Quite an odd one this, and certainly one of the most interesting games I’ve played in the last year. You pilot a small steampunk helicopter-like craft in a 2D world, and engage in battles against other pilots, monsters and machines using a selection of ludicrously outsized medieval weapons including swords, axes, flails, maces and picks.
In Hammerfight you move your craft with the mouse. There’s no other choice, and I don’t think it’d work well with any other common gaming peripheral anyway. Beyond movement, your core actions will all rely on physics. You go into battle dragging your weapon (or weapons) of choice behind you – they hang from an axis on the side of your craft and you can swing them about through clever movement of the mouse. This gives combat a real physical aspect that forms the basis of why Hammerfight is so enjoyable. Beyond that you can switch weapon selection with the mouse wheel, combine them by clicking the left button, and drop or even throw weapons with the right button. Mouse sensitivity must be calibrated to a suitable level when you first launch the game, but I recommend you head straight to the options menu and adjust this manually, or use a variable dpi mouse and up the sensitivity, because both me and my friend found the default movement too sluggish.
Speaking of menus, I think this is a good opportunity to get one of Hammerfight’s major shortcomings out-of-the-way. User interface in Hammerfight, beyond the ingenious control system, is awful, poorly designed, horribly made, and very confusing. Interfaces can pop up above interfaces and become very confusing. Worst of all it’s inconsistent. You’ll encounter several choices during the game’s story arc, with two different interfaces for making the decisions. You’ll also encounter a terribly confusing pair of shops which exist within the same space and have entirely different interfaces. Even the main menu is weird. Hell – selecting a game mode to play is weird, and I didn’t even realise you could go back to the hall to change your weapons for the entire second half of the game, so I was stuck with whatever I could steal from enemies. Some of the choices you’ll encounter in the story arc simply involve left or right clicks, which leads me to the other major shortcoming of the game.
The story is deep, complicated, buried under tons of text, and ultimately only detracted from my experience of the game. After a short while I got fed up, took to skipping the historical sections and skim-reading dialogue. Click, click, click to skip through the dialogue quickly. You could say this was my fault, but I almost missed some of the left-right click choices because I was happily clicking away, only slowing down if it seemed like something interesting was happening. It’s a shame because the world that Hammerfight is set in genuinely seems interesting, but I think you need to give the player a reason to be interested before you start piling on the history, rather than starting with history, and then interrupting the gameplay frequently to add even more depth. Once you start skipping the reading like I did, the story mode disappears quickly, and ends at a rather strange juncture, so I can’t recommend the game if you’re looking for a thrilling adventure piece.
I do recommend Hammerfight though. I recommend it highly. The gameplay is truly solid, especially for one on one combat. Levels in the story arc will throw you into a number of scenarios. Some of these are one on one, some of them are interesting mini-games like Hammerball, and some of them pit you against swarms of enemies that you’ll have great difficulty facing off against without experience. Under any circumstances though, swinging your weapon of choice around with the mouse remains satisfying beyond description. Unlike every other game I’ve played, you have a physical connection to your weapon akin to holding it in your own hand. Facing off against the first Sophit really feels like a mid-air duel with a terrifying monster, and slamming enemies into a wall with a hammer, or executing them with the pointy side of your axe while they lie helpless on the ground truly feels violent. Destructible environments, destructible machines and creatures really help to build on the feeling of carnage too. In arena fights you’ll find you have to look out for debris falling from the ceiling whenever an enemy or poorly aimed throwing weapon strikes it.
Enemy AI in Hammerfight is solid. I was constantly impressed by the way AI opponents acted as I fought against them, and as a programmer I can’t imagine it was easy to get them to act the way they do. Worms and Sophit act dumbly, as you might expect creatures to do, but while the AI pilots were more impressive, fighting creatures was a lot of fun for me. Overall there is a lot of variety spread through the story mode and unlockable game modes in Hammerfight, and all of it is interesting. There are a lot of weapons for you to combine and experiment with. You can carry two main weapons at once, as well as an array of armour, an arsenal of throwing weapons, and even vials of poison or explosives.
Graphics aren’t too thrilling on the whole in Hammerfight. The people especially are rather ugly. The weapons and enemies, however, look really cool, as do the explosions and various other effects. At times I felt there was too much going on though. You can often get into a state when blurring, explosions and other effects obscure your view so much that you can’t actually see your own ship. You may notice I’ve had difficulty taking clean screenshots for this game as they’re all littered with motion blur and such. It’s something you need to get used to though. You need to be prepared for the explosions when you strike an enemy and retreat to a portion of the screen that is clear. Motion blur is subtle and enhances the feeling of movement in-game, and honestly, I think the effect overload might be somewhat beneficial to gameplay after all.
I really can’t recommend you try Hammerfight enough. While the story is bleak, the interfaces are terrible, and the experience may be short lived, there’s a lot of variety, and the combat system will change your perspective on all of the dull button-pushing you’ve done till now. To think that the most real, most, visceral, violent feeling in-game combat I have ever experienced has come not from a Wiimote, PSMove or Kinect, but from a simple mouse and an indie game.