SOS alpha hands-on preview

When making friends comes second to winning.

We’re crawling through the underbrush, staying crouched to avoid detection from other players, occasionally sprinting behind rocks, with the other two members of our party keeping a watchful eye over open space. We can see the flare, the steady stream of red smoke marking the extraction point. It’s just beyond a hill, and with no cover able to keep us safe from enemies lurking nearby, we know we’re going to have to sprint for it.

I turn around to the man I’ve come to know as ‘Ty’, and ask if he’s ready to run: we’ll be right behind him. I can hear the steady noise coming from the artifact strapped to his back, and not for the first time that game, regret not picking it up faster. My partner nods (or he would have if it wasn’t a game), and sets off towards the hill, hatchet drawn as he runs, jumping occasionally to throw off any projectiles. Me and the other member of our part, Hiro, run after him, checking left and right for enemies. The three of us come over the crest of the hill, and I hear Ty’s cry of “we’re safe, there’s no one here”.

We stop on the sandy beach next to the cliff, congratulating one another on a good game as we hear the announcement over the speakers: “The extraction zone is now active”. A chopper flies in from above, starting to lower a winch, as Ty thanks the both of us, and prepares to clip himself on, a successful victory for him, and the cosy feeling of having been good team members for us.

At least, it would have been: I pull out the pistol I had feigned losing, put a clip into his back, briefly hearing his cry of anguish as I turned to Hiro, throwing the now empty gun at his face before following it with two swipes of a hatchet, bringing him down as well. At this point, I’m giggling down my mic, as I always am when a deception goes well, and thank the pair for their efforts, apologising that I let it drag out for so long. It was, I clarified, pretty funny though. I grab the artifact, and hook myself onto the winch as a lone player sprints up to me, also with a gold demon head on his back. “That was cold man” I hear him say, and I laugh. “I won, didn’t I?” I say, and he half-heartedly agrees, calling out the obligatory ‘good game’ before he clips himself on.

And so goes an ending of SOS, hands down one of my new favourite games. Any title that favours human interaction over mechanical skill gains a few points in my book, as while I may be lacking in the headshot department, I’m more than capable of spinning a yarn and getting on people’s sides. This particular venture had gone particularly well, if a bit dangerously. Ty had been worried we would betray him, and we assured him we wouldn’t, even going so far as to give him the antidote for the infection he had contracted from one of the voodoo monsters. I’m pretty good at talking to people, and games like SOS let me win because of it.

The general idea is that there’s 16 players on an island, with four artifacts, and three winners. As well as other players, you have voodoo monsters to deal with: tall, black dog type things with far too many teeth and arms disproportionately large. While they might not be much of a threat to a geared up solo player, they can be a challenge for someone equipped only with his fists, especially when in packs, hence the requirement for a team: SOS lets you make or break teams whenever you like, a mechanic I particularly like. All it takes is a quick hi-five, and you’ve got yourself an alliance. Friendly fire is still on, hence why I was able to shoot good old Ty, but it’s nice to know you’re comrades (for now). Together, you and your squad can romp from building to building, pillaging temples like Indiana Jones, gathering an assortment of skulls, knives, hatchets and pistols, as well as a batch of papayas to heal after a fight, and mushrooms to stave off the infection contracted by the voodoo monsters lurking around the map.

Once you’ve geared up, hopefully found a gun or two (they’re fairly rare), you can get to business: breaking into temples and killing an alpha voodoo demon. These guys are pretty tanky and deal a fair amount of damage, often braking any axes, or skulls, you’re trying to block with. Once this guy’s down, you grab yourself an artifact, and are immediately presented with an issue: do you head to extraction to shoot a flare and get your relic carrier to safety, letting him win while you wallow in the sorrow that is a loss? Or do you try and find a way to take the relic? For me, it’s often the second, or if I already have it, I slip away, running to a different extraction zone.

Games are fairly simple, with a few nice mechanics such as the ability to throw just about anything, even papayas. You can also block, and most importantly, track things. Looking at the ground may reveal footprints which can be followed to a player, or perhaps it’s the tell-tale sign of flattened grass that alerts you to the presence of another? I like this mechanic, as it allows novices to see a layer deep and determine there’s someone in that-a-way, while a more advanced hunter can go as far to tell how many people were in the group. The best thing is, it isn’t a skill you unlock: all the information is there from the off, it’s up to you to decipher it.

Audience interaction is also a huge thing. Hero.tv is a twitch-esque streaming service which allows for people watching the game to interact, either by sending emoji-type things to players, or even voting on what should be dropped in supply crates (more often than not a bomb). Get enough watchers, and you may be propelled to fame, climbing ranks on the leaderboard despite you not winning as many games, a welcome change. It also encourages you to be nice: while the audience often likes me, and sees me as they guy who should get a gun when he calls in a crate, votes don’t go so well for people who don’t act to nicely: often a bomb or grate of papayas is all they get, and while fruit is a welcome item, its nothing compared to the antidote or lockpick you could have got.

However, despite my praises for this game, there are things I decidedly don’t like, one of which is the intro. Every time you start a game, you get put into a pre-game lobby with all the other players while it runs through each one, spending about five seconds on each player, where they can tell people why they’d make a good squad member. It’s fun the first few times, and then gets really boring, more often than not just an indicator that I have a minute or two to search my fridge for any sausages left over from dinner.

Another admittedly small gripe is the fact that you can’t queue with friends. This is something I can understand, but would like implemented anyways. Another issue is that the game doesn’t let you see the profiles of people you’ve played with: I’ve had several games with people I liked and wanted to add on Steam, yet I can’t see their names under ‘recent players’. Remembering usernames is also a no-no, as you get to pick a new name upon first launching, and it’s rarely the same as their Steam name.

All in all, this game is pretty fun, and I’d recommend signing up for alpha access, and when it’s released, buying it, although I can’t comment on the price (I don’t know it). I’ve had a few fun games, including one with a guy who claimed to be an archaeologist, and went berserk when we met a group with an artifact, running at them with axe drawn screaming “that belongs in a museum!” 10/10, would team again, despite his tendency to throw fruit at me.