I knew I’d want Sir, You Are Being Hunted from the moment I first heard about it. Single player PC survival game set in procedurally generated English countryside? Tweed-punk. Robots. Cotswolds. Sign me up. So I signed up and backed the Kickstarter. I’m in the closed alpha. I backed the game on Kickstarter and bought my way into the closed alpha bracket.
Disclosure: I don’t believe that backing the Kickstarter compromises my impartiality, but consider this statement made.
England has always been hyped up in the colonies, and I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to the British countryside. I grew up in a small coastal town, surrounded by dairy farms. During winter the wind howled along the hills and carried the green chill of fields. But Australia is just too warm to emulate England totally.
I holidayed in the mother country once, a long time ago. I fell in love with the wind blasted moors, gently manicured woodlands, and that damp peaty smell of rural England. Quiet villages, stone buildings, warming ales, and gentry in tweed jackets and hats out for an afternoon hunt.
It’s this Romantic (big “R” Romantic) imagining of England that Sir, You Are Being Hunted harks back to, and it does so with significant attitude.
You begin as a Sir (or Madam, if you so desire – both with respective gender-correct narration), unfortunately stranded on a loosely connected archipelago. A victim of an unfortunate experiment gone wrong, you must collect the 25 remnants of your teleportation device scattered across the five islands, and return them to the central standing stones. But lo, be careful! because Sir, you are being hunted.
The core of the game is survival. Sneaking, hiding, and running like the steely-jawed hounds of robot hell are behind you will be your default movement choices, often in that order. In between avoiding the unrelenting mechanical pursuers and quivering in the underbrush like a harried field-mouse, you will have to scavenge food, bandages, and ammunition from the environment while searching for the lost machine parts.
Scrounging around the buildings in uniquely British towns with uniquely British names is a tense prospect. Robots tend to camp out in the centre of town, guarding against would-be thieves looking for a crust of mouldy bread or a flask of lukewarm tea. Towns have very minimal cover, and the cover it does have makes it almost impossible to monitor the robot’s movements. You’ll be tempted to choose between a slow and measured approach to get to the plentiful inner houses, or employ hit and run tactics to snag as much loot as possible from the outer houses before scrambling away from the inevitable incoming shotgun volley.
There is a complicating factor to this frantic snatch and grab – inventory management. The 5×10 inventory grid fills up very quickly. Four slots for your binoculars. Four slots for two bandages. Five slots of food. Five slots for ammo. If you’re lucky enough, four slots for a handgun, three slots for a hatchet, and five slots for a rifle. That doesn’t leave much room for any loot you find while out scavenging. So you must be picky when deciding what to take with you. And since there is no dedicated stash, it’s helpful to find a nearby container to keep all your most useful finds close to your spawn point at the standing stones.
Items don’t repopulate, meaning whatever is in the world when it’s first created is all you have. That means that ammo and food doesn’t regenerate. Enemies, however, do. This leads to a delicate economy of time (food) versus recklessness (bandages and ammo). You can always kill the robots and hope their dead bodies yield some berries, bandages, or shells, but that requires confronting the mechanical killers head-on.
Robot combat is a precarious prospect. A single shot has a chance to cause you to bleed – a constant drain on health that only stops with a bandage. Or death. Robots aren’t invincible – a single patrolling robot or pair can be eliminated without too much trouble. The real threat comes from the noise of the fray, which attracts more robots, and the constant erosion of your bandage and ammo supply. The best bet on being spotted is the frantic dash. Run, run away across the moors, jumping hedges and ducking into long grass, and hoping desperately that the robots lose you. Hit and run run run.
While the survival elements are great, the genuine wonder of Sir is found in its procedurally generated world.
Sir’s British countryside is an approximation, a caricature, an archetype. Buildings and landscapes are distilled into essences and scattered onto the screen. Patchwork fields separated by tangled hedges, jagged stone walls, or ruined fences hold the islands together, condensing England’s ordered and structured land into a playground. The low-res textures aren’t ugly – it’s the feeling, the tactility of the thing captured. You can tell that it’s a red telephone box, a trodden cobblestone road, a wooden hunting lodge, a whitewashed manor house, a copse of gnarled deciduous trees. But it’s taken and filtered and reduced and twisted into a child’s dark fairy-tale version of reality.
As you drudge through damp grass and over high hedge rows, it’s striking how beautiful it can all be. The sun shafts through the fog, silhouetting hulking trees and old churches. Different shades of greens and browns are crisp and lively in the fresh morning, but turn wilted and sinister in the moonlight. Despite its technical limitations – and there clearly are technical limitations – or perhaps because of them, Sir, You Are Being Hunted runs with its low-fi aesthetic, and it works. I can forgive the low-res textures, rudimentary global lighting, approximated shadows, and low detail geometry, because it feels so wholly England.
There are limitations, though, and they’re not just graphical. The main one is that none of the buildings are enterable. Instead, looting a building is done by using the door, which opens the inventory screen. It’s not an ideal situation for a player, but it’s a hard limit set by system and production resources, and one that will not be overcome in the final product. Sir also isn’t able to remember the placement of enemies upon saving, leaving the brief time between enemy spawn and occupation of towns and supply routes open to exploitation. Saving has been limited to the central standing stones and the four boats too, meaning less convenience but more insurance against save scumming.
It is still alpha code, and it’s continually being worked on by Big Robot. There are one or two balancing issues, some stealth foibles that need tending to, and a number of bugs and glitches that still need working out. More features are on the way too, including full world generation customisation options, new enemies, new buildings types, and new biomes. But as alphas go (and I’ve played more than my share) this one is surprisingly solid.
Sometimes you can just tell from an early build that a game is a gem. Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a gem. With its solid survival mechanics, tense combat, unique conceit, and unlimited replayability due to its fantastic procedural generation, Sir, You Are Being Hunted delivers a potent package. I am perfectly confident in saying that Sir will satisfy the survival fans, the robot fans, and the British countryside fans, as well as appeal to those less familiar with this open exploration style of game.
Sir, I am being hunted, and I am loving every minute of it.
Sir, You Are Being Hunted goes into open alpha on August 19. You can preorder Sir, You Are Being Hunted from the Big Robot website right now for $20.