If you were a fan of the PS4 horror exclusive Until Dawn, then follow-up Man of Medan – the first part of studio Supermassives new Dark Pictures anthology series – has probably looked exciting, if somewhat familiar.
The company has just revealed that there’s a little bit more to it than that though. Yup, once again Man of Medan is a slickly realised interactive horror story in which you’ll flit between characters and act through a combination of quick-time events and timed decisions, but this time you won’t have to do it alone: Man of Medan is multiplayer.
I tried the game’s singleplayer mode out when it was first announced at Gamescom 2018, but now I’ve spent an hour and a half playing through with someone else ahead of the game’s August 30 launch – when it will arrive on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, all for the friendly price of £24.99/$29.99.
The first thing to note is that you can still play through Man of Medan’s story entirely on your own if that’s how you prefer things – multiplayer is strictly optional. You also get the choice between two modes: a 2-5 player ‘movie night’ mode, in which you’ll pass a controller around to share responsibility for the big decisions; and a 2-player online co-op which splits things up a little differently.
To recap for those who aren’t familiar, Man of Medan is the first game in The Dark Pictures Anthology, a new series of small, standalone horror titles. You’ll control a group of characters as you navigate a different horror story each time, making decisions that will determine who lives, who dies, and what happens along the way.
Each story in the anthology will be different, joined together by the connective tissue of the mysterious ‘Curator’ – a great nod to classic horror anthology movies. Man of Medan picks up on a group of 20-somethings off on a diving holiday. We’ve got a few of the usual archetypes – the nerd, the jock, the playboy, the stuck-up girlfriend, and, uh, the sexy woman in short shorts that the camera keeps ogling – and an encounter with moody locals that eventually leads them all to a long-abandoned WWII warship with a spoooooky secret.
Much like Until Dawn the aim is clearly to be filmic, with a photorealistic art style, cinematic aspect ratio (letterboxing and all) and performance capture throughout – including a performance from former X-Man Shawn Ashmore. And for the most part the game is pretty beautiful, with detailed animations that only occasionally slip into the uncanny valley.
The game seamlessly slips between playable segments and cut scenes – so delicately that at times you won’t even realise it’s happened – though with quick-time events liable to pop up at any time, you’re never entirely safe to put the controller down.
The cinematic aspirations are clear – just as with Until Dawns’ star-studded cast – though like that game Man of Medan still shows its limitations. Its an old adage that editing is the heart of cinema, and interactivity still gets stuck in the way of that here – it’s impossible to set pacing when players need time to decide, and the game still jumps jarringly between shots, especially with the slightly clunky Resident Evil-style fixed camera angles.
You get that same slight sense of inconsistency about characterisation too at times. One minor plot point in the demo involved Shawn Ashmore’s Conrad spotting an entrance into a submerged plane – information that was relayed to one character in three separate conversation, with them acting like it was brand new to them each and every time.
Still, there’s a comfortable charm to these games, and throwing another player into the mix adds a welcome wrinkle. Playing in the 2-player online co-op, the game puts each of you in charge of different characters at different times. At points you might be in control of each side of the same conversation, at others you might get to separately roam a shared environment, while at yet others you might play through entirely different scenes going on simultaneously.
It’s an unusual asymmetry to a multiplayer experience, as you’ll each go through utterly different encounters that nonetheless impact each other’s game and the shared story. The result is a frantic back-and-forth as you try to find out what the other player did to cause whatever new catastrophe has popped up, or what they saw that you missed.
Sharing an interactive story inevitably brings with it complications though. For one thing, the web of different interactions mean that it’s impossible to divide the playable characters down the middle and assign some to one player and some to the other, so you’ll often take control of someone that your partner was playing as earlier – and you’ll have to live with the decisions they made, and decide how consistently you want to play with the character choices they’ve already made.
Set aside the multiplayer and so far Man of Medan looks a lot like Until Dawn, but, y’know, on a boat. That’s both good and bad – Until Dawn is great fun and deeply replayable, but flaws like clunky controls, over-reliance on quick-time events, and occasionally inconsistent characterisation have survived into Medan too.
Still, the multiplayer element is a proper, capital-I Innovation, and means that Man of Medan will offer a co-op experience genuinely unlike anything else on the market. Until Dawn was always best experienced with a friend there to shout at your bad decisions, and now you get to shout at each other instead. That’s progress.