With big guns & a bionic dog, Necromunda web-slings through the world of Warhammer

, | Game reviews

Necromunda: Hired Gun is the best Spider-Man game since Spider-Man.  My magic web-shooter/grappling hook can get me anywhere I can see.  A quick thwip and I’m standing on a ledge high overhead!  The double-jump assist is just gravy.  But unlike Sony’s 2018 love letter to Silver Age superheroics, Hired Gun lives in a grim Warhammer world where I didn’t jump up to this ledge for thrills; I jumped up here to snipe a bunch of crazy dudes sporting plasma rifles, blue Mohawks, and skull flair.  Also, I’ve got a dog tagging along and I’m toting serious firepower of my own.  Frankly, the dog isn’t much of a dog anymore.  When I upgrade him, I swap out his dog parts for robot parts.  A paw here, a leg there, one side of his face, a jaw, another leg.  He may not be as furry as he used to be, but he’s still a good boy.  I summon him with a squeaky toy (Warhammer needs more humorous touches like this).  As for the guns, they’re not foolin’ around.  This is the Warhammer universe, so they’re absurdly large heavy hitters, even when they’re just pistols.  They have names like Deathbringer, Funeral Ball, Burning Sun, and Scars Machina.  They take up a lot of screen real estate.

Necromunda: Hired Gun is also the best Doom reboot since Doom Eternal.  But unlike Bethesda’s glossy appeals to shooter nostalgia, Hired Gun does its own weird thing.  It was created by Streum On Studios, one of those French developers who grabbed the Warhammer license the way an audience member grabs merch fired from a T-shirt cannon.  This isn’t Streum On’s first rodeo in the Warhammer corral.  Their last project, Space Hulk: Deathwing, was a Left 4 Dead clone.  But the template for Hired Gun is an earlier Streum On project called E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy.  Imagine a delightfully weird and possibly unplayable open-world-ish Tron RPG with non-linear character progression, awkward gunplay, and crazy spell powers.  I’m pretty sure it had hacking.  It might have even had fishing.  Deus Ex, but more confused, less linear, weirder, more French, like a Jeunet movie.  Heck, like a Genet play.

This Divine Cybermancy template is what makes Hired Gun as good as it is.  It might play like a cross between Spider-Man and Doom, but it’s doing something very different from those games.  It occasionally resembles a loot chase like Destiny, or a pure shooter like Painkiller.  But it’s neither of those things either. It’s a non-linear RPG about earning money to buy cybernetic upgrades that change how the game plays.

The early stages are just me, my guns, my grappling hook, and my furry dog.  But as Hired Gun progresses, I fold in new powers and abilities, at my discretion.  I get spell powers, more health, shorter cooldown timers, and even more spell powers.  My dog bites harder, shrugs off more damage, lasts longer, smells enemies at greater ranges, has less fur.  Eventually I’m shooting out death beams, flipping on Predator vision, activating automated targeting, and leaping around like Flubber on meth.  Better, faster, stronger, whackier.  The dog looks on forlorn.  There’s no one left for him to maul.

Sometimes I just use my grappling hook to stun enemies so I can execute them with a gory — and often hilariously incomprehensible — takedown animation.  I even forget I’ve got a gun.  Grapple stun, then takedown.  Grapple stun, then takedown. Grapple stun, then takedown.  Some games carefully engineer variety into the gameplay.  They want me to experiment with everything and miss nothing.  Other games can’t be bothered.  Necromunda: Hired Gun can’t be bothered.  Grapple stun, then takedown.  Grapple stun, then takedown.  Oh, wait, let me use the squeaky toy to summon my dog so he can get in on this action. 

While I work my way through the 13 massive levels, I can revisit them for side missions to earn more money to buy more upgrades to earn more money to buy more upgrades to earn more money to buy more upgrades.  Experience points?  Pfft.  I mean, yeah, I earn experience points.  But all they’ll ever do is unlock weapon skins.  I’m 15th level and I couldn’t care less.  Money is the coin of this realm.  That’s why every weapon gets a lucky charm to make enemies spit out more money when I kill them.  That’s why the default “end of mission” screen is to sell everything I found.  That’s why the cyber-doc parks himself on the way to my next mission.  Render everything down to money, then spend it to buy a death frenzy knife attack or a slo-mo bullet-time murder spree or a bionic tail for my dog.

The moment-to-moment gameplay pacing takes a page from the Doom reboots.  I earn health by attacking enemies.  This isn’t a game about med kits or health packs.  It’s about staying engaged with enemies, who are simultaneous antagonists and resources.  The more damage I do, the more I heal.  And as long as I stay mobile, I’m harder to hit.  A whole set of upgrades makes me harder to hit while I’m doing traversal moves.  One of these days, I might even figure out wallrunning.  Painkiller’s nutso violence meets Titanfall’s nutso nimbleness meets Doom’s nutso pacing, all in a grimfuture Warhammer world cobbled together by a nutso French studio.

