Man of Medan, the first instalment in Until Dawn developer Supermassive Games’ new interactive drama series The Dark Pictures Anthology, has a secret: it’s fully playable in online co-op – and it’s unexpectedly brilliant. The Guildford-based developer has somehow managed to keep its ambitious multiplayer mode under wraps, but at a preview event aboard the HQS Wellington in London this week, we got to play a full 90 minutes of the title – opposite a partner.
So how does it work? Well, first it’s important to establish exactly what the Bandai Namco published title is: it’s very much a narrative-driven adventure, similar in style to the likes of Detroit: Become Human and Heavy Rain. You’ll spend much of the game watching cut-scenes and making dialogue decisions, but there are moments of exploration where you’ll have full control of your character and will be free to poke around its densely detailed environments.
While you can still play the entire campaign solo, the online co-op brings an innovative new wrinkle to the established interactive drama genre. Paired up with another player, your stories will overlap, as you take control of different characters within the same world. For example, the opening scene involving two American soldiers sees one of you visit a fortune teller, while the other flirts with a glamorous lady working a nearby bar.
There are moments where you’ll be having conversations with each other directly, and others where you’ll be in completely different locations. This means that the developer has had to choreograph every scene to account for slower and faster play styles, and it can result in rare occasions where you may have to wait for your friend to catch up. In over an hour of play, though, we only encountered this issue once; the experience is remarkably seamless.
Of course, this all encourages replay value, as there are effectively two routes through the story. A pre-order bonus named the Curator’s Cut will unlock all of the alternative scenes in single player, and this will be made available to everyone for free later in the year. You’ll also be able to select which starting character you want to play as when beginning a new online co-op game, effectively altering your path through the entire campaign – a good incentive to play through twice.
But the really important thing here is how decisions impact the story, and how the choices your friends make will subtly adapt what you see on screen. These kinds of games are always more about the illusion of choice than anything else, but when you’ve got a partner directly influencing the things you see on screen, it adds a layer of unpredictability. Perhaps most importantly, the tension is maintained, which is rare for horror titles in online multiplayer environments.
And what of the story? Well, it’s very much in the spirit of Until Dawn, make no mistake about that. A narrator appears after the original theme song – yes, there’s a theme song – and he looks like he’ll anchor The Dark Pictures Anthology as new entries release. From there, it’s typical teen horror stuff, as a band of 20-somethings head out into the choppy French Polynesian waters on a diving expedition.
There’s a good mix of cringe-inducing romance with genuine drama, and Supermassive Games has not lost its penchant for jump scares. The loss of Guerrilla Games’ outstanding Decima Engine means that the visuals are plagued with texture pop-in problems, but we were playing an unfinished build which may be optimised further. When everything is loaded in, the character models look especially impressive – even if the motion capture does flirt with the uncanny valley a lot.
The script is not going to be everyone’s cup of cocoa, but if you’re fond of hammy teenage horror stories, then you’re going to feel right at home. The most important thing is that it’s gripping, and while these opening 90 minutes take their sweet time setting the scene, the demo ends with excrement inches away from the figurative fan – we suspect the plot really begins to pick up pace from that point onwards.
Perhaps our only real concern at this stage is that this gameplay formula is starting to feel a little tired. Even compared to Quantic Dream’s latest effort, the interactions seem simplistic, and the controls are cumbersome – something that’s particularly noticeable in online co-op, as two players bumble around claustrophobic environments, trying to escape the clutches of the nearest wall. It all feels very small and limited – a minor gripe if the story’s strong, but something to think about all the same.
A movie night rounds out Man of Medan’s impressive array of options, and this will effectively allow you to pass the controller between friends, and make decisions collectively. It shows that the developer understands the social appeal of these types of titles, and it’s going to impressive lengths to make the multiplayer experience just as compelling as the single player one. As the old adage goes: a problem shared is a problem halved – but in this case, a problem shared may just as easily mean a problem escalated.
Are you intrigued by Man of Medan’s online co-op mode? Will you be playing through the campaign with friends, or sticking to the solo story? Dive into the comment section below and let us know.