A thrilling and creative multiplayer horror, Friday the 13th's compelling emergent play is hindered by a half-baked launch.
Imagine the worst trip to the cinema you can. A nightmare on film street, if you will. It's a Saturday night on the first week of the biggest blockbuster of the year, and the screen is full to bursting, stiflingly warm, and with a nauseating odour of sweat and dung. It's so crammed, in fact, that functionally the establishment has begun to break down. There's no popcorn left, people are sat in the aisles, and the toilets are on fire.
It is, all told, a miserable experience. But the film itself is excellent. It's imaginative, it's loads of fun, and there's a couple of great scares in there. It's not quite a masterpiece, but it's travelling along that road. You emerge from the screen both glad you saw it and frustrated you weren't able to enjoy it more.
This is where I find myself with Friday the 13th: The Game. My experience with it has been terrible, plagued by server issues where bits of the game didn't work properly and sometimes it stopped working entirely. But when it did work, it worked superbly, a thrilling game of cat and mouse where being the mouse is fraught with tension and being the cat is fucking awesome.
The setup is straightforward. Friday the 13th is a multiplayer survival horror in which seven players assume the role as Summer Camp "counsellors", while an eighth player dons the hockey mask of Jason Voorhees. The counsellors must escape the camp before Voorhees finds them, which they can achieve in various ways from fixing up and driving a car to safety, calling the police and waiting for them to arrive, or simply evading Jason until the timer to runs down to zero. Jason, meanwhile, just needs to kill as many counsellors as he can.
Structurally, Friday the 13th resembles a halfway house between the sneak 'n' chase horror of Dead by Daylight, and the broader, survivalist tension of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. There are only three maps at launch, but they are surprisingly large. Each contains around a dozen buildings, interspersed with night-shrouded woodland, roads, and abandoned campsites.
The buildings are the main hope for the counsellor's survival. They act as a refuge from Jason, with doors than can be lightly fortified, windows that provide a quick means of escape, and hiding places under beds or inside wardrobes. More importantly, however, they can be scavenged for useful items such as maps, healing aids, and weapons that can be used to fend Jason off.
The opening minutes of a game of Friday the 13th are remarkably similar to those of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, with counsellors sneaking between buildings in a frantic attempt to equip themselves for the long and dangerous night ahead. But there's one small problem; Jason can "sense" when a counsellor is inside any building on the map, the structure lighting up in his vision as a big bloody blotch. Consequently, any counsellor who attempts to do anything other than hide puts themselves puts themselves at risk of being hunted.
This is one of several cleverly contrived systems that encourage counsellors to compromise, evoking the tension and panic that you see in American slasher movies. For example, Jason can also sense when players make noise by moving too quickly or opening doors and windows. Counsellors can remain undetected by walking or crouching, but doing so means you move very slowly. Furthermore, hiding in the dark for too long will ramp up you counsellor's "fear", causing them to panic and reveal themselves to Jason.
Should you be fortunate enough to be selected as Jason (and at a one in eight chance, some luck is involved), the experience is a heady and exhilarating power-trip. Huge and lumbering, Jason moves like a tectonic plate, very slowly and equally difficult to stop. But he can teleport to any location on the map, and has access to a "Shift" ability wherein he propels himself forward in a spectral form, the camera switching to first person and mimicking those iconic forward-tracking shots in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films.
If Jason gets close to a counsellor, Jason can either slash at them with his weapon, or grab them to perform a wide range of executions that range from gruesome to blackly comedic (such as punching a counsellor's head straight off). The counsellors can fight back, and apparently can even kill Jason if they deal enough damage. But I'm yet to see it happen.
Stacked atop these basic rules are layers of moves and countermoves that both Jason and the counselors can take advantage of. A counsellor who finds a penknife, for example, can escape Jason's iron grasp by stabbing him in the neck with it. Counsellors can also mess with Jason's senses by switching on radios and other electronic equipment. In turn, Jason can destroy generators around the map, turning off the power inside buildings. Even the music gets in on the act, becoming increasingly urgent as Jason nears a counselor, warning them of his proximity. Yet this too Jason can counter, activating a power called "Stalk," that masks his approach.
There's an immense amount of fun to be had here. It helps that the community has embraced the schlocky spirit of the game, with some masterful performances as Jason. One player repeatedly encountered a wounded counsellor, and left him alive until last because "injured prey is no sport." It's worth noting, however, that such devious creativity isn't merely a quirk of the game. Killing counsellors in special ways, such as using the environment or with unlocked animations, yields substantial XP bonuses. Many of these require you to meet certain criteria, and trying to find those with a counsellor in your clutches gives them the chance to escape, adding more twists to the game's procedural drama.
That's what I like most about Friday the 13th, there's enough breadth to its structure and systems for some captivating stories to emerge. As a counselor you can go it alone, try to team up with other counsellors to take Jason down, or even use them as bait to extend your chances of survival. As Jason, meanwhile, you're effectively the MC of the other player's horror experience. You can mindlessly carve your way to victory if you want, but you can also scare the shit out of them.
I admire a lot of what Friday the 13th does, and I didn't go into the game expecting to be quite so enamoured with it. That said, this imposing killer has some noticeable vulnerabilities. The launch has been a disaster, with an unanticipated surge of interest gutting the game's servers as effectively as Jason himself. The developers are on the case, and it's far more stable at the moment. But there are still problems with players unable to get into the game, or unable to advance levels and unlock in-game items.
Moreover, the developers have taken the odd decision to launch the game with half its content missing. Singleplayer and bots are coming, but not until later this summer. I'm sure they have their reasons for this, but it does make the base game feel a bit sparse. There is progression to the multiplayer, with new counsellors and various iterations of Jason unlocked as you level up, each with their own abilities and attributes. But these don't make an enormous difference to how the base game plays.
It never feels as slick and precise as would be ideal beneath the fingers. There's a slight disconnect between input and action that lends a sluggish feel to the controls. Moreover, command-prompts for context-sensitive actions, such as opening doors and laying traps, don't always appear, particularly when playing as a counsellor. It's difficult enough to survive without your character abruptly forgetting how doors work, and such small yet noticeable issues lend an undercurrent of frustration to the act of play.
I think Friday the 13th will be a fantastic game in about three months' time. Right now it's capable of brilliance, but is a touch thin and not without its flaws. Still, the fact that I've had a good time with it even on half-melted servers demonstrates the strength of its emergent horror. Like the towering killer himself, Friday the 13th has come out of nowhere, and while it isn't invulnerable, it's more than capable of stealing your heart.