‘We Happy Few’ Early Access Impressions
One of the biggest draws at Microsoft’s E3 press conference last month was We Happy Few, an indie game from the Montreal-based development studio known as Compulsion Games. An impressive 4~ minute gameplay demonstration was shown, along with the announcements that the Xbox One would not only be the first console to house the game, but the game would also be a part of Microsoft’s Game Preview program, which allows players to get their hands on titles still in development. Now, as of July 26th, the game is available on both Xbox Live and Steam, and any fans who’ve already been sold on it can dive right into the early access experience. But be warned: the game is far from complete.
In its current state, the game features two different acts, with the first being the exact demo that was showcased at E3. This section, which essentially serves as a prologue, can be blasted through in just a few short minutes, but inquisitive players will find themselves scrounging around for as much info as possible. The game takes place in an alternate universe where the Soviet Union invaded England, but how the war played out is a mystery to the player, as we’re thrown into a dystopian society where the populous of Wellington Wells lives out their lives on drug called “Joy”, which suppresses their memories and alters the world around them, all in an attempt forget the atrocities of war. We assume the role of Arthur Hastings, a man who works as a redactor. His job is to sort through old newspapers and censor any negative stories he may find. The prologue begins as Arthur comes across an article about him and his brother, which causes him to have a flashback of sorts and urges him towards reality, causing him to toss away his Joy.
Once the player assumes control of Arthur, they can opt to read through all of the newspaper articles queued up in his terminal, which give hints about the outcome of the war and the current state of the government. A few names are mentioned multiple times across several articles, possibly hinting at antagonist type figures. There’s a clock on Arthur’s desk which displays the current date, and all of the articles are dated, giving a clear indication of the timeline of events, and how long it’s been since the invasion. The player can investigate a couple of adjacent offices, which also have redactor terminals, but they’ve been powered down, which presents us with the first minor puzzle of the game. Going back into Arthur’s office I noticed that there was a power cell attached to his terminal which was missing from the other machines. Taking the power cell and transferring it to the other terminals allowed me to read through several more articles, and gain more insight into this perplexing world. Right away the game seems to rely heavily upon investigation and written logs, both of which reminded me very much of the Deus Ex series. Aside from reading these news items, there’s nothing much else to do in the prologue except enjoy the cutscenes which play out exactly like the E3 stage demo, ending with Arthur being assaulted by the police.
Upon completion of the prologue, Arthur wakes up in an underground bunker, which kicks off the second part of the early access experience: exploring the game’s procedurally generated world. It’s important to note here that we aren’t given any context as to how Arthur escaped the authorities at the end of the prologue, or how exactly he got where he is now. As far as I can tell, the biggest draw this game has is its narrative, so it needs to be pointed out that (aside from the prologue) the main line narrative is completely absent here, and won’t be making an appearance at all until the game’s full release, which doesn’t have a firm date as of yet. [Ed note—It’s currently loosely scheduled for a 2017 release.] As development moves along, Compulsion will be updating the early access version with bug fixes and gameplay additions, but they aren’t going to be adding the backbone of the game for quite some time, so if the story is the only reason you’re interested, you may want to avoid the game until it’s complete.
Since its initial reveal, We Happy Few has drawn many comparisons to BioShock. Admittedly, I made that connection as well, and there are valid reasons for it. The two games share artistic qualities in terms of both character design and overall art direction, and both take place in the 1960s. They also share thematic qualities, such as the prevalence of drugs within their respective societies and the dystopian nature of both worlds. I won’t lie, the main reason behind my interest in We Happy Few stems from the fact that I l love BioShock, and I feel that many others are in the same boat, so let’s get this out of the way right now: aside from the commonalities mentioned above, these are two very different games.
BioShock is a relatively linear story / character driven game with a heavy reliance on tight combat and amazing atmosphere. We Happy Few, on the other hand, seems to be about collecting, crafting, and above all else, survival. After completing some tutorial-like tasks within the bunker, the player is free to make their way to the surface and roam at their leisure, but after just a couple of minutes of walking around you’ll notice some icons appear in the top left of the screen. These symbols track Arthur’s need to eat, drink, and sleep. These are known as his “vitals”, and as they deplete, Arthur’s stamina bar shrinks and regenerates at a slower pace, meaning he will be able to jump fewer times or throw less punches before becoming exhausted. If Arthur’s hunger or thirst vitals bottom out, he will begin to die, and after a very short period, he will collapse. With this in mind, it is absolutely paramount to always have food and water on your person, unless you want your adventure to come to a premature end.
