One of 2016’s most frustrating releases leaves early access a very different game than when it started – but has it changed enough?
Game review: We Happy Few tries to live up to its potential
We Happy Few may have the most misleading advertising campaign we think we’ve ever seen. You may remember the game’s intriguing E3 demo from a few years ago, in which it was made to look very much like BioShock – just with a different style of retro dystopia to rebel against. But it turned out that the trailer was merely the first five minutes of the game and had very little in common with anything that happened afterwards. At that point though the game was only in early access and now, two years later, things have changed considerably…
It’s relatively unusual for a single-player game to enter early access and we’re still not entirely clear why developer Compulsion Games opted for that route (it certainly didn’t help with bugs and glitches, which remain rampant). But the general reaction seems to have been the same as we had: the story premise is great but the game itself is not. Because rather than being a story-based shooter We Happy Few is essentially a survival game. Although think less DayZ and more an easier version of Fallout 4’s Survival mode.
The game’s world is an alternative vision of 1964, set in a fictional English town named Wellington Wells. Inspired by everything from Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World to The Prisoner and Brazil, all you know at first is that the country has survived Nazi occupation through means so horrible that everyone takes a drug called Joy to forget. Although there are now three playable characters the primary one is still a newspaper censor who stops taking his drugs and begins to remember the past. And so is immediately forced to go on the run.
If you played the game when it was in early access it’ll seem at first that relatively little has changed. But there are now many more story elements, including lengthy flashbacks and more hand-crafted areas instead of relying almost solely on procedurally-generated locations. It is still a survival game though, which makes as little sense as always because it does nothing but slow the pacing to a crawl and get in the way of the story.
Like any such game your primary concerns are to sate your thirst and hunger, which isn’t easy when diseased locals are being sick in the local pond and most of the food you find is rotten. Stamina is refreshed back at your underground safehouse though, where you can try and get your head around the game’s crafting system. Although its main problem is not so much that it’s overcomplicated but that despite all the options and crafting materials very few of the items are actually very useful.
Unfortunately, most of We Happy Few’s major gameplay elements prove to be sadly predictable – despite the strangeness of the setting. This includes the feeble combat, which is so unsatisfying it doesn’t feel as if it’s something that should have been improved on in the final version, so much as it should have been replaced with something completely different.
The stealth is more interesting though, particularly since it plays into the actual setting of the game. When exploring the parts of town populated by more affluent members of society you have to be careful to blend in. In other words, you have to wear the right clothes and pretend you’re still on Joy. If anyone thinks you’re anything less than high on the happy side you’re in trouble, and yet popping pills risks not only a fatal overdose but at the very least some dangerously misleading hallucinations.
This is undoubtedly a better game than when released two years ago, but only because it’s taken a sharp U-turn and tried to reimagine itself as the game people actually thought it was going to be. That’s meant that problems like bug-fixing have gotten worse not better and the artificial intelligence is still barely functional, literally letting you get away with murder one minute and pouncing on you the next for no more obvious a reason.
Other problems are brand new though, such as the appallingly repetitive missions – which are the worst case of literal fetch quests we think we’ve ever seen. This is presumably because it’s an element that was never really part of the original design, but the way it’s been crudely shoehorned into the game is almost embarrassing. As is the incongruous mix of poorly-acted British accents that will have anyone that’s actually from the UK (Compulsion Games are Canadian) wincing in pain.
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Rarely have we seen a game with such a wide gap between its potential and the tedious misery of actually playing it. But to be fair, the new narrative elements do work well and the storylines for the three new character are intriguing enough to prove that the game is not beyond saving. And the art direction has always been good, particularly the ghoulish appearance of Joy users and bobbies with searchlights in their helmets.
There are many strange aspects to We Happy Few, not least the fact that Microsoft bought Compulsion Games as one of the five new first party studios they revealed at this year’s E3. Compulsion’s only other game is the equally flawed Contrast, so the purchase is puzzling to say the least. It’s almost as if Microsoft themselves have been taking Joy and see only the illusion of what We Happy Few could be, rather than then the unappetising mess it actually is.
We Happy Few
In Short: A joyless and confused mix of BioShock, Fallout, and Rust that wastes its intriguing setting on repetitive action and tedious survival mechanics.
Pros: The premise and setting is great and the art design is fantastic. All three characters have interesting and distinctive stories.
Cons: The game is absolutely no fun to play, with highly repetitive quests and a survival element that seems wholly unnecessary. Overcomplicated crafting, weak combat, and lots of bugs.
Formats: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Gearbox Publishing
Developer: Compulsion Games
Release Date: 10th August 2018
Age Rating: 18
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