My 2021 Game of the Year Is a Cowboy Shooter from 2018

I put 400 hours into 'Hunt: Showdown' with no plans of slowing down.
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Image: Hunt: Crytek

After the blogs are done, the interviews filed, and the work day is over many of my coworkers retreat into gaming. Most of them play Call of Duty: Warzone with the obsession and dedication of professional gamers. They have invited me to play many times, but my heart belongs to another. My game of the year, the thing I spent the most time playing in 2021, is a cowboy shooter from 2018 called Hunt: Showdown. As of this writing, I have just hit 400 hours. Most of that was in 2021.

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Hunt: Showdown is a first person shooter from Crytek—the company that made Crysis and the original Far Cry. It’s an extraction based battle royale set in the swamps of Louisiana in 1896. Players enter a Gilded Age-era bayou alone or as part of a team to hunt an NPC boss, kill them, and leave the map with proof of the kill.

Each map can host 12 players, in teams or playing solo, who are all competing to collect the same bounty. The maps are full of zombies and other eldritch horrors, but they’re mere distractions compared to Hunt’s deadliest enemies: other players. The PVE element is just an excuse to funnel human players to choke points on the map where they battle over the game’s few rewards.

Because this is set in the late 19th century, automatic weapons are scarce. Winchester style rifles, slow firing revolvers, bows and arrows, and bolt action rifles are the norm. The shootouts between players feel like setpieces from a western movie. I’ve chased fleeing players into dark and abandoned mines full of zombies, fired a Mosin-Nagant through the windows of burning churches, and hurled sticks of dynamite through the window of abandoned farmhouses.

Hunt: Showdown is one of my favorite games of all time. There is nothing else out there like it. Escape from Tarkov gets close, but often feels unbalanced and unfair. Battlefield 2042’s Hazard mode is an attempt to replicate Hunt that doesn’t quite hit the mark.

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There is a power creep to many first person shooters. Whoever has put more time into Battlefield 2042 or Call of Duty has access to more equipment than a new player. Talent and luck come into play, but there’s often not much you can do against a player who has a superior loadout when you’re brand new.

Hunt: Showdown also has a leveling system that doles out new guns and tools. It’s true that many of the weapons unlocked at a higher level are superior on paper, but the drawbacks for fielding them are intense. If a player survives the round in Hunt—they don’t have to win or leave with the bounty, just survive—their character levels up giving them access to a few skills that make the game easier and they earn some cash to buy new equipment. If a player dies, the character they were using and all the equipment on it is lost.

Killing players and collecting bounties earns players money which they use to buy their loadouts. One of the last weapons unlocked in the game is a Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle. It’s a great gun but it costs $490 of in-game currency to equip. The Romero 77 is a single shot barrel break shotgun that’s unlocked at level 1. It costs $34 to equip. The swamps of Hunt are littered with the corpses of Mosin wielders I’ve murdered with a Romero 77 shotgun. I have a standing rule that I never pay for the Mosin—I only use them when I’ve looted them off the bodies of people I’ve killed with cheaper weapons.

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That’s because Hunt rewards tactical plays, patience, and listening. The sound design is incredible. Every weapon has its own unique sound and gunfire is the only sound that carries across the entire map. So when a player fires a weapon early in the game, they’re letting every other player on the map know exactly which gun they’re firing. Once you know that, you can tailor your strategy for facing them. When I’m running a shotgun, I know I need to get a flank and sneak up on a Mosin player.

Experienced hunters can even pinpoint the location of the player on the map based on the sound the weapon makes. There’s a tool built into the game that lets players listen to the different weapons firing at different distances to help train your ears. I’ve been playing long enough now that I’m starting to track other hunters on the map with my ears alone and getting the drop on other players when they don’t know I’m there is intensely satisfying.

There is so much more I could say about Hunt. I have played few games that so perfectly capture the look and feel of nature in the American south. Creeping vines strangle overgrown trees. Dilapidated buildings loom out of too-green fields flanked by shallow brackish water. The monsters populating the swamps are horrifying. 

There is lore and a story, delivered Dark Souls style through journal entries and quick descriptions of events that are unlocked through using the various weapons. Dozens of strange tools make every match unique. There are jars of poison bees that players can hurl at each other, arrows tipped with frag grenades, and throawble bombs that explode in a mess of concertina that can block entrances or push players out of cover.

There has never been a better time to start playing. Four years after its early access release, and two years after its official release, Hunt: Showdown is polished to near perfection. The team released a new map this year, fixed up problems with the old maps, and released dozens of quality of life improvements. If any of what I’ve described sounds appealing in any way, now is the time to jump in.

Every day my colleagues go to the Warzone. While they fight for dubs in a vaguely Eastern European city, I’m deep in the swamps. Hunt is a game where I can see a character dressed like Ebenezer Scrooge fire a poisoned arrow into the body of Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York while fighting over the right to kill a giant spider that’s literally a grotesque creature formed from humans that melted together and crawled out of mass grave.

No other game can replicate that experience.