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Tuesday, July 11, 2023

How The Outlast Trials Breathes New Life into Multiplayer Horror

When Friday the 13th: The Game was released back in 2017, I was immediately gripped by its unique take on asymmetrical multiplayer. Despite it only having a single match type at launch, and a paltry handful of maps, I still managed to sink dozens upon dozens of hours into what little content was there. And I eagerly awaited each subsequent update to see how those promising foundations would be built upon.

I can vividly recall studying its roadmap, grinding my way up to level 42 — where you unlocked Part IV Jason — and wondering how The Grendel spaceship might gel with the existing mechanics (once it was finally added to the rotation). Needless to say, I was deeply invested in what the future held.

Of course, we all know what happened next. When the Friday the 13th IP got embroiled in an ugly legal dispute, many associated projects were unwittingly caught in the crossfire. IllFonic’s game was one such casualty, as the studio was forced to halt development on any DLC, while those pesky copyright issues were hashed out behind closed doors.

As that interminable court case dragged on and on, the lobbies eventually began to dwindle, and fans moved on to other things. With their title no longer being a profitable venture, IllFonic made the only sensible choice remaining to them and decided to cut their losses, giving up on maintenance patches as well.

Then the dedicated servers shut down. And now, as a final nail in the coffin, Friday the 13th: The Game will soon be delisted from all digital storefronts, putting it out of its misery once and for all. Which is a real shame.

When Multiplayer Horror Left Me Behind

This is not a post-mortem of Friday the 13th, however. This is just my (admittedly long-winded) way of saying that multiplayer horror never again reached those heights for me.

Dead by Daylight is perfectly fine and all but — even with a roster of cinema’s most iconic boogeymen — it doesn’t quite fill that void. Nor does Aliens: Fireteam Elite, Back 4 Blood, Resident Evil: Resistance, or IllFonic’s own Predator: Hunting Grounds for that matter.

You see, Friday the 13th scratched a very particular itch. It wasn’t just that it allowed you to control famous characters and live out that intoxicating power fantasy of being a feared slasher. Plenty of other games have done that in the intervening years, yet none of them have had anywhere near as much longevity for me.

No, what really set IllFonic’s title apart was that it managed to accurately simulate the vibe of a cheesy ‘80s production, and made you feel like you were starring in your very own Camp Crystal Lake flick. Because there were so many different ways that scenarios could pan out, it was impossible to predict all of the organic moments and unscripted jolts that would occur. Not to mention, the erratic behaviour of your panicked teammates.

From a role-playing perspective, you had the latitude to be anyone you could feasibly want to be in a Friday the 13th movie, really leaning into those classic tropes. For example, you might choose to embody the belligerent jock who tries to singlehandedly take down the psycho, channel your inner final girl and play it smart, or be that self-centred yuppie who ditches the rest of the group and tries to make a break for it by their lonesome.

Meanwhile, as Jason, you had the opportunity to hone your preferred hunting style and tailor what kind of experience the other players would get. Whether you were facing off against a patient stalker (who quietly observed from the shadows), a sadist (who enjoyed toying with their prey) or a blunt-force madman destroying everything in their path, the frights would never succumb to repetition.

In short, what made Friday the 13th so special, was that it really harnessed the best parts of its source material. It wasn’t just another identikit multiplayer game with a recognisable brand slapped on top. It was unmistakably Friday the 13th, right down to the bone.

By contrast, a lot of other releases in this subgenre feel utterly interchangeable and like they aren’t doing enough to immerse you in their respective worlds.

Dead by Daylight is one of the worst culprits in this regard because, for all of its licensed collabs, the content simply blurs together in a homogenous soup. None of its killers are sufficiently unique, the survivors have only the most superficial differences, and there’s a lot of wasted potential in general.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty serviceable game at its core, but it doesn’t really do anything for me as a horror fan. When I’m playing as DbD’s bland version of Freddy Krueger, I don’t actually feel like I am the Springwood Slasher. The mechanics hardly take advantage of his dream powers, he doesn’t stage any creative kills and you don’t even get a hint of his wisecracking persona. He’s just a regular dude who runs around ineffectually swatting at people with a glove.