These may seem like interesting mechanics, and I enjoyed them for a short while, but they quickly turn into an annoyance, as your vitals simply deplete way too quickly. After a full night’s rest, Arthur will only be able to roam around for about 10~ minutes before he begins to get sleepy, and his food and drink meters deplete just as quickly. During the majority of my time spent playing I felt as if I was only making minor strides forward in uncovering the map, as I constantly had to backtrack in search of food or drink. Venturing into unknown territory, without knowing where a reliable source of water is, can put you in a tight spot rather quickly. Add on top of that the fact that any physical exertion (meaning combat or climbing over objects) makes your vitals drain quicker, your vitals are essentially always blinking at you. It’s interesting to note that perma-death is turned on by default, meaning one death and all your progress is lost. It can be turned off (and upon doing so death makes you respawn at the bunker), but just the fact that the developer has it on by default shows that the main trial in the game is simply keeping yourself alive. As the game is still in development, we can expect a lot of tweaks and adjustments, and one of the first changes I see incoming is an alteration to how quickly the hunger and thirst meters drain. In their current state they’re simply too much of a hassle.
While the game’s main storyline is absent, you still have a goal. Arthur has been deemed a “downer”, which means he refuses to take his Joy for one reason or another. As a result, he’s been placed in a sectioned-off area of the city filled with other people of his ilk. Your objective is simply to escape. The city is spread out among several islands, with bridges between each land mass connecting them. Each bridge has different security measures to ensure that the inhabitants of each zone stay where they currently are. As you venture around the city you’ll encounter dozens of side quests, most being inconsequential, but some reward you with important items needed to advance. It’s up to the player to investigate their surroundings, find the items needed to advance, and use them appropriately.
The collection and use of items is one of the most prevalent activities in We Happy Few. You should always be on the lookout for food, as sustenance is vital, but there are tons of other things to be found as well, most of which can be used to craft other goods. The crafting system is very similar to the one featured in BioShock, which has you combine several lesser components into a more useful object. The only problem here is that the backbone of this system, the inventory management, is incredibly annoying in its current state. The game doesn’t use a weight system like Dark Souls or Elder Scrolls, but instead uses a grid based inventory near identical to the one found in the Deus Ex series. Your inventory has a certain number of slots, and larger items take up more slots than smaller ones. The issue is the inventory has no auto-sort function, so when you want to pick up a large item, even if you have enough slots, the system won’t allow you to pick it up unless you manually move around the items in your backpack and arrange the perfect shape of empty slots for the item you are currently trying to grab. I wasted so much time shifting things on the inventory screen that I eventually found the best way around it was to drop a bunch of items and pick them all back up in order of largest to smallest. Also, all items on the inventory screen appear as the same color, and many of the images are rather similar, making it tough to quickly identify the item you’re looking for. It would be great if things were color coded (health items red, food green, etc…). As it currently stands, the inventory management is a huge pain, but seeing as it’s a core part of the game, I feel confident that these issues will be addressed rather quickly.
We Happy Few has some neat ideas, one of my favorite being the ability to hide in plain sight. When you start off, Arthur is wearing a torn suit, which is fine when hanging around other downers, but if you make it to the part of the city where everyone is still on Joy, then your drab attire will make you stick out like a sore thumb. There are a couple of ways to get your hands on a proper suit: either find one randomly, or find the resources needed to craft one. And here’s where the highly touted procedurally generated world comes into play. The layout of the environment is the same for every player, but items are randomly placed each time you load up a new game. Player A may find a proper suit in a locker, but Player B may never find one, or the components to create one. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this, and I actually died once because of it. An interaction with a poisoned character caused me to contract the plague, and the illness simply killed me before was able to find the components needed to craft the cure.
I don’t want to be too harsh on a game that’s still in development, but if Compulsion was confident enough to release the game to the public in this state, then they should be ready for some backlash. As it stands, there are some interesting concepts here, but the game feels hollow, and there is a veritable ton of glitches, bugs, and performance issues, some of which are completely game-breaking. There are quest NPCs that won’t interact with you and quest items that just don’t work. NPCs are constantly glitching out, getting stuck in terrain, or stuck inside each other. There are audio queues which get stuck in infinite loops, and characters will often speak over each other, making the dialog incomprehensible. The day/night cycle is prone to breaking, as sometimes the time of day just abruptly changes out of nowhere. The game also features egregious load times [Ed note—Load times and performance hitches are substantially improved with the PC version], and for some reason there is no “Save” option, only a “Save & Quit” option, which means every time you want to save you need to go through two horribly long loading sequences.
Now, to be fair, all of the issues mentioned in the previous paragraph will probably be remedied, but there are other problems which I fear may still be present once the final release comes around. Firstly, the environments are exceptionally repetitive. The game currently consists of five islands, but two of them are bare, containing nothing but foliage. Two of the populated islands contain rows of buildings which all look the same from the outside; the majority of the buildings cannot be entered, and the others often have near identical interiors. On top of the repetitive visuals, the game suffers from horrible frame rate drops (at least on the Xbox One), and the draw distance is very disappointing, as characters and certain objects will suddenly pop-in when you are just a few feet away from them.
Its important to realize that We Happy Few still has a long way to go, and it certainly still has the capability of living up to its potential, but as it currently stands, I’d advise eager fans to wait for the complete and proper experience, unless of course you enjoy the idea of being an unpaid beta tester.