On February 7, developer/publisher Other Ocean released their multiplayer survival title Project Winter into early access on Steam. With a minimalist but charming art style reminiscent of CounterSpy or Donut County, the game tasks eight players with working together in a randomly-generated winter area to eat, stay warm, craft and repair items, achieve goals and escape to safety. Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems. In the roster of eight players are at least two traitors who work against the team to keep them from surviving or escaping by any means necessary. Obviously nobody knows who the traitors are, because where would the fun be in that?
If this sounds simple, well, it is and it isn’t. On the one hand, the objectives are very straightforward. Survive or sabotage. Craft tools, build fires and get food in order to do so. That’s it, more or less. Supply shacks are placed throughout the map and require multiple survivors to throw switches simultaneously to open them. With the resources in these shacks – or, more arduously, resources you get from punching trees and rocks – you can build axes, picks, rifles, fuel, medkits, two-way radios and other things you’ll need.
This is where the good guys and the bad guys split paths. In any match, survivors need to find and repair two machines in order to call a rescue plane. The rescue plane then takes 90 seconds to arrive at a specified location. If they get on and escape, they win. On the other hand, traitors – who must have a suicide wish since their main objective is to stop anyone from escaping – are able to sabotage the equipment that survivors repair, jam radios and kill survivors. Doing so gets the traitors “traitor airdrops” with more goodies to wreak havoc. The fewer survivors who escape, the more points the traitor team receives at the end, and vice-versa. As you earn points and complete various objectives in the main menu (open 10 crates, kill five survivors and so on), you can spend them on blind box chests with cosmetics – or, when completing objectives, whichever listed cosmetic item is associated with that goal.
And then there’s the cabin. At the beginning of the match, all players have access to a cabin with a stove and a workbench for crafting. It even has a community chest you can put extra resources into for faster crafting. However, since the game features voice and text chat, players can vote to exile someone suspicious from the cabin, significantly hindering the exiled’s ability to survive. Ultimately, it’s like a cross between John Carpenter’s The Thing and the indie game Distrust and reality TV – if reality TV were any good.
I say reality TV not just because of the voting, but because of the constant betrayal. This makes the game both exciting and maddening. On the one hand, it’s pretty exciting to discover a traitor and sell them out and exile or kill them so everyone can continue to work together to escape…or at least that’s what I would be saying if it ever actually happened. What makes the game maddening is that invariably, every time a traitor is the first to call someone ELSE a traitor, the entire group believes the traitor and kills an innocent person. The first four matches I played, I played all in a row and I was a survivor every time. Without exception, five or six minutes in, someone would say “Hey, jonny’s a traitor; I saw him open a traitor box!” or “jonny’s a traitor; he just started shooting me out of nowhere!” and within about 30 seconds I’d be exiled or mobbed to death. Every. Damn. Time. The first time it happened, I said “No, this dude’s lying; I’m a survivor and he’s trying to trick you!” and of course no one listened. The second time, I said “Someone did this to me last match; this guy’s the traitor and he’s making this up!” and no one listened. By the fourth time I just left my mic live and talked to my wife about how stupid my team was. “Hey honey, remember that winter survival game I’m reviewing for the site? Yeah, where these fucking morons keep believing the bad guys when they say that I’m a bad guy? These gullible jack-offs are falling for it again. No, I know; it’s like McCarthyism.” Then I’d die and the survivors would get 15 minutes into the round and say “Wait, someone’s still sabotaging us…so jonny wasn’t the traitor?!”
Sometimes this happened with the same players. Repeatedly.
So here’s what pisses me off. Project Winter has really great visuals, tons of stuff to unlock, perfectly serviceable audio, it controls well and it’s got good gameplay. But in my experience, every single game went to the traitors at the snap of a finger because the player base is stupid enough to take everyone’s word as gospel in a game where the entire point is not to trust people. It was as frustrating a display of idiocy as when one of your friends has a drink and says “Oh God, this is terrible. Here, try this,” and your other friend, who’s a moron, happily tries a big sip. Or when someone who’s supposed to be the President of the United States stares at a solar eclipse with no protective glasses. Anyway, I know this is a foolproof tactic because I did it myself to some other poor sap the first time I played as a traitor after my four matches being Salem Witched off the survivors team. If you’re a traitor, be the first person to call someone else out and you win the game.
Oof. I hope Other Ocean or, much more fairly, the folks who play Project Winter find a way to stop this game-ruining exploit. If everyone can stop believing the first person who points a finger, or if there were some fierce penalty for accidentally killing a teammate, it could be a great game. As it is, I have to give it a 6.5 and hope it lives up to its full potential another day.
Disclaimer: AIR Entertainment was provided a review code for Project Winter by the publisher.