The same can be said for Evil Dead: The Game. Sure, it’s packed to the brim with cute references and fun little Easter eggs, yet it ultimately fails to do justice to what many would agree is the definitive splatter franchise. A mindless brawler — wherein you fight endless hordes of demons — it is sorely lacking the idiosyncratic humour, gonzo imagination, and charm of those beloved Sam Raimi films. Its shallow representation of the IP essentially amounts to chucking in buckets of blood and a few gory chainsaw animations, and then calling it a day. But I think there’s way more to Evil Dead than that.

Anyway, the point is that I’d basically given up on multiplayer horror after the slow death of Friday the 13th. I’m willing to concede that this is probably a me issue, and that most players are having a blast with those aforementioned releases, but even the good ones haven’t been able to hold my attention lately.

And Then Along Came The Outlast Trials!

It was with this sense of indifference that I first booted up Red Barrels’ The Outlast Trials, confident that I’d end up bouncing off it like all the rest. As someone who is totally burnt out by this multiplayer craze, I fully expected it to be a hollow shell of its predecessors and that I would lose interest after only a few sessions.

Yet fast forward two months and, much to my surprise, I am still logging in on a near daily basis. I can’t get enough of it, even though I’ve now seen everything that the game has to offer several times over.

If you’ve not had a chance to experience The Outlast Trials for yourself, it is a quasi-prequel to the mainline Outlast series. Set behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War, it puts you in the shoes (or, more accurately, the bare feet) of a down-on-their-luck vagrant, who has agreed to be a Guinea pig in some clandestine science experiment.

Unfortunately, your character isn’t the sharpest tool in the box and neglected to read the fine print before signing on that fateful dotted line. As it turns out, you’ve volunteered for something here that is far worse than just a back alley clinical trial. You’re not merely being asked to take a course of risky drugs or to undergo a medical procedure that’s yet to be approved.

Instead, you’re now the subject of a barbaric study into human resilience and what civilised people are capable of when they’re backed into a corner. Organised by the unscrupulous Murkoff Corporation (the common antagonist that carries over between each Outlast instalment), this research is comprised of sequential “trials,” all of which are performed in controlled environments. Far away from the prying eyes of government and ethical bodies.

The way it works is that hapless lab rats like yourself — known as “Regents” — are herded into model communities, similar to those doom towns that were used for testing atom bombs in the ‘50s. There’s a replica police station, a faux orphanage, and an imitation theme park, all of which are populated by creepy mannequins.

Once you’ve been let loose in a given maze, you and your fellow regents will be given weird tasks to complete that seemingly have no rhyme or reason to them. “Push the boatful of dummies into a grinder”; “Root around in corpses to find a special key”; “Take the prisoner to the electric chair”: that kind of stuff.

These assignments are stomach-churning for sure, but you quickly get over that initial revulsion and learn to crack on with it. After all, you’re not in any real danger.

At least that’s what you think, until Murkoff decides to crank things up a notch by sending in the “Ex-Pops.” Hostile test subjects who lost their minds in previous trials, these lunatics will chase you around whichever labyrinthine facility you’re currently locked in and, should they catch you, it’ll become apparent that they have very NSFW intentions. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you’ll also have to deal with lethal booby-traps, hallucinogenic aerosols, and moral dilemmas that will push you to your absolute breaking point.

Think of the whole thing as like a cross between Saw, The Running Man and, most importantly, the original Outlast series. Which brings us nicely to Trials’ greatest strength in my opinion. It’s a proper continuation of what came before and has managed to stay true to its roots, despite the radical shift to online co-op.

Authentically Vile and Disturbing Full disclosure: I’m something of an Outlast apologist, even going so far as to defend its oft-maligned 2017 sequel. Granted, it’s never been a particularly subtle or clever franchise (which is normally the stick used to beat it), but I’d argue that the team at Red Barrels are very effective at what they do.

Taken on its own terms, Outlast represents gross-out, no-holds-barred depravity at its scuzziest. It might not be able to compete with Silent Hill or Amnesia when it comes to inflicting psychological trauma, yet what it lacks in nuance it more than makes up for in unrelenting shock value.

Where else can you find such an abundance of bad taste? With necrophiliac mental patients; first-person torture; and a frankly obscene amount of genital mutilation: it’s basically the gaming equivalent of a video nasty.

