The Callisto Protocol has been, and might always be, compared to Dead Space. It's a dark, action-heavy interstellar horror game, for one, but perhaps the biggest point of comparison derives from Glen Schofield, CEO of Striking Distance Studios, and one-time vice president and general manager of Visceral Games. Yes, The Callisto Protocol looks and feels a wee bit like Dead Space because that very look and feel was masterminded by Schofield himself.
Some 14 years on since the first Dead Space game, however, and the action horror and survival horror spectrums look pretty different. After being shown a new slice of 10-minute hands-off gameplay session at Gamescom 2022, The Callisto Protocol continues to look nastier, gorier, more frantic, and, in turn, a little bit more stressful than anything we've seen before in this space. And yet, believe it or not, the whole thing was conceived by Schofield on a "relaxing" retreat to an Arizonian desert.
"This is an idea I had in the desert in Tucson, and all of a sudden, it's turned into something that's on stage. It's sometimes surreal," explains Schofield. "I've done this with a few games now, once they're finished you need to relax by yourself. My wife lets me go to a wellness place in Tucson, it's out in the desert, and I would be in between eating well and exercising, drawing and analyzing, and I started to come up with this idea."
Watch this space
Who knows what this says about Schofield's imagination when he can be chilling in paradise and conjuring what would comfortably be described as the polar opposite of bliss, but he is perpetually enthusiastic about his work – infectiously so, which seems fitting given the types of mind-warped foes we'll be taking on in The Callisto Protocol. Schofield acknowledges that comparisons at this stage pre-release are an inevitable part of the process, but is confident players will make up their own minds with a controller in their hands – once they walk away, he's certain they'll feel like they've experienced something different.
"The combat is different in our game, right? You can decide what you want to do, there's melee, there's stealth, there's a weapon system which you upgrade through skill trees, and through all this, you can pick the way you want to go," Schofield adds. "Then there's the GRP, what we call the Grip, which is the advanced Gravity Gun, where now you can pick up enemies. That introduces sandbox elements in that you can pick stuff up around the world; you can use the enemies as meat shields, where you can throw them into fans or throw them into another enemy."
"There's also the mutation system which we showed off at Opening Night Live. When you see these tentacles coming out of the enemy, you shoot those tentacles because they're going to mutate right in front of you. You do not want more than one to mutate around you or you are going to have a tough time. I'm very excited about that. Another big difference between The Callisto Protocol and other horror games in this vein is story. The way we tell the story is through other characters through cinematics, and we have around 45 minutes to an hour of that alone. There's a lot of storytelling in there, in between the tension and the hard stuff, and a very rich story at that. Ultimately, I think that right now, people will look at our game and see comparisons. I think that when they walk away, they'll say: 'Oh, that was a different game entirely."
Gravity and gravitas
One of my own favorite features of The Callisto Protocol so far is the Grip that Schofield mentions – so much so, I believe it looks like the first weapon of its style worthy of matching Half-Life 2's gravity gun. In the gameplay segment shown during Opening Night Live, we saw the protagonist hurling enemies and objects alike around the environments with careless abandon, although Schofield admits the Grip on show was an over-powered version, and that players will be forced to handle a cooldown system out in the wild.
Digging into the evolution of the Grip, Schofield says: "We've seen the Grip as it works as a weapon, but you can grab objects all around the world too. Getting it to work with objects was the last thing we implemented. We're building this intense gravity gun that picks up enemies, and then we have to deal with the physics of picking up those enemies. And on top of that, if you happen to be using one of those enemies as a meat shield, other enemies can dismember your shield meaning you can't use it for too long as it'll fall apart."
"That was some pretty intense stuff that took a while and sometimes you get impatient, you're waiting for it to come online. And then when we got the hang of that, we were getting a bit silly with it, we were throwing enemies up into the air, off the ceilings, whatever we wanted to do with them, and then we were like: 'We gotta have some objects." So, we started throwing objects around the world that made sense. They may not do a lot of damage, but when you don't have much ammo, you can slow enemies down which can help with crowd control."
Part of what sounds so appealing about the Grip gravity gun is its potential for experimentation. I love the idea of overcoming one particularly taxing horde of infected, or clambering onto a previously undiscovered area by using my imagination and testing my practical Tetris skills. I loved Half-Life 2's Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator, especially its post-Nova Prosket supercharged variant, and the likes of Prey's glue gun offered similar scope for variety in traversal and combat.
For Schofield, his own favorite feature of The Callisto Protocol – one he cannot wait to share with players when the time comes – is its enemies and their nightmarish design. He says: "There's one particular enemy you don't face until towards the end of the game. You can actually rip him in half. Even if you manage to kill off one side, he'll still be coming at you with the other."
"I just love the enemy design in general. When we started three years ago, we built a couple of Grunts (standard enemies). By the time we were done, we had eight different types. Then we changed the first two, we got rid of them, and added two more because you just get better at it. The Grunts are usually all the same, but our team is big enough that the designers went in and started making each one a little different. So, their AI is a little different. One might back-up, another one might be aggressive. There's another big one that takes a million hit points. They were originally all just Grunts, they were all going to be the same. But it's really added a lot that they're all different."
The Callisto Protocol is due on PS5, Xbox Series X, PC, PS4, and Xbox One on December 2, 2022. After that, I suspect Glen Schofield might head back into the desert for some downtime. And, bloody hell, who knows what monstrosities he'll return with in his sketchbook.