By Tomas Barry 20.03.2017
Inspired by observing the significant tactical coordination and teamwork that's basically required between chefs at busy restaurants, the two-man team at Ghost Town Games whips up a unique top-down cooking strategy game, with a clear focus on co-operative local multiplayer. Overcooked is a frenetic and zany restaurant romp. Fetch and chop the right ingredients, make sure nothing burns, keep on top of the stack of dirty dishes, navigate the outlandish environmental hazards, all the while trying not to lose a friend in the midst of the rush and panic! Does this bold and charming dining experience inspire a big tip or fall short of expectations?
There's something quite old fashioned at the heart of Overcooked. Although there is a single-player mode to speak of, at its core, it's inherently designed for local multiplayer. It would probably be fair to say the crux of this strategy game is the element of player interaction. There are always various things to juggle, whether that's grabbing and laying out the right ingredients for a partner on chopping duty or keeping an eye on various cooks, which could spoil and can't be served. It requires legitimate strategizing and vocalisation, which will vary in quite interesting ways, according to their personalities and how they organise things.
As such, a great portion of the magic of the experience seems derived from this clear and well-crafted co-operative dynamic. It's probably also why it quickly draws comparisons with pre-online era retro games, which made much more use of local multiplayer dynamics in this way. In this sense, it probably would be easy enough to convince someone that is a remake of a classic SNES title. If it was from that era, mind, it would probably be amongst many gamers' favourites. That's because, just like all the other brilliant games of that era, the brilliance of the experience lies within its simplicity.
The palpable sense of urgency as the orders rack up, the on-the-fly improvisation conjured up between chefs when the cooker being used floats off on a broken iceberg (environments do indeed get that bizarre) - this is where the real joy of Overcooked is found. While the premise is relatively simple, and importantly, it's nice and intuitive for players jumping in for the first time, each stage throws up something new to factor in and accommodate. The sheer variety of these tweaks keeps players on their toes throughout the entire campaign, and teams will quickly learn they need to be adaptable, resourceful and patient with each other.
The challenge of these stages is also quite comparable with games of the eighties, meaning that while there are a lot of suitable earlier levels to introduce players to, things quickly progress. A fully engrossed and synced team have a lot of difficult content to conquer, especially when factoring in the reasonably priced DLC dessert offerings. While the levels get increasingly more intricate and outlandish; the coin scoring system (which adds a bonus for quickness) also adds a hefty layer of replay value since it's quite difficult to co-ordinate a three-star rating, particularly in the later stages. This often leads to the temptation of retrying a level just passed, simply to try and better the score just set, armed with a little extra know-how.
A big part of the level design is the forever-changing kitchen layout. The food storage and preparation areas, ovens, serving windows and the washing-up station are usually sprawled across the level. Sometimes, in some of the more dynamic levels such as on a ship in rough waters, chopping surfaces or other crucial elements might go walkabouts, like here, where they slide off to the other-side of the deck. Elsewhere, there might be other issues to contend with, like a kitchen running through a busy pedestrian crossing. One feels inclined not to spoil all the odd situations players will be thrown into, though, since discovering them is such a great pleasure. The craft of each scenario is impressive, and clearly a lot of fun was had coming up with them.
From an aesthetic and design point of view, Overcooked is a really charming and well-characterised experience. The visuals are simple and clean, but also quite detailed and suitably vibrant, given the nice colour contrast each level usually sets. In this way, there's a hint of Lego-block design methodology here. No square inch of any level seems under-utilised - it's either a striking part of the scenery or a clearly-recognizable tool that the cooks will need. Nothing ever seems too confusing design-wise, so it's only the order-list racking up that players will be fumbling over!
The strong personality and visual appeal carries over to the music and audio side too. The game-map music features a lovely melancholic melody on harmonica, with tactile string and piano accompaniment, which is suitably warm, evocative and catchy. Music during the gameplay itself is also very authentic, with a nice range of playful sounds, all suitably evocative of the level's theme and surroundings. The cut-scenes feature some quite funny characters, with good voice-work there too. Presentation in cooking is paramount and Overcooked certainly serves up something sharp and memorable in this respect.
The highlight of the game experience will no doubt centre on the competitive four-player multiplayer, which really does stand out amongst some of the best social and house party-friendly gaming experiences around. It's certainly no surprise that Ghost Town Games and Team17 are bringing it to the Nintendo Switch, since it's the obvious candidate to bring to the table in such a situation. It's genuinely entertaining watching people make plans, natter with micro-management or flip the switch and become a singular entity. Every scenario that plays out here provides an opportunity for laughs, and as previously mentioned, could easily become a fixation.
Working through the campaign as a pair is a close second. By comparison it offers a slightly more relaxing co-operative experience, simply due to the easier one-to-one interaction, rather than four players plus perhaps a crowd. It's easy to dip into a few stages, leave it for a while, then get straight back into the swing of things next time the chefs reconvene, which really works in its favour in terms of how much mileage Overcooked may clock up. It's also a testament to the working relationship built-up between two players, that so much of the personally-established micro-management traits remain intact between duos. There are little tricks, which players are left to discover for themselves, as well as some logical conclusions, which, for whatever reason, take a while to be amended - so each team tends to have its own unique chemistry.
Cleverly, stages seem to be built in a way that means things will never go fully according to plan, at least in the initial play-through of each level. This translates to a great deal of tactical tinkering, topics for player debate and a significant amount of winging it. Ultimately this leaves a lot of room for player dynamics to shift and evolve, another aspect of the fun. The only shame about Overcooked is that the single-player mode just doesn't compare to any of what's been described thus far.
Although the required targets are lowered for individual players, who need to switch between the two chefs instead, the experience is all together lacking without a partner. There are plenty of jarring moments early on where one forgets they can switch to the other chef, and while nothing mechanically suffers too much, the overall experience just won't leave the same impression. This is on the whole quite forgivable, since Ghost Town Games have quite openly stated that the gameplay mechanics were fused around the co-operative element. However, while that may be the case, it's difficult to understand why online co-op couldn't have been a feature. This wouldn't quite be the same as having a friend by your side to bark at like Gordon Ramsay, but, if going down that route, surely the rampant foul language would serve its purpose just as well over a mic? It certainly doesn't seem as if there are any technical limitations, holding the possibility of online-play back. That, then, is pretty much the only missed opportunity to speak of. The rest is co-op gold.
This is a bold, distinct and very charming package. The clear commitment to co-operative play and player interaction pays off substantially, resulting in one of the best co-operative experiences in recent memory, and that includes AAA titles. While the absence of online play is a tad disappointing for those without people to play with regularly, it's an understandable omission for now, given the spirit of the experience. One can always remain hopeful that online co-op could be added at a later date, and it seems likely that any sequel would do well to explore this possibility. However, on the whole, Overcooked is one of the most fruitful and genuinely delightful local multiplayer experiences to be had today. A thoroughly impressive and accessible title, ideal for co-op focused players and parties.