Project Winter Early Access Impressions: There's No Reviving This Dead Survival Sim
With the Polar Vortex busy wreaking havoc in North America, it might seem like the opportune time to simulate a survival experience in the frozen wasteland of Project Winter.
But in this instance, "might" is the operative word.
This 8-player, subzero excursion mixes cooperative action with secret subterfuge; a traitor infiltrates a team of survivors forced to work together (or sow distrust amongst the group) while surviving with no supplies in a harsh wilderness.
The abstract polygonal aesthetic of Project Winter will quickly bring to mind Necropolis, and that's perhaps not a bad place to start, as that was another high concept niche indie game that died pretty quickly.
This Project Is DOA
It might seem too early to make such a definitive call, considering Project Winter only had a brief alpha test and has only been in early access for a handful of days. But this game is dead on arrival for the vast majority of players.
That isn't because of the concept, however, which isn't bad at all. There's a reason games like Betrayal At House On The Hill are so popular. Mixing co-op and PvP with a randomized element that obfuscates friend from foe makes for compelling gameplay when done right.
If you dig co-op survival games with an asymmetric element, there may be reasons to lay down the cash on Project Winter, but only if you've got seven friends who are willing to also buy it and agree on a time to play.
Don't even bother if you plan on going into public quick matches; matchmaking is pretty much dead right now.
If you can get into a match (good luck!), you'll be greeted with constant crashing and disconnecting, with groups trying to troubleshoot issues in chat because there doesn't seem to be much official help right now.
When you do finally start a game, there are two other big hurdles:
First, because of low player counts and poor matchmaking, it's unlikely you will find a team who all speak your language. North American players are frequently put in predominately Russian speaking groups, for instance. Regional matchmaking could help fix this issue, but then we're still left with the issue of "few players."
Second, some players are reporting (and I had this issue myself) that even if you disconnect from a lobby and come back repeatedly, you will frequently end up with the same group of seven people — which is a problem for myriad reasons.
For a game like Project Winter, those are bigger issues than you might think. That's because players have to repair items and complete objectives as a group; if your team isn't communicating and working together, the game falls apart.
Collecting food, resources, and parts can be daunting alone, and repairing anything by yourself to escape the game's frigid maps is nearly impossible.
The game is inexorably built around multiplayer, with many necessary areas cut off by computers and panels that can only be accessed by multiple players in concert.
Team Work Makes The Dream Work... Sometimes
That problem is made even worse by poor voice chat sound quality, with all sound coming through on a delay, distorted by an echo, or falling victim to constant stutters.
During one game, my entire team was screaming at me to not abandon the group while rushing for the escape hatch, and I had absolutely no clue until someone started typing the message manually.
Part of that is by design, as communication is meant to be spotty at long range unless players craft specific, color-matched radios, which allow for communication at distance. In many ways, though, it's a prime example of a cool idea that doesn't translate well to execution, as it makes the game less accessible to new players and constantly causes frustration.
Which leads me to my next point.
Project Winter's learning curve is another major stumbling block impacted by team and chat issues: new players have no clue what they are supposed to be harvesting or crafting. The overly lengthy tutorial doesn't translate well to Winter's chaotic gameplay, either.
That makes your first few matches actively un-fun, as players who have figured it all out will get impatient and leave you behind. Inherently, this gameplay loop screws over the team as a whole worse than if they'd just be patient and help out the newbies.
Despite all those problems, sometimes you can get really exciting matches where all players gel together. This is where the game works as it's intended to. In one particular match, my team figured out who the traitor was, but he was already armed to the teeth while most of us just had axes and bear traps.
We basically had a low-tech survival version of the insane, up-close shootout scene at the end of Wind River... and then things got really bizarre when two bears and a herd of moose decided to get into the mix at the same time, forcing everyone to disengage and seek safety.
That was one of the crazier moments in my various matches, as absolutely no one died in that nutso battle of man versus man versus nature (well, except a bear).
Apart from those randomized scenes that can't be relied on, there is some reason to keep playing with a progression system to work through. By completing various tasks you can unlock cosmetic items for different character types (personally, I'm partial to the arctic Santa body style myself).
The Bottom Line
Taking into account that this is early access and may go through major changes by its official launch, and after weighing all the pros and cons above, there's one big issue that Project Winter likely can't overcome.
Frankly, it just isn't particularly fun to high tail it back to the cabin and wait out a mega blizzard with your group, then rush out and try to complete an objective before it happens again.
Over and over and over again.
In theory, it seems like the developers are trying to create a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia with Project Winter, forcing players to interact with each other and try to puzzle out the identity of the traitor. In practice, it just never happens that way.
In every match (if you are lucky enough to get into a match), you essentially end up with this gameplay loop:
- two or three people who know what they are doing are pissed that everyone else isn't cooperating
- a random, awful griefer bugs everyone for no reason
- a handful of people are useless, simply running around
- a traitor either gathers weapons to annihilate everyone or gets hopelessly lost, becoming a boring non-factor
Maybe this more a social construct sim aiming to teach us the cold, harsh nature of reality while showing that gamers can't be trusted to construct workable societies? Maybe?
In the end, I think my experience in Project Winter is best summed up with a single screenshot. There goes an uncaring moose, sauntering by at a leisurely pace while I'm bleeding out and freezing to death after being mauled by a homicidal bear.
I'm about 20 yards from escaping after my team radioed for rescue. None of them are going to come revive me.