If Towerfall, Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn have taught me anything, it's that sometimes the simplest premises are the best. A multitude of game modes, complex move-sets and single-player campaigns are all well and good for our Halos, Street Fighters and Monster Hunters, but sometimes all you need is one brilliant idea well executed. That's what Vogelsap's The Flock is attempting to do with asymmetrical five-player multiplayer. And based on my time with it at GDC, it seems well on its way to delivering.
On the surface The Flock seems similar to Evolve with its four-on-one monster versus human(oid) game mechanic, but it's actually closer to a multiplayer take on Alien: Isolation. Unlike Evolve, in The Flock, you've got four monsters and only one human(oid). However, your role - and species, for that matter - changes throughout each match.
Initially everyone spawns as these alien gargoyles called The Flock. You all have the same goal: activate a series of light orbs with a magical flashlight. The problem is that whoever wields this flashlight, dubbed the Light Artifact, transforms into a humanoid being called the Carrier. The Carrier is weak. All they can do is walk and shine their light around. Thankfully, this Light Artifact's beam can instantly fry any Flock it illuminates. Fail to protect the Light Artifact and you'll respawn as another Flock while your killer now bears the torch.
The Flock are feisty creatures, however. Fast, agile, and sneaky, they're able to scale a building in a single bound. Better yet, they have some pretty unique abilities. One of these is borrowed from Super Mario Bros. 3, of all places, with Tanooki Mario's beloved party trick of turning into an invulnerable - albeit immobile - statue. This power is especially deceptive when combined with The Flock's other ability: to duplicate themselves with an identical decoy. As such, you can set a trap for your prey, wait for them to come upon your hollow effigy, then jump them while they're sussing out whether they're looking at a real monster/player or merely an imitation of one.
This is especially difficult to determine in one level that's full of Flock statues. In this rustic, cavernous map everything looks like it's about to kill you. And much of it is. But hey, at least you'll be reincarnated as a ferocious predator, so it's not all bad.
Playing as The Flock is rather cathartic. They're strong, vicious, and tricksy. Playing as the Carrier, however, is properly unsettling, especially due to a jumpy crescendo in the ambient soundtrack every time you shine your light on an immobile Flock. (Are they a statue, decoy, or another player in Tanooki mode?!)
There is one problem, however, the Carrier feels a little too vulnerable to the point where getting attacked sometimes feels random. While I'm far from an expert at the game with only a couple of matches to my name, it sometimes felt like the only effective strategy as a Carrier is to spend much of your time spinning about like a first-person version of Roundabout's limousine.
Lead designer Jeroen Van Hasselt seems aware of this and has quite a few features he'd like to add to further enhance the dynamics of both roles. He clarifies that none of these potential features are guaranteed to make it into the final game, but he'd like to add a radar function for the Carrier so the Flock will briefly reveal their location when they run, jump or attack. This seems like it will help balance things out a bit.
More interesting is a Predator-esque "taunt" feature wherein the Flock can let out a mighty roar. "It'll make you feel really cool like a monster." he says. "But it will have functionality as well. This taunt can be heard by every Flock and the Carrier. The Carrier will experience it with a screen shake. As the Flock, you want to tell them, 'hey, s***'s going down.' This will make you visible for every other Flock in the level for 10 seconds. And if another Flock decides to respond to your taunt by taunting as well, you'll both be visible to each other for like a minute, so they can work together if they want. If they both taunt to each other, they'll be faster and stronger."
This will add a unique temporary co-op feel to the game as players join forces against a common foe, knowing full well they'll later have to end this alliance as only one player can win. Another cooperative feature Van Hasselt would like to add involves an endgame similar to Titanfall's evacuation climax (a fact that surprises the Van Hasselt, who says he's never played Respawn's mech shooter). In this final act, the Carrier will evolve - though the developer is cagey on how - and the Flock will become more powerful as they collaborate to take down this fiercer foe. If they die, however, they don't respawn. "The stakes are way higher at the end," Van Hasselt says. "This is the ultimate climax to it."
Van Hasselt also shares an idea for a game mode that's being prototyped. "We had a game mode at one point where the Flock would start really slow and after two minutes they'd die. But during those two minutes they'll gradually get faster and stronger, so you have this build-up for the Carrier."
While he has lots of potential ideas to alter the game, Van Hasselt clarifies that he thinks The Flock will launch with just the one game mode. "We have several prototypes in the testing phase that we'd like to do, but we're like 'let's polish this and make sure it works in the best way it can.' Then, if the game does well, we're going to add more game modes, more maps, etc... So all the people who are supporting it and playing it, it will be free for them."
As such, The Flock is more about quality over quantity. "We have to keep it balanced," Van Hasselt emphasises. "What we're trying to do is make a multiplayer game that's tense and fun and balanced as well. As soon as we start adding stuff, all these things shift all the time."
Furthermore, he doesn't want to core gameplay loop to get too convoluted. "We have a bit of a minimal approach," he says. "It's really immersive with no HUDs, no stuff like that. We want to make it short matches."
When asked about if he's planning to launch The Flock on Steam Early Access, he expresses scepticism with the idea - but says it's something he'd consider if the game was feature complete. "If we do an Early Access, it will only be when we think the game's done but probably not finished because we need to test it on other computers, beta test it, balance it a bit more," he explains. "If we do an Early Access that's the only way we'd do it."
The Flock may not be quite the polished gem it needs to be just yet, but it's well on its way to providing a more accessible counterpoint to Evolve. The otherworldly design of its titular creatures, smooth controls and moody, varied maps feel like solid building blocks for a great online multiplayer experience. More importantly, it's the rare game where playing with other people actually makes the game scarier. How many games can you say that about?