David Goldfarb, you might remember, actually wrote something here on Eurogamer once, about the big, wide-eyed "what if" questions that drive the creativity of developers. Metal: Hellsinger, the FPS veteran's newly announced effort, is definitely a "what if" game. What if, it asks, you crossed the chaotic, arena shooting action of modern Doom with the rhythm and sound of Guitar Hero? The result is... strange. Metal: Hellsinger is an extremely unusual, rub your tummy and pat your head genre mix, but for better or worse it's totally unlike anything else I've played.
It also comes in the wake of Darkborn, Goldfarb's studio The Outsiders' first game (you might remember it as Project Wight) that was suddenly cancelled earlier this year. "It was rough, for a little while there," he told me, when I asked about the decision. "We didn't know how things were going to work out, or if they would work out at all, honestly. We're lucky that things worked out the way they did and we found a great partner with Funcom." It's an unusual partnership - Funcom's best known for publishing MMOs like Age of Conan and Anarchy Online, as opposed to the more traditional multiplayer shooters or single-player games Goldfarb's worked on before - and how Hellsinger's going to be monetised, in terms of whether it'll be free-to-play like Funcom's other games or not, wasn't up for discussion at the time of our chat.
Without digging too far into it though, the reality is that it's probably a marriage of convenience for now. "I'm gonna use a weight lifting metaphor," Goldfarb said. "A lot of the lifting that we did, which was really hard in the beginning, I think we got used to it. We got strong enough to be able to just force up a fairly heavy thing and make it work. We got into shape, is the short version of it. And that helped us get to the next thing because we had learned all the things we could do wrong."
It's also, to go back to that question of "what if", allowed The Outsiders to release something that actually sounds like a bit of a dream. "When I was thinking about this game," he explained, "I was thinking about it in the context of other games that did stuff that I liked, but never put them together. So I would play Doom and listen to music that I really liked listening to - or even just the great stuff in [Doom] 2016 or whatever - but it wasn't... like I would get to a point in the song and I would know it was that part. So I'm like, 'Oh this is awesome', and if I was lucky, I would kill a monster or something at that point in the song. But I kept thinking that the flow state that I want is a little bit different, because I'm also a giant Rock Band and Guitar Hero nerd, and that level of engagement is different for me than it was to play a shooter at a higher flow level.
"So I was thinking: there must be some way to do these two things together. And typically, I think - or the way that a lot of people have tried to solve it - is like the way Beat Saber solves it. You have a static rail shooter, basically. And then we did these things [in development], but we're all shooter devs, you know, and so that didn't feel good to do it that way. I want to be able to move around." He cites a lot of other examples that come close - Doom but also games like Brutal Legend, but none of them quite scratched the itch.
The version I spent some time with is apparently "very early", and so things are likely to change and tighten up. A single, linear mission with the odd area opening out a little into a slightly wider space, from what I've played so far it is also very Doom. You play as The Unknown, a sort of hell-angel looking Doom Slayer equivalent, with a cool skull for a weapon (which I believe is also the narrator, voiced by Troy Baker), and your task is to take down a big bad hell monster called the Red Judge (Jennifer Hale). Demons pop up, you slay them, you move into an area where progression is blocked off for a bit, a lot more demons pop up and you shoot them too, before moving on.
Obviously the twist here is the impact of the music, which from a purely technical position is pretty astounding. Around your aiming reticule is a little pair of brackets that act as a timing indicator, pulsing in time with the music. Attacking in time with the beat, and this little indicator, gradually builds up a multiplier meter. At each level of multiplier - 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x - additional layers of music come into play. So, when you start the mission there's a fairly simple, toe-tapping bit of bass and drums, with some very low-key guitar chiming in. Go up to 2x by successfully attacking in time with the beat and you'll get some rhythm guitar and more elaborate bass, 4x maybe another guitar, 8x a third layer of harmony and complexity, and 16x is all-out, fully voiced thrash. As Goldfarb put it, the "flow" of the game is built on you trying to reward yourself with more complex, layered music that kicks in at the right times. You get the heavy riffs, and the screaming vocals, and the double-bass drumming when you're in the most demanding, intense parts of the game - but specifically when you're nailing it. The badass music arrives precisely when you're at your most badass.
The other side to this, though, is that Metal: Hellsinger plays out better when you think of it as a music game first. It's deeply satisfying, musically, but action-wise - and I should stress how early the game is still - things felt a little simple. The magic skull, your base "rhythm weapon", zaps several demons at once if you're near enough, and doesn't require the most accurate aiming to activate. Get enough zaps and the demon in question will be stunned, letting you execute it for health (again, very Doom 2016), and you also build up an ultimate meter that, when used, stuns everything of any size in front of you, letting you chain a few executions and taking down big enemies in one. There's a sword, and a shotgun, and a pair of fantastically satisfying duel-wielding pistols, but all of them are much harder to time with the beat and I didn't feel a huge need to actually use them.
The shotgun, for instance, takes two beats for each pump between rounds fired, and even longer to reload, so it's simpler to just keep zapping everything in sight at a much faster rate, keeping my multiplier and score high and the amount of my own mental energy required low. You can even keep tapping your rhythm weapon to the beat when there are no enemies around without consequence, which is great for keeping in time and generally keeping dialled into the music but, if I were being really cruel, I'd say it can at times also reduce the game to just pressing left click to the beat and moving around the space to stay alive. There needs to be a fair bit more incentive to rotate weapons, use the environment and even use my own ability to dash for the game to really sing, if you'll excuse the pun, and for the biggest drops to kick in when you have a more 'real' sense of accomplishment.
Like I said though, the music is the heart of this game, and it's pretty sensational. The Outsiders and Funcom have managed to bring on board some pretty huge names from the metal world. Matt Heafy, frontman and rhythm guitarist of Trivium (who's also become a regular streamer on Twitch), as well as artists from Arch Enemy and Dark Tranquillity were name-dropped in the presentation, with apparently plenty more on the way. As Goldfarb - a metalhead as you've probably guessed, who also contributed some lyrics of his own to the soundtrack - put it to me: "I one hundred per cent will go on record saying yeah, I think we're making the best fucking tracks for this game for sure."
As a bashfully lapsed metalhead myself, from the one track on this demo mission alone I find it very hard to disagree. But while the music's there and it's a genuinely fascinating premise, Metal: Hellsinger's earliness is just showing a little for now. Metal's brilliance is its complexity and its precision; the layers and the elaborate, unashamedly committed climaxes that give it that weird, juxtaposed closeness to classical music. Goldfarb clearly knows what it's all about. "I wanted to make this weird, like, Paradise Lost album cover, with super hard music. I wanted to have vocals from artists that I admired, and I wanted us to figure out a way to build a universe around this that didn't feel like it was a joke. But also didn't feel like it needed to be reverent. So that the people that love that music feel like 'Yeah, this is actually a world that I want to be a part of'." Metal: Hellsinger is right on the money there. It's committed, it's earnest, it's fantastically proud of the goofiness that comes with the territory without having to laugh at it. It just needs to weave a little more of the signature complexity into the gunplay itself.