To be honest, I was a little anxious that some of this excess would be lost in the translation to co-op. After all, when playing with other people, you inevitably adopt a different state of mind, one that doesn’t seem very conducive to Outlast’s signature brand of horror. After all, if there’s joking and laughter emanating over the voice chat, then it kind of undermines that sense of vulnerability that made those earlier games so damn nerve-wracking.

Playing with others also means that you’ll have less time to dwell on graphic imagery— seeing as your friends might want to plough on with the task at hand — that you can’t be viscerally dismembered anymore — in case a teammate needs to revive you — and that it’s harder to indulge in scripted vulgarity. I mean, how can you get everybody to stop and watch a protracted gelding sequence when they’re already running around like headless chickens?

These concerns were all running through my brain in the lead-up to The Outlast Trials and I found myself wishing that Red Barrels would stick to what they know, and just release a traditional 3rd entry in the series instead.

Much to my relief, it turns out that I was worrying over nothing here. Anything but tame, this new installment is every bit as explicit as its forebears and even goes further in some respects, by getting you to take a more active role in the brutality.

While previous Outlast titles had you on the receiving end of ultra-violence — or otherwise witnessing it from afar — you’re no guiltless bystander this time around. Murkoff will have you plunging your hand into the chest cavities of the deceased, using a logging saw to cut dudes in half, executing stool pigeons as they beg for their lives, and organising blood raves in a church.

Subverting the Rules of Co-Op

On a related note, these games have always been about dehumanising people and reducing them to their basest instincts. Fans will remember that this is exactly what Murkoff was doing at Mount Massive Asylum and also at Temple Gate (via their morphogenic engine and mind control experiments). And guess what; they’re at it again!

By parsing the collectable documents (found scattered around the trials themselves), we discover that your limits are being tested, so that you can in turn be broken down, stripped of your compassion and effectively brainwashed. If you endure this behavioural conditioning for long enough, then you will be moulded into the ideal soldier. One that blindly follows orders without compunction.

In gameplay, this obviously manifests in you being forced to do those unspeakably cruel things to NPCs. Yet there is another, deceptively smart way that the theme is emphasized.

You see, in most cooperative titles, you are incentivised to play nice with others. Whether that’s by pursuing the objective in Battlefield, filling the need for a support class in Overwatch, or unhooking fellow survivors in Dead by Daylight.

At first glance, The Outlast Trials seems to conform with this idea, by giving you the tools to heal partners, ping objects, share resources, and perform various joint actions. Collaboration does appear to be in everyone’s best interest then and, if you want to get through a level unscathed, it’d presumably behove you all to stick together.

However, you’ll soon realise that it can be quite tempting to adopt an every-man-for-himself ethos instead. Not only do your teammates serve as a nice distraction (bearing the brunt of enemy attacks while you make a break for it) but the game slyly encourages you to think of them as scapegoats.

In order to ascend the ranks in The Outlast Trials and earn new gear, you need to achieve the highest possible grades at the end of missions. Although cosmetics can be unlocked by stubbornly grinding through programs and clocking in sufficient playtime, the most desirable prizes come from earning top marks in your debrief evaluations. That means getting near-perfect runs, wherein you take no damage, preserve your sanity bar, and successfully avoid traps.

It has nothing to do, though, with how much you personally contribute to the wider team. From a mercenary perspective then, it makes way more sense to let everyone else put their necks on the line while you play cautiously.

As the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, your partners will be the ones at risk if they get spotted. Then, once the coast is clear, you might decide to pitch in — activating your healing spray or filling up the odd generator — but there’s no point in trying to be a hero. Atruism won’t get you anywhere.

If you’re suitably cutthroat and demonstrate keen self-preservation instincts, then you’ll be given positive reinforcement at the end of the trial, via a generous helping of XP and a favourable review from the lab coats. You’ll be playing right into Murkoff’s hands of course, but you’ll stay alive. And isn’t that what matters?

It’s an electrifying dynamic that inflects every single match with an element of suspense and paranoia. You can never be sure who’s got your back in The Outlast Trials, nor can you judge how long your fragile alliances will last or if you’re simply better off looking out for number 1.

