Robert Steinman
E3 2015: Until Dawn Hands-On Preview
Joss Whedon, eat your heart out.
06.18.15 - 12:27 AM

I have to start this preview for Until Dawn by laying all of my cards on the table; I hated Heavy Rain and I'm incredibly excited to see more Until Dawn. Now wait, set those pitchforks down, dear readers, and let me try to explain. I loved the idea of Heavy Rain, a narrative-based game designed around player choice and character interactions, but found the story borderline awful and incredibly pretentious. (How exactly did Madison get out of that burning building, and why was she constantly striping off her clothes like the world's most coquettish reporter?) Until Dawn's 1980s/90s teen-horror take on the style, however, makes me practically giddy and super hyped to play with my wife and a big bowl of popcorn between us.

It would appear that the developers tried to hit every potential horror movie trope seen over the past forty years. Horny teenagers? Check! Snowy mountain retreat? Check! Potential killer on the loose and one friend already missing? Double check and mate, sucka! It's easy to brush this all aside and turn your nose up to this kind of setup, but through the lens of a game where any of the eight playable characters lives or dies based around your choices, it somehow works and grabs you in a very unique way.

The demo started with Matt and Emily (who are together because of course they are) facing down a pack of fairly perturbed deer. Players control Matt during this part of the encounter, and are first asked whether they should try to calm Emily down by reasoning with her shutting her up in a curt manner. Sometimes the best answer is to do nothing, the game tells me through a hint screen, but I try to politely tell Emily she needs to pull it together before we find ourselves in serious trouble. We then slowly push through the deer and away from the dangerous ravine and jagged rocks below. One deer stands defiantly in my way, and the game gives me the option to bury an axe in its neck to make my point. Again, I choose the more subtle option and continue to passively press my way through the herd and off to eventual safety.

At this point, I took a second to look over my shoulder to another player and how he chose to deal with the same situation. He felt it best to kill the first deer that looked at him wrong, and the ensuing carnage resulted in Matt clinging desperately to the surface of the cliff. One failed quick time event later and Matt's brains were splattered on a rock in a sickeningly satisfying fashion. A QA member next to me said that the game has random elements, so you might have to fight some of the deer directly or risk a similar fate for Matt and his brains. With the promise that these types of choices and variables will keep players from necessarily memorizing each and every possible solution and outcome, Until Dawn already has my attention more than most of the other "cinematic" games on the E3 show floor.

Matt and Emily (or just Emily, in the case of the gentlemen playing behind me) eventually found a radio tower, and you can pretty much guess how things went from there. After searching for items, including ones listed as "clues" and a flare gun, the couple finally got into contact with a local rescue team just as the killer (or entity, for it's not entirely clear whether the game features a supernatural element or not) cut the support lines to the tower and sent Emily and Matt into a situation straight out of any action movie. With Emily clinging to a railing for dear life, Matt was forced to either attempt to save his girlfriend or his own neck. Being a happily married man and wanting to stay that way, I tried to do the right thing and save Emily, only to have her fall into the darkness below and find myself following straight after her. Awakening in an abandoned mine, Matt was quickly grabbed from behind and brought towards a hanging metal hook and... you can pretty much guess how things ended on my journey.

The QA member returned to my side as I picked my jaw off the floor and asked if I gave the flare gun to Matt when I found it while controlling Emily. Of course I didn't think that it was necessary to give the man all of the tools found in the radio tower, but it turns out that little flare gun is the key to Matt's survival after falling out of the radio tower. Of course, had Matt done the cowardly thing and jumped to his own safety, things would have been entirely different. With the promise that all eight playable characters can survive this hellish night, one can't help but feel like Until Dawn's unique take on the Heavy Rain formula might prove far more gratifying and impactful than its own inspiration. Of course, things could end up being far more scripted than we were led to believe, and Emily's voice actor starting pushing beyond "appropriate" and into "grating" territory, but I would much rather a game try something new than continue to play a worn-out tune. At the very least, Until Dawn could make for a fantastic party game instead of having to pull out the Cabin in the Woods Blu-ray every time friends come by for drinks and a movie.