Stealth games have reached an odd point in their evolution as a genre. In most modern stealth games you play as a predator, skulking in the shadows only to set up the moment when you deploy your one-shot silenced handgun to the back of your prey’s skull or take them out with a quick, efficient neck stab. Recent titles like Splinter Cell Conviction have abandoned all pretense of de-powering the player, stating as their explicit goal the use of stealth mechanics to turn the protagonist into an alpha uber-badass. It can be hard to remember a time when stealth was about cowering in fear, when the enemy was the predator and you were the prey.
After a few hours being chased through the fields and fens of Big Robot’s open-world survival game you’ll remember that feeling all too well.
You play as the titular Sir (or Madam, if you prefer), an inventor type who accidentally transports themselves to a parallel world where gentrified tweed-loving robots hunt humans for sport. If you want to survive this predicament you’ll have to scour five procedurally generated islands for pieces of the device that will send you home, dodging the patrolling hunters who want you dead and eventually acquiring the means and experience to turn the tables and fight back.
Sir is more than anything a survival game. You spawn in the middle of a bleak rural landscape with nothing but a pair of binoculars and your native wit to help you survive against roving packs of shotgun-toting robots. Much of the initial stages of a game will be spent scavenging through houses and sheds for food to satiate the incessant demands of your vitality counter and trying not to get your head shot off.
You will come to loathe those robots and the repetitive beep-boop that marks their presence. They vastly out-number you, their ranks can be replenished infinitely and they’re frighteningly intelligent in a way that puts many AAA games to shame. Sir’s hunters patrol the landscape randomly rather than in set patterns, meaning that no area is ever permanently safe and every marshy field and rolling hillside presents a potential new opportunity to be filled full of buckshot. Gunshots and explosions will attract their attention and bring them sprinting to your location, and god help you if you set a fire to cook that juicy pheasant you just found. Crouch behind cover and they’ll advance on you position, hide and they’ll scour your last known location. These aren’t the walking blood pinatas of so many recent stealth titles, strolling blithely into the shadows along set paths so you can have ample opportunity to sneak up and break their necks. They’re genuinely terrifying opponents despite the inherent goofiness of the “tweedpunk” aesthetic and even after six hours in Sir I never quite managed to shake off the creeping sense of dread that accompanied their monotonous snooty voices.
Guns can be found in the British-like isles of the game, but they’re loud, inaccurate and ammo is relatively scarce. At least, to begin with. In fact it’s a little too scarce early on, and then later it becomes too abundant. Sir has the distribution of food down just well enough to force the player to frequently scavenge robot-infested towns and houses for supplies, with the long-term security of stores of cooked meat only attainable by taking the risk of setting camp-fires, but it never quite managed to balance its weapon and ammo amounts in my play-through. I spent the better part of two hours at the start wandering about with an empty shotgun and enough handgun bullets to take down a small army sans ammo for the former and a weapon to go with the latter. A few hours later I had three different weapons and a more or less infinite supply of bullets for all of them stashed away in a church. This isn’t to imply that Sir ever becomes a gun-toting action game- try to take the robots head-on and you’ll be dead in seconds no matter how well armed you are- but it did take some of the tension out of the experience. There’s satisfaction in acquiring better gear and honing your skills until you’re as efficient a hunter as your mustachioed opponents, but the early stages of the game where you’re throwing glass bottles to distract guards and two shotgun shells feel like manna from heaven are undoubtedly more gripping.
Big Robot have cited STALKER as a major influence, but for my money Sir, You Are Being Hunted more closely resembles an offline DayZ. The lack of permadeath takes some of the nail-biting tension out of the experience but it still very effectively conjures up the feeling that death is constantly staling you, peeking over your shoulder as you search quaint little villages with names like Slowe Bumpstead for jars of marmalade. A lot of this is down to the oppressively bleak (and at the moment just a tad repetitive) landscapes that make up the five islands. Sir’s graphics are, to put it politely, fairly basic but the game manages to look quite lovely despite that due to strong art direction. Dark forests and murky swamps are suitably barren and uninviting while the sharp lighting engine can sometimes render evening sunlight on a field of wheat in just the right way to make you temporarily forget your status as a timid mouse in a world of tophat-wearing hawks.
Open world sandbox-style games can be effectively judged based on how often their interlocking gameplay mechanics dovetail to offer a compelling experience as opposed to aimless wandering across an empty landscape, and in Sir, You Are Being Hunted the signal to noise ratio is admirably high. The excellent enemy AI, bleak atmosphere and (mostly) well-implemented survival mechanics combine to provide white knuckle chases and tense by-the-skin-of-your-teeth victories at a steady clip that even many tightly scripted games fail to match. In its present incarnation the game is undoubtedly somewhat bare bones, failing to offer much in the way of enemy variety or distractions from the occasionally-repetitive task of hunting for supplies and device fragments, but what’s on offer for the $20 entry price is remarkably absorbing. Wherever Big Robot chooses to go with this next, I’m fully on board.