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Motions, emotions and decisions in cinematic horror Until Dawn


This post contains minor spoilers for events in Until Dawn.

You may think it's brand new, but teen horror Until Dawn has been lurking in the shadows since its Gamescom 2012 reveal. Sony re-revealed it at this year's Gamescom with one key difference: It's now on the PS4, and that means you'll be using the DualShock 4 instead of the Move. Now we've spent half an hour in the game's bloody clutches, we can shine more light on what to expect from Until Dawn on PS4.

Gallery: Until Dawn (Gamescom 2014) | 14 Photos

You don't need to be a horror buff to spot the influences and inspirations in Until Dawn. The setting is a remote mountain hotel, where eight teenage friends are convening for their annual winter getaway. The sequence I played was at least a few hours after things had stopped going to plan.

I first saw a cut scene (or perhaps a recap of events you could play earlier) starring a girl called Sam, who was quickly attacked by a masked figure. The play then began and I had control of Ashley, whose hoodie, daisy dukes and tights combo was marred by the blood and bruises across her face. Joining her in the darkened basement and no less beaten up was a guy called Chris, whose spectacles failed to belie the air of someone struggling to be cool, calm and collected. Unlike Chris, Ashley was pretty much ready to go into full-blown panic. The two were trying to find their assailed friend Sam, having already found at least one of their friends as cold as the ice outside.

While the new developer is Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock studio Supermassive Games, you'd be forgiven for thinking Until Dawn is a Quantic Dream game. A major part of this is the motion controls, translated from Move to DualShock 4. The most Move-like of these is the flashlight, which you point up, down, left and right by pointing the controller's light bar accordingly. This feels funadmentally clumsy in the new third-person view, and didn't work well in combination with left-stick movement. Thankfully, it didn't feel all that useful when walking around - I could see nearly everything without it. In the more stationary first-person view used to examine objects, it was far more palatable and useful, so there's that.

That complaint aside, the way you move and explore is very similar to Heavy Rain. As you approach an investigatable object an icon will pop up by it, drawing you to it. Also, you twist and turn the controller to rotate objects you're examining, insert keys into locks, and so on. Just to remind you there's a DualShock 4 in your hands, you turn pages by sliding a finger along the touch pad.

Those controls featured heavily in the demo's opening minutes, in which Ashley and Chris were looking for clues among the basement's crates and myriad of junk. As Ashley, I found an ornate doll house with a bunch of weird figures sitting around in the bedroom; the two teens recognized the scene as mirroring some kind of real-life party prank - or at least it seemed like a prank - involving a now dead friend. Ashley began to tear up, and then when a strange pale figure flitted by in the background moments later, she was convinced she'd seen a ghost. Chris was looking at his phone for some reason, allowing him to take on the Agent Scully role of having seen no evil.

The Heavy Rain similarities run deeper than controls or even the photorealistic qualities. As per Quantic's fare, Until Dawn goes with butterfly effect-style narrative, with major and minor player decisions shaping how the story progresses. Whenever one of these decisions occurs, a butterfly icon shows up, letting you know something you've said or done has had an impact. GameSpot reports that Supermassive claims there are a thousand different endings in Until Dawn, while Game Informer notes that any character can live or die, and once they're dead, they ain't coming back (well, alive at least).

Another element that looked like it played into this were the "psycho clues." After a cut scene in which Ashley said that if they had more clues, they'd know better what was going on with the psycho - presumably the masked figure - the game then said I'd found 0 of 2 clues in that area. Well done, me. I did manage to find one eventually: a postal address on a spurious parcel.

Some major choices were clearly signposted in the demo. In one exchange, Ashley and Chris were mulling over whether or not to go further in search of Sam, and I got to say if we should or shouldn't. I said we should - I'm nice like that - and we did go looking for Sam, but what would've happened if I'd gone against that? Just how wide-ranging and different are the story paths? In another scenario, I had to choose between following Chris or going off to investigate a weird noise. I know better than to go wondering off alone.

Not that any of these sensible decisions got me safely through the demo. Sure enough, we ran into a group of clown-masked thugs with distorted-sounding voices, and they weren't best pleased to see us. A scuffle broke out - there was a single quick-time-event with one button press to successfully stab one thug - but he punched Ashley out all the same.

Then things took a turn for the Saw. Ashley and Chris woke up strapped to wooden chairs, facing each other with a table between them. Also, there was a revolver ominously near to Chris. Then there was a heartfelt exchange in which Chris tearily broke down and admitted his feelings for Ashley. Sure enough, a deep, menacing voice boomed over a speaker, interrupting Chris and alerting the pair to two whirring blades above their heads. You can guess where things headed next; either both could die, the voice warned, or Chris could choose to save himself or Ashley.

In this sequence, I now had control of Chris rather than Ashley. And by this point I'd grown rather fond of Ashley, with her thoughtful attitude and her acute fashion sense.

Bang. Bye-bye, Chris

Did Until Dawn feel scary? It's hard to say amid the booming noise of the Gamescom crowd, and having been dropped into the plot with only so much context. While the motion controls don't really add anything for me - and the flashlight in third-person feels flawed at a basic level - I was impressed by some strong voice acting, which helped me buy into the storytelling. As the PS Blog notes, Until Dawn stars TV and film talent that includes Hayden Panettiere, Rami Malek and Brett Dalton, and that level of talent came across in my demo.

With the right writing convincingly presented, Until Dawn could deliver a more cinematic horror experience than we're maybe used to in video games, but infused with something unique to gaming: choice. On the other hand, my fear is the unnecessary-feeling motion controls might be a sign of misplaced priorities, but at this stage it's too early to say. We've got plenty of time to delve deeper into Until Dawn's horrors before it hits PS4 in 2015.
[Image: Sony]

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