For all its hype and superlatives about demo participants soiling themselves, Red Barrels' first person horror game 'Outlast' has continued to keep up with expectations. That says something when my most recent hands-on session explored two of the most overused settings in horror gaming: the prison and the sewer.
In terms of both level design and aesthetics, these two areas in do not present anything new. Yet like the prior asylum setting offered at E3, these familiar places excel in functionality. Being chased by a brute who wants to rip your head off is tense enough, but 'Outlast' gives you enough options to give you a chance to escape. This includes barricades, lockers, and the ability to close the door behind you to slow the brute down. We've done this many times before in the third person, but there's a heightened sense of anxiety when you're in the first person, especially when you want to look behind your shoulder. You seldom ever feel safe, but you feel just enough empowerment to keep you going. And maybe I got lucky, but the game managed to invisibly steer me toward the area's goals, even while I was chased and without a map.
The rundown prison is a spacious contrast over the tight hallways of the asylum. The common area outside of the cells gives room to move and for disturbed prisoners to roam and talk to themselves. The upper areas are a mess, and getting to many spots requires shimmying across ledges where floors used to be. These ledges are against occupied cells so don't be surprised if you're grabbed by an inmate.
The sewer is an adequately lit set of perpendicular paths and, compared to the other known areas of 'Outlast', is a pretty straightforward level. You have to find and rotate two valves in order to escape, a predicament made more tense by another creature chase. The key is to spot the crawl spaces, which are extremely helpful shortcuts to evade enemies.
Along with the suspense of the lethal pursuer, this portion 'Outlast' had its fair share of scares. Red Barrels isn't afraid to completely deprive you of light, and you at least have the night-vision functionality in your video camera. The studio shows adept skill in timing, often surprising the player with a disturbing image with a simple camera turn and without relying on a cliched musical cues. This less-is-more approach also extends to the disturbing non-human surroundings, from the creppy graffiti to the literal blood trail you're tasked to follow. Even the last area of the sewer, with its eerie lack of sound and spaciousness, was one of the more goose bump-inducing areas of my playthough. Wading in waist-deep water, I had a good 30 yards to traverse to get to the escape ladder. Thinking that an enemy, underwater or otherwise, could surprise me at any moment made me anxious enough. But I guess that was me over thinking, because no one showed up. Maybe it was Red Barrels' plan all along to make me paranoid.
You can look forward to our review when Charles Webb give his complete impressions next week.