The most significant thing you do in Hatred is murder a drugged-up hostage who’s locked away in the anonymous main character’s basement.
That basement is an interesting place, strewn as it is with automatic weapons, knives and makeshift firing ranges. It’s the kind of place Hatred’s initial trailers suggested you might visit. Most of it is, at first, obscured by darkness. The game’s monochrome visual style can do that; hide portions of the world until you’re ready to see them. As I schlepped around the manky little pit, hopping over boxes, crab-walking under pipes and firing an assault rifle at cardboard targets (it’s a tutorial, you see), I didn’t even consider the possibility that, just two rooms away, there was a human being laying on a piss-stained mattress, patiently awaiting her execution. And the game’s so blasé about it – literally throwing up the objective as casually as it had told me to press Ctrl to crouch. No context, no explanation, nothing. Just go and stab this woman in the head, please, subservient little player. So I did, in a pre-rendered four-second cutscene which took some of the edge off because it looked like shit.
Most of Hatred looks like shit, to be honest. The physics engine is nice, when it works, and I suppose if I absolutely had to I could charitably describe some of the visual effects as being quite pretty: Explosions, for example. You’ll see a lot of those, and some of them rend big chunks of concrete out of walls and buildings in a vaguely-satisfying destructive domino effect. The levels, which are big, sprawling chunks of virtual real estate, provide plenty of opportunities for that. Lots of stuff explodes in Hatred, and lots of stuff collapses. Occasionally, it looks good doing so.
I say “occasionally” but I might be wrong; Hatred is such a clumsily-constructed, bug-ridden mess that it’s often difficult to tell whether something is working properly or not. Now and again bits of collapsed wall randomly fling themselves across the map, which I assume isn’t supposed to happen, and most civilians seem to interpret the idea of self-preservation as rubbing themselves up against the nearest art asset until it swallows them.
Your avatar (who remains anonymous – let’s just call him Brian) isn’t immune to this silliness either. For some reason he seems to float a couple of inches above the ground, and most of my deaths can be attributed to getting awkwardly stuck in doorframes or on the corners of tables. That is, of course, assuming I can even find Brian in the muggy, colourless environments, which aren’t particularly accommodating for a character dressed entirely in black. Most of the time (especially in later levels, like the woodland) I was only able to navigate by squinting into the murk and picking out his grey little newt’s belly of a face – usually, it was stuck in a tree. There’s no wonder this guy is annoyed.
And blimey, Brian is annoyed. So angry is he, in fact, that he wants to kill everyone, up to and including himself. So each level consists of him mooching out into the streets, slaughtering a predetermined number of the civilian populace, and then escaping into the next area. Along the way he’ll earn the ire of local coppers, SWAT teams and eventually soldiers, before finally, mercifully, turning the gun on himself. Trust me when I say it sounds an awful lot edgier than it is.
Part of the reason it’s difficult to take Hatred seriously is how inherently gamey a twin-stick isometric shooter actually feels. Most missions task you with slaughtering a bonkers number of people (literally hundreds, in some cases) and when they’re all the same grey little stick-figures it’s easy to completely divorce yourself from what’s happening on-screen. There’s no more of an emotional component to Hatred than there is, say, the old top-down Grand Theft Auto games – less, in fact, as the complete absence of any overarching plot or context for Brian’s actions means it’s almost impossible to recognise any humanity in him or the people he’s butchering.
Brian could have easily been an ostensibly normal guy going postal, but Hatred never attempts to characterize him that way. He’s so rapidly, elaborately demonized it’s almost satirical, but nothing else about the game suggests any degree of self-awareness. The writing, in particular, is spectacularly awful, often to the extent that it becomes hilarious, yet it’s always played completely straight. There’s no distinction between his cartoonishly-dark fantasies (most of which read like something you’d find in a parallel universe’s fortune cookies) and the occasional genuinely unpleasant sentiment; they’re all spewed out in the same deep, throaty drawl. Brian will occasionally say something like, “Birds of a feather die together”, which is legitimately comical in a schlocky B-movie kind of way, but then, after kicking a woman to death, he’ll utter “Your life was worthless, you cunt,” and you realize we’re supposed to be taking all this nonsense equally seriously.
