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Test: We Happy Few

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Since his trailer appearance at Microsoft’s E3 press conference in 2016, We Happy Few, which is financed by Kickstarter, has not only been in our focus. Meanwhile, even Gearbox Software has joined in and acts as a publisher. In the test, we clarify whether the dystopic England of the 60’s can maintain also on a long-term basis.

From Survival Adventure to Storylastigen Action Adventure

 

For a long time it looked as if We Happy Few would try to compete with games like Ark, Conan Exiles, 7 Days to Die etc. as a largely classic survival game including resource management. At least this was the impression that the first preview and early access versions left on Xbox One and Steam. The fact that in addition a wonderfully absurd picture of an alternative England was drawn, in which the population hid behind “cheerful” masks and created its own reality with the state-administered drug “Joy“, from which one had to escape as a player, aroused the curiosity additionally. But no matter if it was planned long ago, if it was originally designed that way or if the decision was only made when Gearbox started: In its current state, We Happy Few is a more or less classic action adventure from an ego point of view, which has been supplemented by survival elements such as hunger and thirst as well as an experience and character ascent system.

 

Is that good or bad now? This question has occupied me for a long time. I was only initially bothered by the fact that the sandbox mode, which will probably focus more on the survival aspect, will only be released later. After having played the same disturbing introduction in the now released final version, which also occurred in Early Access and the E3 presentation published at that time, one finds oneself in an alternative England in the mid-1960s and follows an interesting and sometimes disturbingly constructed story. In the role of the newspaper article control reader and censor Arthur Hastings one is caught up by one’s past, while one pursues his job unsuspectingly. For a long time it is unclear what it is about his brother Percy, who is brought to Germany by train when both were still children. Actually, Arthur should have gone on the journey as well, but he was able to get out of it with a lie about his age.

Germany? Children? Train journey? What inevitably association? What inevitably arouses associations of transports to concentration camps during the Nazi era becomes even more confusing here due to the alternative timeline in which Germany won a war against England (is it WW2?). With the help of findable documents, the player can shed light on the sometimes oppressive darkness, but much is left to interpretation – which is in principle a good idea, since Wellington Wells retains his peculiar magic in this way.

 

Where’s the joy?

The fact that the very successful art design, which sorts itself somewhere between BioShock, Dishonored, the shooter classic No One Lives Forever by Monolith and Austin Powers, propagates the state-regulated drug consumption of the “Joy” pills available from free donors and is inserted as a playful element within the framework of the very successful art design, makes the world randomly generated from fixed set pieces highly interesting. But the bottom line is that We Happy Few can’t deliver what story and art design promise. The first half of the first of three acts is still interesting and offers a lot of situational suspense while you get to know the world and the concepts of game mechanics. With a survival aspect that is clearly downgraded compared to the alpha versions, you concentrate on the largely linear story that leads you through the open areas with their degradable resources. Mechanically one sets thereby on a mix from not influenceable discussion sequences, area investigation, occasionally quite interesting environment puzzles, sneaking and fight – all ingredients, which are quite common in the Action Adventure. And they are also neatly put together here. But while the story can be fascinating from beginning to end and also gains new facets with the protagonists of the acts 2 and 3, the mechanical elements increasingly wear out.

 

The sneaking in ego view, for example, is successful in its simplicity. If you squat down, you cannot only protect yourself from the curious glances of hostile figures behind crates. Even in sunflower fields you are largely safe – unless the enemies run into you during their patrols. You can avoid this, however, by observing their paths, whereby you can also follow their tracks through walls and other obstacles in the squat, similar to Horizon: Zero Dawn. Of course you can also take them out of ambush, but you should take care to hide the stunned or killed victims, because the discovery AI is quite attentive. But apart from the discovery, the AI doesn’t react so convincingly. If one has to a certain extent eliminated their ways, one can usually eliminate the opponents one after the other. And their placement in the linear sections of the main mission (e.g. in laboratories, barracks etc.) ensures that one should not think of frontal conflicts. Against single enemies you have no problem with the endurance based fighting system with block and simple attacks. But if you have to fight against three, four or more, you have almost no chance. This, in turn, gives the feeling that the developers are virtually telling me how to behave. For a game that focuses on individuality and freedom, this is a regrettable limitation.

