SEATTLE—The makers of new game The Anacrusis, as revealed during today’s Summer Games Fest presentation, are happy for you to mistake it for something like Left 4 Dead, only transported to a ’70s sci-fi universe. The new game’s co-creator, former Valve designer and writer Chet Faliszek, is banking on it.
“I was the project lead on Left 4 Dead 1 and Left 4 Dead 2, and those are two of my favorite games ever made,” Faliszek says from his home office in Seattle. “Clearly they’re influential to me in deciding what does and doesn’t work in co-op games. Having done those, and having worked on Portal 2‘s co-op mode, I have a good understanding of how players interact and talk, and mistakes we made, in ensuring that people work together. If you like those games, I had a close seat on them, and we’re taking that to the next level.”
The resulting project, which Faliszek is leading alongside Kimberly Voll (Riot Games, Fantastic Contraption) at their indie studio Stray Bombay, is slated to launch “this fall” on Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Steam, Windows Store, and Epic Games Store. All versions will be connected with cross-play. In a conversation ahead of today’s reveal, Faliszek emphasized the game’s social thrust, along with a new AI “director” that expands on a similar concept from the L4D series. The director’s goals are to satisfy players and scale to various play styles.
“A million aliens on the other side of the door”
Much like L4D, The Anacrusis is broken up into multilevel “episodes” that are meant to be played in groups of four, and the object is to survive while dealing with monsters (aliens, this time, instead of zombies) via first-person combat. While the levels are prebuilt and bespoke, various elements are mixed up in every playthrough, and Faliszek insists that this part of the game is more evolved than 2009’s L4D2.
“You can do so much more with AI that you couldn’t do back in the day,” Faliszek says, and he says this will happen in a few ways. One is a smarter interpretation of players’ prowess, which will affect dynamic enemy and item placement differently than in his older games. On a beat-by-beat basis, Anacrusis will resemble other co-op combat games, like when useful items are harder to find for “good” players. But the game will add a more persistent understanding of players’ abilities, with their prowess being calculated not only through multiple levels within an episode but over weeks and months of play.
If your crew has been dominating previous levels in an episode, The Anacrusis will go so far as to dump “a million aliens on the other side of the door” in the next one, as opposed to resetting its player understanding between loading screens. And in matchmaking, The Anacrusis will try to determine “social compatibility,” as opposed to versus games’ “rankings.” If a player constantly has their teammates quit before a campaign ends, The Anacrusis will acknowledge that. And if a player prefers to explore every corner of a level, they probably won’t be paired with players who beat episodes more quickly.
For now, enemy types break down similarly to L4D, with weaker aliens appearing in easy-to-shoot waves while interspersed with stronger super aliens. The Anacrusis includes a “brute,” which today’s trailer jokes about and works like L4D‘s “tank.” But two quirkier super aliens got reveals today, too: the “flasher,” whose bursts of white light can temporarily blind players if they’re not killed quickly enough, and the “spawner,” which generates obnoxious turrets until killed.
“You can’t do that in beta tests”
The game’s reveal hints to higher-powered, sci-fi-worthy weaponry, including a “stasis” grenade that slows down enemies, a “vortex” grenade that generates an enemy-sucking black hole, and an arc rifle that shoots chains of electricity. Players should also expect randomly generated “mods” that can be equipped mid-mission, which can either upgrade your existing weapons, give you perks for weapons you haven’t picked up yet, or supercharge the game’s new standard-for-everyone “pulse” ability, which pushes nearby foes back and requires a brief time to recharge.
Faliszek says his team is still experimenting with how “fantastical” the final game’s weapons, items, abilities, and super aliens will turn out, and he is frank: Anacrusis needs more firm, in-the-wild player feedback as soon as possible in order to tune it beyond the L4D formula.
“We need to release the game, have it in players’ hands, and understand those things,” he says. “We can make some assumptions ahead of time, but for us, it’s about trying to get as little of the game out as soon as possible so we can listen to feedback from players, see how they play, hear what they’re saying, and make changes that are more impactful in the long term. You can’t do that in beta tests.”
As a result, this fall’s game launch will neither be labeled as “early access” nor something that’s fully locked down. Faliszek says he likes an “episodic” game release approach, with a whole universe of sci-fi lore being teased out between character banter and episode-ending cliffhangers. But he is also mindful of fans’ perception of a retail-priced game: “Amy Hennig [Uncharted] dared me to release just one episode to start,” he laughs. “That’s too little content, though. Players want to have something to be excited about.”
“Remembering how much I like playing co-op games with strangers”
So The Anacrusis will split the difference when it launches. The game will start with a small amount of replayable co-op content followed by a release plan for more free episodes over time. Along the way, we’ll get “prevalent mod support,” which Faliszek isn’t ready to clarify (but will likely align with his prior employer’s bullishness about community add-ons).
Faliszek has been eager to engage with the co-op-shooter community during The Anacrusis‘ development. He says the most surprising thing about testing other major co-op options in the current marketplace—like GTFO, Killing Floor 2, and Deep Rock Galactic—has been “remembering how much I like playing co-op games with strangers.” And from the look of things, The Anacrusis will primarily differentiate itself by using its AI systems to “stress the co-operative side,” he says. “No competition with each other. Ensuring replayability. We want you to come into that space again and again and make it different every time.”
And with access spread out across many platforms (including the highly popular Game Pass service) and cross-platform online play built-in on day one, the future looks bright in terms of possible player population. But will Faliszek’s ambitions line up with the actual playable game? I have already begun pestering him about going hands-on to find out, and I’ll report back whenever he gets fed up with my nagging emails and lets me play Anacrusis.
Listing image by Stray Bombay