E3 2018: We Happy Few Preview

We Happy Few has had an interesting journey since Compulsion Games revealed its fascinating trailer/introductory cutscene at 2016’s E3. What appeared to be a story-driven action game set in an alternate 1960's London, in which the populace is hooked on a unique drug, was captivating until an Early Access preview on Xbox One. It made the game out to be something totally different. I went into the Early Access with certain thoughts and expectations, but features like permadeath, multiple narratives, and procedural content were mechanics I wasn’t prepared for. This isn’t the fault of Compulsion Games - they’re free to make whatever game they want. I just wished it was communicated a little better.

As the last appointment of E3 2018, my hour-long session with We Happy Few was something I was looking forward to all week. We Happy Few has great environmental design and, as I would soon discover, a fascinating narrative that got its hooks into me pretty quickly. Sitting down to play, I was quickly briefed and had been told that the procedurally generated mechanics were still there but because I was playing a small slice of a much larger experience, it was difficult to discern how these mechanics came into play (a quick glance at the official website provides more context for permadeath and item shuffling).

The demo began immediately after the cutscene featured in the announcement trailer. We experience a very different London through the eyes of Arthur, a Sam Lowry-esque bureaucrat charged with censoring news. In this iteration of 1960's British life, citizens have been caught by the charms of Joy, a mysterious “happy pill” that blinds people to the harsh realities of the world around them, which hints at a society defeated by the German army during World War II. After a perilous escape from the Bobbies, because he didn’t take his Joy, Arthur finds himself in one of many sewer hideouts, a place where the player can rest and recoup away from the dangers of the surface world. The goal of the demo was to reach a train station and secure passage outside the city. That is easier said than done, naturally. In this world, where the surrounding slums are home to people who look upon the Joy-swallowing, the upper elite class that Arthur once was part of with violent disdain and if the populace won’t come after them, then the local thuggish street gangs will. No one does anything for free here, as Arthur comes across an elderly gentleman who can help Arthur bypass a checkpoint in exchange for infiltrating a gang hideout to recover his old war medals.

Once inside the gang hideout, I was introduced to stealth and crafting mechanics. You can craft useful tools like lockpicks and pry bars by picking up junk left in trash cans or enemies, and use them to access locked areas. Enemies patrolled areas of the hideout and when Arthur crouches, it’s possible to see the persons' footsteps through walls, allowing you to establish a patrol pattern and plan an infiltration accordingly. Rocks and glass bottles can be used as distractions to split up larger groups of enemies or pull them away from mission critical access ways. My sneaking mission inside the hideout to secure old war medals was going pretty well until I walked into an elevator shaft and found Arthur to be an unwilling participant in a gladiatorial battle against a former coworker. I was presented with a choice of weapons, one that could kill and another that delivered a non-lethal blow. Player choice seems to play a role here, either in action or dialog, that could very well make an impact on the larger story. After the battle, I was free to go and after finally finding the medals, I tried to sneak my way out of the area only to get caught by two patrolling gang members. I still had the weapon from the arena battle, so I was capable of holding my own in a fight by alternating blocks, attacks, and a push move that functions as a decent guard breaker.

As it looks, We Happy Few has the makings of a decent story-driven action game a la BioShock. Compulsion probably wants to avoid the similarities but there’s no denying Ken Levine’s game help set a benchmark for these sorts of games. While I wasn’t too hot on the combat portion of the game, I was nonetheless intrigued by this alternative British dystopia. The atmosphere is moody, oppressive and grim. Through my explorations, I encountered moments in which Arthur recalls memories of his older brother as well as life under the rule of the German Army. Scrawled on walls are messages indicating that some great tragedy caused the citizen to take Joy to forget the past and those who find themselves cut off from the source become victims of suicide. And in all that darkness, moments of levity come from Arthur’s sometimes strange dialog as he tries to embody the spirit of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. In the face of starvation, death, hooliganism, depression and dismay, Arthur tries to encourage those around them to keep a stiff upper lip. And yet, his nervous chuckling and sedate delivery make it seem like holding onto various English platitudes is the only thing he knows how to do in a world turned upside down (though it was kind of annoying to hear different people give the exact same response to Arthur’s dialog).

I was told that We Happy Few is on track for an August release which, if you look at your calendar right now, is really soon. I’m interested in playing more if only to see how the promised mechanics play out as well as seeing a bigger picture that includes the additional characters and how the procedural generation material will play out. Honestly, I’d be OK with the rest of the adventure if it were similar to the slice I played through. There is only so much you can do in a timed demo, so we’ll just have to wait and see how the rest of the game pans out later this summer.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.