The facade is crumbling

 

Although one can also unlock improvements concerning combat or sneaking in the sparse upgrading possibilities for the character, We Happy Few is still able to do so. But the bottom line for We Happy Few is the simplicity in this area and the limited choice of procedure. One has grasped the limits of these essential systems too quickly and can then concentrate on exploiting these limitations for one’s own purposes. The fact that there is still an interesting build-up of tension every now and then is due to a clever level design in individual cases that requires a cautious approach, since one is confronted with traps or sudden (scripted) events. And the fact that I wanted to go on despite the weaknesses of the game is due to the exciting story and the fascinating game world with its wacky characters despite technical shortcomings. The fact that in villages and towns these mostly consist of clone figures is disturbing, however. Even some side mission clients were not individually designed, but copied, so that I often stood in front of the wrong person to hand in the quest, because I was deceived by the identical appearance. Speaking of side missions: Since these mostly consist of fetch and delivery services, I left them on the sidelines from about halfway through the first act; especially since the rewards usually left something to be desired.

Also the collection of raw materials including extensive crafting possibilities for weapons, clothing, healing or other aids such as lockpicks, crowbars, jammers, etc. eventually becomes a necessary evil. As a result you will run like wild through rooms or streets and click on all containers in a quick process to find any hidden resources there.

To collect hidden raw materials, which clog up dangerously fast the inventory limited by a maximum weight. The camps that you find and occasionally have to clear of environmental influences or enemies before you can use them as a fast travel system can help. Here you will find a machine with infinite space. And you can access your warehouse from anywhere when manufacturing objects – a good idea, but one that has been implemented inconsistently. Because this universal access does not apply to missions. I had to bring sewing things to a figure. I knew that I had stowed some of them away and could access them as part of the crafting system. But I wasn’t allowed to give it to the character that needed it. So back to the hiding place and manually shoveled the sewing kit into the inventory. Back at the client the next shock waited: Thanks to a massive bug he had moved away from his original position and was busy with another action that didn’t allow me to talk to him, let alone to press something into his hand. This could have become a fatal “gamebreaker” during the main mission, since my last manual save point was very far back, but since this was only a minor task, I silently swallowed it.

Good ideas, simple implementation

 

The pros and cons or the willingness to continue playing between bugs, redundancy and story fascination like a sinusoidal curve on the motivation, runs through almost all areas. The unreal-driven backdrop is handsome apart from the clones and, despite the randomness in level generation, manages to score points with atmospheric environments. Places reminiscent of cities like Stratford can be found, as can streets inspired by London. But no system is immune to mistakes. Here, simple passers-by, but also figures with whom one has just spoken, plop out of the picture or back in again. There, for some reason, the frame rate goes noticeably down, only to catch itself again shortly afterwards. Of course there are also some clipping or other rehearsals with collision checks to see.  Figures that run continuously against the wall in search of the main character or run continuously three meters from right to left until the alarm has died down do not belong directly in the engine area, but they are just as annoying as Ruckler or the excessive PC requirements.

 

Mechanically, too, almost every good idea has something that causes them to stumble. It’s good that the people react differently to the clothes you wear, for example, depending on their social position and where they are, or that you should change them from time to time. It’s a pity that higher-ranking citizens only react to rags and not to the latex suit, which offers protection in electrically charged environments and which I forgot to take off along with the gas mask, and it shows that this feature, like many others, was only implemented superficially. This includes, for example, the use of drugs or the stimulus to explore within the large, handsome game world. One can find and discover something everywhere. But even in special places where you can dig, there’s usually only a box of heaps of raw materials that you could have picked up differently. And if you powder your picklocks for locked desks or cupboards, because you can’t open them alternatively with a crowbar and as a “reward” in 99 percent of the cases you get the most common materials, this creates another feeling of arbitrariness.

 

CONCLUSION

 

We Happy Few wants a lot. It borrows elements of survival adventure in an open world and blends them with classic mechanics of action adventure such as fighting and sneaking. It tells an interesting story in a fascinating dystopian England of the 60s, where the population is controlled by state-sanctioned drugs. And it offers an imaginative art design, which on the one hand seems to use BioShock, No One Lives Forever or Dishonored openly, but on the other hand develops its own charm. But We Happy Few doesn’t manage to make all this into a homogeneous whole. Not because the sporadic technical problems or bugs that can be observed on PC and Xbox One in different forms, but at the same time disturbing, tear you out of the game world. But rather because only the mysterious and oppressive story and the art design show no break.

But apart from the storytelling, that certain something is missing – and not only because the sandbox mode is passed on later or the urge to discover is contained by mostly weak rewards. Crafting, combat, sneaking, clothing influence, environment puzzles: All this works, but remains superficial. The fact that I’m given by the developers how to solve this or that problem by level structure and opponent placement is also annoying. And that in a game that has freedom and individuality on its thematic banner. The social image, which is told about three acts, each with its own protagonist, has drawn me into the world again and again and, despite all my weaknesses, has ensured that I have bitten my way through to the end.

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