This frantic game of kitchen co-operation is farcical couch co-op at its finest.
I've never really understood or liked Gordon Ramsay. It might be his arrogant demeanour, maybe it's the way he looks like the missing third Vreski brother from Die Hard - now I have a garlic crusher, ho ho ho. Whatever it is, I've never really got what makes him so popular. Having played Overcooked, however, I feel I've had something of a breakthrough on my (admittedly neglected) quest to understand what it is to be Gordon Ramsay; namely, it's far easier to get people to do things for you in a busy kitchen if you never stop shouting or swearing.
Overcooked is a local co-op game for up to four players with ludicrously simple controls and an innate ability to make me curse like a sailor. You run around with an analogue stick, pick up and put things down with one button and chop things with another (up to two players can play on one controller, incidentally, which is brilliant). Orders trickle into the kitchen at the top of the screen, indicating what recipe you ought to be following next - depending on the level, this could be anything from onion soup or burgers to fish and chips or burritos. In order to get the coveted three-star rating on each level, you and your fellow chefs must work together to prioritise different tasks and prepare dishes in an efficient, professional manner. Needless to say, it's utter chaos.
It's not so much that you're struggling against a strict time limit in Overcooked - you are - but more that you're struggling against the other chefs in the kitchen. The adage with Overcooked is not so much 'too many cooks spoil the broth' as 'too many cooks apparently think it's fine to slap you out the way and make you drop that beef patty because they decided washing up that one dirty plate was definitely more important than dealing with the fact there are no burgers cooking whatsoever right now when we're about to fail two orders for taking too long, you absolute cretin.' When success in each level hinges on synchronising a multitude of smaller component tasks - chopping vegetables, cooking meat, putting out fires - every second counts, and it only takes the careless action of one pig-headed chef to throw everything into disarray.
As a result, it's tremendous fun to see how different teams interact. While playing with Aoife and Tom in the office we went straight for ceaseless abuse, calling numerous things about our respective capabilities, intellect and parentage into question. A different, more civilised team played straight after us and went for a decidedly more polite approach. They were also rubbish by comparison; as it turns out, a constant stream of invective really is a more efficient way of communicating.
To say that Overcooked is primarily a test of your skills at cooperation and coordination, however, is a bit simplistic; a strong sense of cooperation is assumed, indeed demanded of you from the very first level. Instead, what's truly put to the test in Overcooked is your team's ability to adapt. Each level features a different quirk - for instance, one asks you to make fish and chips while sliding about on a cramped and slippery iceberg. Another has you making burgers and pizzas in a haunted house wherein the workspaces are frequently getting shuffled to new locations, making it impossible to establish set paths as a team.
The variety between levels tests the ability of your team to adapt quickly under pressure, and it's here Overcooked really excels. There are some fantastic moments at the start of different levels in which everyone goes 'oh, what? We'll never manage this level' and then somehow everyone does manage. Being able to read a level and instantly form a strategy is an important skill, but it's also hugely rewarding. Hearing someone calmly say 'right, I'm doing potatoes, everyone try and move anticlockwise if you can' is strangely empowering, especially when they were bellowing about your inability to fry chicken correctly two minutes earlier.
Now at this point I'm slightly worried I've painted Overcooked out as the digital equivalent of Lord of the Flies, which is somewhat disingenuous. While Overcooked is a fast-paced and very exacting game, it's also a joyous one. The art style and animation are both delightful, keeping things on the right side of serious. While there'll doubtless be at least one person determined to appoint themselves de facto head chef, Overcooked is, simply put, a hilarious game to experience with a bunch of friends.
While we're talking about player numbers, actually, Overcooked's single-player is pretty robust, which is surprising given how heavily it's geared toward having friends join in. In single-player you're given two chefs to control and you can switch between them at will. The one you aren't controlling will remain idle unless chopping something, so it's important to keep one chef busy while the other one bustles about the place. Compared to playing with other people, this method is woefully inefficient and will never really be a match for the giddy excitement of a full team; nonetheless, it provides a different kind of fun. If multiplayer Overcooked is a melee, single-player is more of a puzzle game. Positioning your chefs in order to maximise your personal efficiency is everything in this mode, and it's surprisingly good fun, which is quite an achievement for a game so heavily focused on having multiple players - especially considering there's no online mode to speak of.
While Ghost Town Games has said it will look into online functionality if there's sufficient demand, currently Overcooked is limited to couch play only. In a way, it feels like a bit of a shame, as Overcooked has what it takes to be a proper sensation, so the more people are able to experience it the better. On the other hand, it's nice to see a game championing couch co-op so hard. Playing Overcooked with a roomful of people feels special. It's a boisterous, chaotic, farcical experience that would only be diminished through online play. Given the sort of language that's escaped our lips playing in the office, I also dread to think what playing Overcooked would be like with a bunch of strangers wearing microphones.
Simply put, Overcooked is a delight. Like Gangbeasts or Nidhogg, it's one of those video games people suggest at a party with an expectant glint in their eye. It's messy, it's sweary and I hope it stays around for a very long time.