From the trailer showing off the intro to We Happy Few during Microsoft’s press conference at E3 this year, you would think that the alt history survival game from Compulsion Games looked a lot like an anglicised version of BioShock. A bizarre and unnerving survival horror, with influences ranging from Huxley to Orwell, to classic British TV series The Prisoner.
However, although We Happy Few certainly takes its cues from classic dystopian literature and films, it’s not quite the game that the tightly scripted intro suggests that it is.
The opening repeats what was shown in the E3 demo, taking players to an alternative 1960’s Britain, under the thrall of a mood altering drug called Joy, pushed by an Orwellian government to help the populace forget ‘the very bad thing that happened’. (If you think of the nightmarish visage of a society where the only thing on TV is The Good Life you won’t go far wrong)
Taking players to the fictional town of Wellington Wells, you start the game playing as Arthur; a government censor working to protect the populace from anything that would make them unhappy, or help them remember. During another busy day in the office redacting an odd thing happens; his usually bright surroundings begin to dim and the world around him becomes almost grey. The usually chipper atmosphere of the place suddenly begins to feel somewhat unnerving, something isn’t right and he wonders whether it’s his pills that’s causing this. At this point he decides to stop taking his meds, and after a horrific incident involving an office party and a piñata all hell breaks loose and Arthur is forced to go on the run.
After this fantastic opener, Arthur awakes to find himself in an underground safehouse hidden in the sewers of a run-down ghetto in an area of the town where the citizens that have stopped taking their Joy. It’s at this point that We Happy Few’s true nature is revealed. It isn’t a carefully scripted, linear action adventure in a similar mould to BioShock at all.
In reality it’s a survival sim set in procedurally generated areas. You have objectives (the ultimate aim being to escape from Wellington Wells), and will stumble across side quests known as encounters, but during moment to moment play there is just as much focus on scavenging for supplies, crafting tools and weapons, and trying to stave off hunger, thirst and exhaustion as there is on completing objectives and pushing the story forward.
The starting area is a desolate bombed-out hamlet, left to decay complete with weed-filled garden squares, cracked pavements and muttering Downers (citizens off their meds) guarding their few meagre possessions or ranting about god knows what.
Problem is, the survival aspects of the game are no fun at all. Your water, food and sleep gauges deplete at a ridiculous rate and it’s entirely possible to die of hunger or thirst, and when either meter is completely depleted the screen becomes so blurry and disorientating you may as well just wait for the inevitable. This forces you to keep focused on the boring day to day stuff, and gets in the way of engaging with the best part of the experience – We Happy Few’s distinctive and unnerving world.
The game’s stealth systems are decidedly hit-and-miss with citizens either completely ignoring you or going absolutely mental at the drop of a hat, while combat sees you trying to fend off groups of crazed citizenry with pointy sticks, cricket bats and, if you’re unlucky enough to come across a Bobbie, a bloody great truncheon.
Luckily you can toggle permadeath (I would recommend turning it off) as well as enable a second wind feature when you’re close to death (keep it on), because you don’t deftly counter blows like you would in something like Condemned, so much as flail wildly in the direction of the mob and hope for the best. This results in you dying a hell of a lot. Though maybe trying to take on mobs with little more than a winning smile and a stick is a bad idea in a world where everyone seems to want you dead as soon as they realise that you’re different in some way.
However, after a couple of hours in Wellington Wells, We Happy Few begins to develop a slightly better sense of pace, as main missions, like crossing the bridge to escape back to the more affluent areas of the town, inevitably lead you to uncovering a series of side quests and smaller objectives, that in turn make the main objective just that little bit easier; rewarding you with blueprints and materials to build better gear, to help you blend into society better or make an effective escape when it all inevitably goes tits up.
Eventually you’ll make your way to the parts of Wellington Wells where the everyday citizens dwell, off their faces on Joy, leering masks on their faces and an unnerving spring in their step; they’re just even more crazed than the Downers and just as threatening, always happy to beat you to death if they realise you’re off your Joy. Spending any time out at night will put you firmly in the sights of the local constabulary and trying to avoid a poisonous smog which hangs in the air.
At present there’s something that just feels a little off about We Happy Few. Despite having a brilliant sense of style with striking character designs, fantastic lighting and nailing that 60’s vibe, feeling like an odd mix of The Prisoner and classic Doctor Who, it still feels a bit workman-like in its execution, with some workmanlike textures, plenty of pop-in and an opening zone that can best be described as drab, while the procedural nature of the map makes it feel somewhat repetitive at times, it’s clear that the game could be something really special, but it’s not quite there yet.
Likewise, the gameplay doesn’t quite hook you as well as it could, after being teased with a brilliant introduction to the world of Wellington-Wells, there’s no other story elements in the current build to keep you invested (though these have been promised in the final release). That being said, what little is there just makes you wish there was more. The permanent grimaces and constant televisual and radio reports form an unnerving presenter known as Uncle Jack are a clear highlight, but you I couldn’t help but feel that a fantastic setting is being wasted.
However, a lot can still happen between now and We Happy Few’s final release. Arthur is only one of several protagonists that Compulsion have promised in the final build, each with their own stories and motivations so you’ll be able to view and explore Wellington Wells from several distinct perspectives. As it stands though, even Arthur’s tale feels unfinished. This preview is more of a chance to test the mechanics and take in the scenery than a finished slice of the final product.
In its current state We Happy Few is a bit of a mixed bag. In one moment tense, exciting, and brilliant but in the next dull, repetitive and a bit of a chore.
But being in Early Access, We Happy Few still has plenty of time to develop and evolve. If Compulsion refine the stealth-action gameplay, improve the combat and make the survival aspects of the game less punishing (or completely optional) allowing the fantastic setting and stories to shine through, We Happy Few could be something special indeed.