Evolving the Formula

Outlast Trials multiplayer game

The fact that The Outlast Trials not only understands its heritage, but genuinely feels like the next logical step in its franchise is a big part of its appeal for me. Red Barrels’ series has always trafficked in obscenity and it’s brilliant to see that none of those edges have been sanded off here. On the contrary, the developers are continuing to push buttons and explore the murkiest parts of humanity.

Leaning into that darker subject matter is all well and good though, but it’s not what makes a game like this fun to play. Those thematic ideas need to be backed up by sound mechanics, a rewarding progression system, and enjoyable level design, otherwise it’s all for nothing.

Luckily, The Outlast Trials also happens to be one of the most finely-balanced multiplayer offerings that I’ve experienced in quite some time. At least as far as horror is concerned.

For a start, it takes a leaf out of Friday the 13th’s book and accommodates numerous playstyles, stopping things from ever growing stale. You can experiment with different rigs, try out new builds and completely mix up your strategies between matches.

Whereas the range of interactions you have in a lot of similar games can be quite constraining (for instance, Predator: Hunting Grounds doesn’t allow you to do much else beyond point-and-shoot), here you’ve got an opportunity to be crafty with your stealth or to take a more athletic approach, courtesy of the surprisingly finessed parkour mechanics.

Meanwhile, a brick could be used as either a noisy distraction or as a weapon for temporarily incapacitating enemies. There are also tons of options for shaking hunters: whether that’s by sliding through a crawlspace; activating a smoke trap; scrambling over a gap in the wall; or locking yourself inside a toilet cubicle and waiting for the whole thing to blow over.

Despite this wealth of possibilities, you are crucially never overpowered in The Outlast Trials. Enemy A.I. will catch onto your bullshit if you get too cocky and the Ex-Pops only need to land a couple of hits to finish you off.

This isn’t like Dead by Daylight, where a group of well-coordinated survivors can effectively troll the killer and run (literal) laps around them. In that title, I rarely feel like a helpless victim and instead oddly sympathise with my exasperated pursuers, who are getting relentlessly panel-stunned or blinded with flashlights. There’s no sense of peril when you can so easily outmanoeuvre your supposed tormenter.

Outlast Trials multiplayer horror

By contrast, I still quiver with fear whenever I hear a madman stalking nearby in The Outlast Trials, because it does a far better job of making you feel defenceless (especially on those more challenging exam modes, or when you’re going solo). Indeed, cowering under a bed, praying that you’re not spotted by that worryingly amorous nutjob with his genitals out, never stops being intense.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the “Ex-Pops” here are bloody terrifying. They have twisted personalities, sick motivations, and gruesome M.Os that lend each of them a distinct presence.

The cackling Pusher will spray mind-altering chemicals into your face before then scurrying away like a giddy prankster, while the Night Hunter will brag about his state-of-the-art NV googles and tauntingly insist that there is no point in trying to hide.

Elsewhere, you’ve got the narcoleptic Screamers (who just want to have a quiet nap without being rudely awoken), the distraught Behemoths (blindfolded Ex-Pops who violently lash out at in anyone in their vicinity) and, most intimidating of all: the Prime Assets.

The latter are the game’s headline psychos. With fleshed-out backstories and more dialogue than your average grunts, they’re akin to bosses and you’ll become intimately acquainted with them as they hound you from level to level.

Leland Coyle is a crooked cop who derives a little too much pleasure from his job. Dishing out excessive force and arousing himself with a cattle prod, he’s hardly a poster boy for the law, but he does make for a pretty threatening antagonist.

Then you’ve got Mother Gooseberry: a disgraced children’s entertainer who turned to murder when her show got axed by the network. Constantly engaged in an infantile back-and-forth with her sock puppet companion (which also happens to be concealing a drill), she’s simultaneously creepy and kind of funny. Like all of the best Outlast baddies.

Compare this demented lot with the relatively nondescript enemies you face in other co-op horror titles, and it’s yet another reason why The Outlast Trials stands out for me. It hasn’t sacrificed any of its franchise’s original identity at the altar of multiplayer.

Rather, with its grim premise, memorable villains and impressive commitment to ickiness, it’s the most Outlasty game imaginable. And it’s managed to reignite my love for a subgenre that I thought I’d left behind a long time ago.

The post How ‘The Outlast Trials’ Breathes New Life into Multiplayer Horror appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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