing support character Lazarus.
Lazarus is, in a twisted way, a healer. The Transfusion ability doesn’t heal characters, but instead swaps them and any status effects for Lazarus’ own. You can gift Lazarus’ pool of health to an ally… but the ability isn’t just for targeting allies, and can also be used to swap Lazarus’ health with an enemy. With two Action Points, you can effectively heal up a buddy, then pass their ill fortunes on to an enemy in a dark and twisted fashion.
It’s a really intriguing character, and emphasises once again how they can all interact with one another as you try to build Bravado chains and blaze a trail through each encounter. It’s going to take a little while for hardened XCOM players to adjust to the more front-foot approach, but I’m excited to make the adjustment myself.
Hard West 2 is out for PC next week on 4th August. Thanks to CTO Mateusz Pilski and Lead Producer Grzegorz Ziemba from Ice Code Games for giving us this demo.