Playing the final build of Hatred really serves to highlight how tastelessly-engineered the game’s marketing campaign really was. In one opportunistic trailer, Dangerous Creations dared both the easily-offended to condemn it, and the free speech advocates to rally behind it, and that both groups fell for the bluff is frankly fucking embarrassing. Hatred is not even notionally controversial. But, more damningly, it’s just a poorly-designed, boring, repetitive, thoroughly pedestrian game.
The developers may have a knack for cheap promotion, but they evidently have a looser grasp on how to properly balance a video game. Armed enemies in Hatred are as eager to murder Brian as he is them, and they’re able to do so with alarming regularity and speed. Despite his ultimate intention of committing suicide, Brian’s premature death is still treated as a failure state, and because Hatred has no checkpoints or quick-save/load feature, being killed propels you back to the very start of a level. There are ways to avoid, or at least postpone, this: completing optional secondary objectives (all of which are some variation on killing everyone in a specific area) rewards the player with respawn tokens. These are, naturally, in incredibly short supply. To the best of my knowledge no mission has more than two, and when they’re gone you are once again at the mercy of Hatred’s incredibly punishing difficulty.
It’s worth stressing here that, as someone who plays most games on their hardest settings, I enjoy a challenge. But being forced to repeat the entirety of already boring missions is not challenging – it’s time-wasting tedium, made all the more egregious by the fact that almost all in-game deaths come as a result of generally bad design or flat-out broken mechanics. If a moving car so much as touches Brian, for example, he instantly dies, regardless of how fast the vehicle is travelling. Grenades explode immediately upon impact, which means that unless you see them being thrown and move away in advance they’re unreasonably difficult to avoid. And you likely won’t see them early enough, as they’re frequently thrown from off-screen. The lack of any visual feedback outside of the pixel-wide bullet tracers prevents you from being able to decipher which direction you should be shooting in or moving away from, and the muggy monochromatic aesthetic invariably turns every firefight into an incomprehensible clusterfuck.
Hatred’s painfully long loading screens encourage outright cowardice. The only way to recover Brian’s health is to execute wounded victims; the best course of action when he’s injured, then, is to run away and slaughter unarmed, dying civilians. Sometimes triggering an execution just shoots at them like you were already, other times it triggers one of those four-second mini-cutscenes in which Brian shoots them from a slightly different angle, and occasionally it leaves you trapped in a vulnerable animation without restoring any of your health at all. Dangerous Creations packed their initial trailer to the gills with these things, and if you saw that footage you probably saw every single execution in the game. Not one of them is any more disturbing than the thousands of other close-quarter kills in the hundreds of other games which feature them. None come close to some of the deeply-unsettling animations in, say, Manhunt (the plastic bag murders in that game still turn my stomach), and most aren’t even in the same realm as the interrogation techniques Sam Fisher employs in Splinter Cell: Conviction. It’s just another wholly derivative, anodyne facet of Hatred’s cynical existence.
Even as a functional mechanic all the executions manage to do is bog down the game’s pace almost as much as the more frantic moments bog down its engine. Brian is so vulnerable that you have to recover health near-constantly, and there’s little satisfaction to be had in watching the same handful of animations again and again during a tawdry game of cat and mouse. This is the moment-to-moment gameplay, and Hatred never once deviates from its stifling formula. All of its ideas are splurged within the first five minutes, and everything that follows is pure repetition.
Weirdly, I was actually looking forward to Hatred, if for no other reason than the prospect of something vaguely interesting to talk about. But it isn’t even bad in a noteworthy way. It utterly fails as a controversial, shocking experience by not understanding how to properly deliver its own fucking motif. And it fails spectacularly as a shooter by being horribly balanced, archaically designed, and amateurishly crafted.
The notion that this is what got everybody so worked up is absolutely preposterous, and everyone who perpetuated the hype should be ashamed of themselves. You, Dangerous Creations, Brian – you’re all dicks. And so I am for wasting five hours of my life playing this shit.