Necromunda is also the best Warhammer game since, uh…that’s not really fair since there are so few good Warhammer games these days.  It’s also not fair because I’m the last guy who should be doling out accolades based on how well something captures Warhammerness.  My main frame of reference for Warhammer is real-time strategy games.  First the original fantasy Warhammer as Blizzard co-opted it for Warcraft, and eventually Warhammer 40k as Relic licensed it for the Dawn of War series.  Before then, I only knew Warhammer as an excuse for people to paint lead figures.

To me, those silly little lead figures were Warhammer.  Warhammer meant taking little sculpts, lavishing them with attention, and then scooching them around on the table and pretending they’re fighting each other, but with rules instead of making shooting noises with your mouth.  Diminutive intricately painted figures standing in for impossibly powerful bulky future soldiers packing supernova firepower and white-hot conviction.  Itty bitty gee-gaws bulked up to melt steel, rend titanium, and wither heresy.  From 40,000 years in the future, a star-spanning empire’s unstoppable army standing barely an inch tall.  Toys dreaming of absolute power.  Fetishes for rituals to invoke the powers of imagination.

And for the first time, I kind of get it in Necromunda: Hired Gun.  The level design is a grunt’s eye view of gloomy Warhammer worlds in all their plasticky vastness.  Cathedrals toppled into underground lakes, gargantuan trains hurtling through spooky tunnels, skyscrapers without tops or bottoms, yawning caverns littered with industrial detritus.  Necromunda is an underground city, a Fallen London for 80s teenagers who loved Iron Maiden.  Down here, you can see how the Warhammer universe is supposed to be as dark as it is vast, as industrial as it is haunted, as thriving as it is decaying.  Streum On’s levels capture each in equal measure.  They are massive.  They are dimly lit.  They evoke the throb of rotting industrial might and the sickly glow of necromancy.  The geometry reminds me of the original Jedi Knight for its sense of scale, for its chasms and dizzying heights.  This is what a painted miniature would see.

(Note that there are two games named after Warhammer’s underground city! Don’t confuse Necromunda: Hired Gun — the subject of this review — with Necromunda: Underhive Wars, a not very good tactics game.)

The levels also remind me of Jedi Knight for how that game predated hand-holding.  It was a time before convenient minimaps, brightly lit waypoints, and glowing HUD elements guiding us through the world.  All we knew was that we had to get over there, with no idea how to actually reach over there. It was a time before we had the luxury of ignoring the level design in favor of the interface.  When Hired Gun wants me to plant explosives to knock out the supports inside a bulkhead, I have to find my way into the bulkhead.  When I have to get to that skyscraper over there, I have to work my way along ledges until I find a gap I can cross.  There are plenty of corridors here, but there are very few corridors without context, without the freedom to go around, over, or under the corridor.  Streum On has made a massive playground instead of a ride in a theme park.  Figure it out, or go play something made by a developer who knows how to guide you exactly where you need to go.

Some folks won’t appreciate this.  I’ve been replaying Control, and I’m amazed all over again at how Remedy unfurls the Oldest House.  It helps that it’s a modern day working environment with signs for visitors and new employees.  It also helps that Remedy has been designing levels for a long time.  Streum On might not be good at guiding players (they do a passable job with the usual green lights), but the result feels less like a videogame level and more like a place someone dreamed up while he was pining to play with his Warhammmer figures.  And like Control, I don’t have my nose stuck in a map.  I instead look at the world around me.  I search.  I explore.  I’ve gotten lost.  I’ve gotten frustrated.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Contrast this with the latest Resident Evil theme park ride, which is like sitting your butt down on a chute and letting gravity pull you forward.  No sense of exploration, no discovery, no uncertainty, no deviation.  You are always and only exactly where the script wants you to be, butt-sliding down a frictionless slide that will show you everything the developer wants you to see. 

Not to say all the friction in Hired Gun is commendable.  A lot of this game’s friction could have been smoothed out.  On the jank/polish spectrum, Hired Gun is about as far as you can get on the jank side without veering into unplayable.  Brace yourself for scripting glitches, confusing inventory management, pointless weapon modding, hilariously incomprehensible kill animations, minimal feedback for how your powers interact with enemies, no information about enemies (oh, for a bestiary!), and a frequently unstable game engine.  It’s also a choppy game engine without kicking Nvidia’s DLSS scaling into high gear (I get the sense DLSS picks up where the engine itself stumbles).  This is yet another example of the lack of quality control you can expect with the Warhammer license.  Games Workshop lobs their IP into the crowd and then goes backstage to count money.  

But quality control is only one aspect of game design.  And it often goes hand-in-hand with safe decisions.  If Hired Gun had moved more to the other end of the jank/polish spectrum, what else would have changed?  Would it have also moved closer to being a rote shooter?  Would experience points and leveling up matter more?  Would the upgrades have been a guided power curve instead of the wide-open grab bag from E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy?  Would there have been the usual gear churn and inventory management?  Would I be able to stop shooting to pore over the stats of some gun I just found?  Would I have relied on med kits?  Would resources have been devoted to multiplayer?  Would the sprawling level design have survived?  Would my dog still be furry? We may never know the answer, and that’s fine by me.

  • Necromunda: Hired Gun

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Painkiller's nutso violence meets Titanfall's nutso nimbleness meets Doom's nutso pacing, all in a grimfuture Warhammer world cobbled together by a nutso French studio.
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