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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Playing with possessed cars, jump scares, and severed hands in Evil Dead: The Game

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If you can’t trust your teammates, who can you trust? In 4-v-1 asymmetric horror slasher Evil Dead: The Game, the concept of trust gets a bit tricky, because at any moment one of your survivor teammates can turn on you.

It’s not their fault! They’re completely innocent. During a match, the player controlling a powerful demon can possess one of the four co-op survivors and take over their bodies. But it still feels like a betrayal when it happens. One minute you’re all running through the dark woods together, marking weapon pickups and calling out healing supply stashes and fighting off monsters as a team. Then suddenly your loyal companion is blasting you with a boomstick or hacking at you with a chainsaw and all hell breaks loose. Or worse, you’re the one possessed and all you can do is watch yourself going ham on your friends until they beat you to a pulp and the demon releases you.

But that’s not the only trust issue I had when playing a couple rounds of Evil Dead: The Game with four members of Saber Interactive’s development team last week, including chief creative officer (and former id Software studio director) Tim Willits. At one point, the developers suggested I open a supply crate, and this being my first time playing I naturally took their advice. Big mistake: the crate had been trapped by the demonic player before we got there, and I got a good scare as a severed hand leapt out and latched onto my face. I tore it off. The hand flipped me the bird.

It’s a moment straight out of the film Evil Dead 2, when Ash Williams cuts off his own hand with a chainsaw (it was possessed after being bitten by a severed head, so what else could he have done?) and it taunts him by giving him the finger. Not groovy. Very funny, though, both in the movie and the game.

The survivors’ job in Evil Dead is to cross a surprisingly large map while grabbing weapons and survival gear, and fighting monsters along the way. They can choose their route but they’ll need to find scraps of the map to reveal two different spots for their main objectives: to collect missing pages from the Necronomicon and to pick up the Kandarian Dagger. Then there’s more traveling to destroy the Dark Ones (ancient evil gods) with the dagger, and then they have to protect the Necronomicon from a final wave of deadites. 

It’s a lot to do (our first round took about 30 minutes) and there’s a lot that can go wrong along the way, but the survivors are much more durable and capable than I expected. You’re not just fleeing and hiding, you’re fighting your way almost constantly from start to finish, and if you know anything about Ash and his friends, they’re very good at killing monsters. As you collect cans of Pink F (a reference to the TV show Ash vs Evil Dead) you can spend points to upgrade your weapons skills, heath, and stamina, making your team even more formidable.

I played the survivor round as Henry the Red from Army of Darkness (the gif above is from footage supplied by the developers), though there are multiple characters from the Evil Dead films and TV show to choose from, including several versions of Ash Williams. Yep, you can load up your team of survivors with four different Bruce Campbells, which is pretty damn tempting. Each survivor has a different special ability that ranges from health buffs for teammates to additional damage for attacks and even one that removes the possession from a player or object. I think that might be an extremely useful one—in our session, the demon player kept possessing the car we were trying to use to cross the map, trying to run us down or simply parking the car over important items we wanted to collect. It was the most evil, troublesome car since Stephen King’s Christine.

Playing as a survivor was fun and frantic as the demon kept possessing members of our team (along with that damn car), spawning powerful deadites on our location, or sometimes just scaring us with traps or horrifying visions of Evil Ash that would abruptly appear on our screens. There were frequent startled yells over voice chat, followed by a sheepish explanation: “He scared me.” We managed to win the round, and I was pretty pleased to have killed the most deadites and dealt the most damage on our team, though it was probably because everyone else was busy completing our actual objectives so I could run around swinging Henry’s sword.

Playing as the demon in the next round was even more fun. I swooped around in freecam mode, absorbing evil power from glowing nodes throughout the map and trying to find the survivors, who you can’t see at first. If someone starts a car, it’ll show up as an outline on your screen, and as the survivors’ fear grows from being in the dark, individual players will begin to show up as well. 

I was playing as Hentietta, another character from the TV show, sort of a gross scary hovering zombie lady. She has awesome powers when you make her materialize, including a gas attack that fills the area around her with toxic fumes, a belly flop that damages players within range, and a “granny hug” where you can grab a player and squeeze their head. There’s no escape from the hug until another player attacks Henrietta, so it’s a great move to use on survivors who have wandered off from the pack.

And then there’s just the enjoyment of remaining invisible, laying traps where you think the players will go, spawning deadites in their path, and possessing them and any vehicles they’re trying to use. As the players grow more powerful during a match, so does the demon, and by the end of the round I could spawn in powerful boss deadites for the survivors to contend with, then materialize and start hugging them to death at the same time. Take that, you goody little two-shoes.

I haven’t played other 4-v-1 horror games like Dead by Daylight before, so I can’t give you a direct comparison, but I had a hell of a good time with Evil Dead: The Game. The survivors have a surprising amount of power which makes it more than just a game of hide-and-seek, and the demons have a lot of fun tricks up their rotting sleeves. The nature of the objectives challenge players to move quickly at times and stand their ground at others, and the advantage seems to swing back and forth between sides a few times in each match, so both the survivors and the demon can experience moments of triumph and feelings of panic.

Evil Dead is playable even if you don’t have four pals to ring up. AI can take the place of human survivors and the demon, though I haven’t seen that in action yet so I’m not sure how much fun it is to play with bots instead of people. We’ll find out next month: Evil Dead: The Game is due out May 13 on the Epic Games Store

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