We're not exactly short of first person shooters these days. The genre has expanded and homogenized into one of the industry's main sources of income, but in the shadow of Modern Warfare and Battlefield, one brave little title is set to revolutionise the way we play - and pay for - our online shooting experience. Hedone from ACONY games promises to deliver a polished and feature-rich package that you'd typically expect from a Triple-A outfit... but you won't need to part with a single penny for it.
Hedone is set to be the best free-to-play FPS since Team Fortress 2 - and is undoubtedly one of the surprise highlights of Gamescom 2011.
Pronounced hee-dohn (just in case you were wondering), this team-based online shooter revolves around earning heat, earning fans and getting paid to increase your reputation and arsenal. In the world of 2020, the borders between entertainment and reality have blurred, resulting in a globally syndicated combat game show. Real people with real weapons fight for a shot at superstardom every night live on camera, with their bodies being painfully regenerated by advanced cloning technology. Players assume the role of a new Hedone contestant, meaning that high scores and kill ratios will gain them a virtual fanbase that will rocket them up the leaderboards as well as earning digital currency to splurge on a massive selection of customisation options.
ACONY has made level design their primary focus, employing many industry veterans (including talent from Realtime Worlds) to ensure each stage is balanced for multiple styles of play. Choke points are dynamically created and exploited during matches, since the stages feature a mix of open environments, tight quarters and split-levels to vertically exploit. Hedone is also extremely capable at a mechanical level, showcasing responsive controls, authentic weapon handling and a balanced sense of heft, weight and speed.
An enormous range of skills can be bought, upgraded and equipped using this digital currency and deployed using heat collected from kills and assists. Not only that, but taunting an opponent after scoring a kill will net you plenty of bonus prestige. Humiliation has never been so profitable! There's no such thing as preset classes since you can equip your persona with anything from healing buffs to UAVs and everything in between. Whatever your style of play, you'll be able to create a character that reflects your personal predilections. Stealthy snipers will be able to pick off targets at range, SMG fans can dominate close quarters and utter psychopaths can embark on drug-addled killing sprees; ripping other players' faces off with wickedly sharp claws.
I was a little surprised that healing abilities and buffs can't be used on team mates, but ACONY responded by saying that they want their players to feel like a television star rather than bit characters or extras. There's no room for support classes in an arena that's all about publicity, and to be honest, I can see where they're coming from.
Weapon modification is equally impressive. Guns can be customised a la carte with scopes, mounts and all manner of upgrades on offer; all of which can be bought and swapped out at leisure. Want a fast-firing sniper rifle? A flowery shotgun? A scoped SMG decorated with smiley faces? It's all good. Your character can also be customised and equipped with plenty of stylish threads or ludicrous, silly outfits that might cause even veteran gunslingers to hesitate out of sheer amusement.
In effect, Hedone plays much like a much faster, more polished and plain better version of Brink. The deep customisation has been expanded a hundred fold, and side-by-side, Hedone simply feels more competent than its big-budget brother. Not to mention more fun.
All this talk of upgrades and options will understandably be starting to worry you. After all, since it's free to play, ACONY will need to make bank somehow. However, Hedone plans to implement the "time versus money" technique when it comes to unlocking upgrades. There are no premium items or expensive 'velvet rope' subscription tiers, rather, every single weapon mod, skill or upgrade can be earned and purchased on a free subscription by simply playing the game. If you want to accelerate the process, though, heat and money boosters will allow you (and your team) to amass wealth at a much faster rate. We daresay that most items can also be bought directly - but it's an up-front and honest personal choice decision than a sting in the tail.
The television branding is more than just context for the juicy shooting action. ACONY games plan to roll out shows and spectator sessions from within the client itself; showcasing the best matches that the community has to offer. These features are set to hit after launch, but full clan support from day one will allow teams to earn shared fans and gain the attention and respect of freelance players.
Graphically, Hedone is looking very impressive thanks to another sterling effort from Unreal Engine 3. ACONY are committed to providing an experience that resembles its triple-A peers, featuring a surprisingly high level of texture detail, fluid character animations and nifty little details such as destructible scenery. Hitting a wall or concrete pillar results in its outermost layer being shattered asunder to reveal its inner supports, which would be taken for granted in a big budget shooter but helps to elevate Hedone above its immediate competition. The colourful art style is also pleasant and refreshing to behold.
There's only one wrinkle, and it's one that ACONY are tacitly a little worried about. Ubisoft will soon be entering the Free To Play arena with Ghost Recon Online, which benefits from a global brand and an existing legion of fans. It will be interesting to see how both shooters stack up, and we'll be bringing you beta impressions of both titles down the line.
Hedone has just entered the closed multiplayer beta stage ahead of a Q4 2011 public beta. We'll be sure to keep an eye on it, and since I'm on the beta, I'll sort out some NDA-sidestepping goodness with Acony if at all possible.