Man Of Medan preview: all at sea with the boat-based horror

Upcoming horror game Man Of Medan has big multiplayer ideas, but can it pull them off?

In mid-July, Den Of Geek and a gaggle of other journalists gathered on a boat in the Thames to learn more about The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man Of Medan. This game, which comes from the Until Dawn developers at Supermassive Games, is intended to kick off an anthology series of horror titles, each instalment of which will explore a different style of scares.

As Supermassive representatives were keen to show off at this preview event, Man Of Medan will offer gamers a rare chance to experience story-based horror in a multiplayer manner. Although you can play the game alone, that isn’t particularly encouraged. Instead, Supermassive is pushing a two-player ‘Shared Story’ co-op mode (which can be played online) and a 2-to-5-player ‘Movie Night’ mode (which can be played by mates sharing a sofa).

We paired up with a total stranger to try out a 90-minute demo of the Shared Story campaign, sitting opposite each other in real life so we couldn’t see each other’s screens. Also, because the game doesn’t support voice chat, we couldn’t really talk to each other. We linked up our games through a shared lobby before getting started, and this is how we got on…

The game begins by placing the two players in control of a pair of navy blokes, back in what feels like a WWII kind of time. This duo is enjoying some drunken shore leave at a fairground of sorts. You’re soon shepherded towards some sideshow attractions that explain the mechanics of the game: one of you tries out a punching-based fairground challenge that teaches the combat controls; meanwhile, the other player goes to a fortune-teller booth where you learn the conversational and decision-making mechanics. Then you swap.

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This is the first point at which you realise the core nature of this ‘Shared Story’ game, which often forces the two players to split up and tackle different tasks. In this case, and in a few other situations that we played, the speed at which one of you finishes their job can cause a knock-on effect for the other player. For instance, if you promptly make a pig’s ear of the punching game, your character will give up and wander off to pull his friend away from the fortune-teller.

This can be a bit frustrating, especially if you’re the one being interrupted, with your task promptly ending despite the fact you were in the middle of doing something. It feels like the game is rushing you along because it needs to keep the two players in sync. This makes the pacing feel a little bit unusual: some situations wrap up really quickly, whereas some conversations seem to take ages. When you’re both involved in the same chat, there is a fair bit of waiting involved, as you both have to take it in turns making conversation choices and personality-defining decisions.

The mix of decision-making and completing simple physical tasks reminds us a bit of the Telltale brand of storytelling games, but with the added snag of needing to wait around/sync up with another player. On the upside, though, the graphics in Man Of Medan are much better than the ones that Telltale became known for. It’s a glossy-looking product, but the actual experience of playing through it at the same time as another player does take some getting used to.

The two navy men return to their boat, where circumstances soon split them up again. You wake up the next day in different places on the ship, each of you with a bit of puzzle-solving to do. Once you’re reunited, it becomes clear that something freaky was going on while you were both passed out. The game segues quite swiftly into its horror themes, and you’re soon sneaking around the ship trying to find out what’s going on.

It’s in this segment that another potentially frustrating element rears its head. A QuickTime event takes place where you have to press a button in time with a pulse to keep your character calm. You only get a brief shot at this, though, so if you misunderstood the task at hand (which wasn’t explained in much detail) you just fail within seconds. Again, because the other player is waiting for you, there’s no opportunity to try this mini-challenge for a second time. This becomes something of a pattern in the game, and if your hand-eye coordination isn’t the best, you might start to feel like something of a liability. It becomes a bit tiresome, for example, if you muck it up every time you have a chance to reach for a gun.

However, although these over-quite-suddenly QuickTime events do add to the off-kilter pacing, the game still does a decent job of building up tension in this section. There’s a well-executed jump scare that we won’t spoil for you here, and your first glimpse at the game’s evil force is rendered really impressively with heaps of detail. Then you watch the title sequence and a brief interlude from a mysterious narrator, before a big time-jump brings you and you co-player into modern times.

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For fear of sharing spoilers, we won’t delve too deep into details of what happens in the modern-day segment of the demo, as this seems to be the first proper chunk of the game’s main narrative. The basic set-up is an interesting one, though: you and your co-op companion take control of a boat with five playable characters, and the game guides you through some story beats, strained discussions and scary playable events. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that a sense of dread is building in the background, thanks to that pre-credits sequence that made it clear there are sinister forces at work in the ocean.

Although the delay of waiting for the other player to make their decisions does make certain bits drag out, the modern-day characters on the boat are engaging enough to keep you interested. The conversations seem to be structured strongly and there are some funny dialogue choices to make, especially if you enjoy making your playable characters a little less likeable. Wandering around the ship and looking for clues is also a fun way to spend some time (when you’re not dragged away because the other player is ready for a cut-scene), and one underwater sequence we played packed in some properly scary moments. And when we came back to the surface, there were some tense scenes involving an unexpected villainous threat. There were also some moments where we completely fudged up QuickTime events: one particularly hilarious example resulted in our character being hit in the head with a frying pan because we didn’t press the right button in time.

All in all, the experience of playing Man Of Medan feels like a mixed bag, and it’ll take more than 90 minutes to adjust to the odd pacing that’s necessitated by its multiplayer features. Once you’ve gotten used to that, though, hopefully the interesting characters and the jump-inducing scares will offer enough entertainment to make the overall experience an enjoyable one. We felt all at sea during this demo, but the full game could yet be a satisfying seafaring scare-fest.

Man Of Medan is coming to PC, PS4 and Xbox One on 30 August.