Asymmetrical multiplayer games are a tricky dance when it comes to making a range of different abilities and team sizes feel fair. Developer Illfonic nailed it with Friday the 13th, which saw seven players try to take down one Jason Voorhees, and it looks like it’s applied those skills abley to Predator: Hunting Grounds.
Balance of power
The set up is almost the same as the movie, albeit transplanted from the 80s to today: growly spec ops types are shipped into the jungle to shoot bad guys, only to have the Predator appear and spoil the fun for anyone whose face doesn’t open sideways. Playing as a four-man fireteam, the human team has to deal with enemy soldiers as they try to steal intel and tick off various familiar shooter style objectives. While as the Predator, it’s all about leaping from treetop to treetop flicking between stealth mode and heat vision while pelting the ground with plasma bolts or jumping down to manually tear victims apart.
Based on the few rounds I played the 4v1 action feels balanced and, more importantly. perfectly captured the feeling of the film – that moment when the panic sets in and everyone starts firing blindly into the trees. It’s also a good sign that on the soldier side of the gameplay there’s a perfectly functional shooter here in it’s own right. It plays well alone, without a Predator to hand, with a really satisfying feedback from the weapons as you pepper enemies with gunfire in pursuit of objective markers. It’s easy to forget about the alien death from above part as you clear out an enemy base or deal with a jungle ambush. Then there’s screaming, bits of people in your hair and you remember what you’re actually playing.
How the human / alien stuff actually unfolds largely depends on the person playing as the Predator: they can launch themselves in all guns blazing, or play a slower, more tension building approach as they stalk from the branches above. When you’re invisible you’ll make the movie’s distinctive guttural rattling noise, which is great to unnerve the players below – although a giant explosive plasma bolt hurtling down from the canopy and literally vaporising someone into a fine red mist is also a pretty effective way to spook people. There’s a risk / reward element to using the plasma cannon though, as the distinctive red dot aiming completely reveals your position, and there’s a charging time while your exposed if you want to unleash a full power shot.
Playing as the Predator is a fine balance of restraint and excessive power. When invisible, for example it’s hard to see a moving Predator, and impossible to be seen while stationary – during one of my matches, when I’d taken a lot of damage and been chased down by the soldier team, I was able to evade them just by turning a corner and freezing. It led to an unbearably tense few seconds as three of them circled around me, almost elbow to elbow and then walking on without realising. I don’t think I’ve ever struggled as hard to hold my nerves and not panic.
It says a lot that even with the power and tools the Predator has available you still have to take care, and while there’s a clear advantage it only counts if you use it well. Illfonic has perfectly captured the film’s central character here in the same way it did with Friday the 13th’ Jason. As the Predator it’s all about stealthing through the branches high above the ground to search out the soldiers and get to a good attacking angle. In heat vision mode the paths you can take are highlighted in red, making it easier to navigate at speed high up and unseen. How you choose to play this advantage is up to you: do you go for the risky location revealing plasma blast, or try and find a straggler to drop down on using a pouncing long range jump to close the distance quickly.
The Invisible Plan
If there’s any imbalance it's that the human team have a mission and Predator to deal with, while the Predator ‘just’ has to kill the opposition. A good Predator player can be incredibly hard to kill as well – quick, evasive runs through trees while cloaked are incredibly hard to follow. It's balanced, at least, by a lengthy manual healing process, meaning a Predator on the run is vulnerable if it can’t find the space to heal up. The average game’s push and pull comes from the fact that if anyone does actually [Arnie voice] get to the chopper, the Predator loses. So as the alien you have to constantly push your luck and take risks to stop that happening. Like Friday the 13th, the usual endgame is some people die, some get away and it’s a mixed victory on both sides. Eventualities like killing the Predator outright, or everyone escaping alive are more of a rare occurrence and all the more exhilarating for it.
If I have any functional criticism at this point is that it’s hard to keep track of human players in an AI crowd as the Predator. While the opposing team is labeled clearly in heat vision mode those markers currently disappear when it’s switched off. I repeatedly chased down AI enemies while playing as a result. That should be an easy fix though, and the rest of what I played was was good – familiar enough to jump right into but with enough of an asymmetrical twist to keep you on your toes. That familiar mission-based structure should hopefully help keeps things more coherent when playing with randoms as well. One of Friday the 13th's biggest problems was that you absolutely needed to play with friends – its multitude of potential escape routes and options scattered across the map meant playing with people you didn’t know just lead to a muddled, uncommunicative mess. The clearer soldier and mission set up here should hopefully prevent that, and give Predator: Hunting Grounds a firmer footing online when it launches in 2020.