I know I'm not the only one who's been waiting to see if someone could manage to make a truly scary and immersive multiplayer horror gaming experience. And while Dead by Daylight is far from the worst attempt I've yet seen, I'm sad to say...we could still be waiting for some time yet. If such an ambition is even achievable.
Let me try and put this into some context. I'm not much of a multiplayer gamer - I unashamedly favour single-player over either competitive or co-op game modes, at least nine times out of ten - but interestingly enough, the only multiplayer game I've ever embraced to any remotely notable degree is Left 4 Dead 2 ; which, I'm ashamed to admit, I've now clocked up over 1500 hours on. Now, Left 4 Dead 2 is ostensibly "horror" - zombies an' all that - but really, when all is said and done, its primary motivation isn't to "scare" you, as it's essentially an action game in a horror setting. I think it's safe to say that Dead by Daylight's primary objective is in fact to frighten you, certainly when you're playing as one of the "survivors" (as opposed to one of the "killers"), and in this regard it's arguably closer to a game like Dead Realm, which at least managed to keep me interested for a handful of hours. But only a handful. Let's see if this one manages even that.
There's a number of people out there who are of the opinion that horror and multiplayer can never work, and while I'm intrigued enough by the idea - and the promise of less predictable monster behaviour and all the pants-shitting tension that can theoretically bring to the table - I'm unfortunately inclined to agree more with the naysayers than the faithful on this topic. I was a semi-active participant in a recent Steam forum discussion of people who wanted to see Outlast 2 have a multiplayer mode, and people who didn't. I was vehemently in the latter category; not because I don't think anyone should ever try to make a decent multiplayer horror game, but simply because I believe a developer has to choose a side, and build their game first and foremost around that.
You simply can't have it equally both ways, as recent Resident Evil games have proven; mostly to the "horror" of long-term fans (though not in a good way)! It's this simple: either you primarily design your game to function as a multiplayer entity, or you primarily design your game as a single-player entity. You can't have the best of both worlds, without quite literally making two very different games, presumably released in the same package. So far no game that I am aware of has attempted this feat (presumably because it would be highly cost-ineffective from a business point of view, if nothing else).
The designers of Dead by Daylight, to their credit, have most decisively chosen to make a multiplayer game, to the point that there isn't even so much as a single-player "story" or "practice" mode for one to cut their teeth on before launching blindly onto a server with others (there's some tutorials you can watch, but not play). What this means, of course, is one of the biggest problems which multiplayer games invariably face, no matter what genre or setting the game chooses to be in: simply put, the "newbie" versus "pro" problems which plague virtually every single multiplayer game on the planet; unless you're fortunate enough to have a suitable number of like-minded friends (this game requires yourself and precisely four others) who are willing to learn at the same pace as yourself, or failing that, at least "go easy" on you. Suffice it to say, "randoms" aren't likely to be so patient or polite, so almost as soon as a game is released, the inconsistencies in player skill levels becomes all too obvious, rendering what should be a fairly "casual" game anything but to a new player unlucky enough to find themselves on a server with people who've already worked out every single "exploit" the game has to offer.
Add to this the fact that competitive multiplayer games have little choice but to implement a very set number of possible scenarios - e.g. kill all other players/the other team, claim territory, or survive and escape from a designated area - and you're obviously going to be lacking in the depth of storytelling and immersion which truly scary horror games generally live or die by. Dead by Daylight, not necessarily unwisely, chooses to pit four "survivors" against a single "killer" - all five being player-controlled, no A.I. - and forces the survivors to act either co-operatively or independently to start up a bunch of generators and then escape through a door, while the killer wanders about trying to thwart them. There really is nothing wrong with this as a premise (I'm nothing if not a huge fan of Texas Chainsaw-style scenarios in movies!); but in practice, the gameplay inevitably ends up more closely resembling Team Fortress 2 than, say, Alien: Isolation.
It certainly doesn't help that you almost never see the killer, but somehow just know to run when a loud heartbeat starts thumping away in your headphones...and again, you only know you've been hit from behind thanks to a thunking noise and yelp from your character, so it ultimately all feels more detached than visceral. Fear of the "unseen" is all good and well, but it just doesn't work in a video game of this nature, at least not for your humble reviewer. Especially when it's just some disfigured psycho in a mask, and not some truly unknowable Lovecraftian being, I honestly wanna see who's intimidating me. Games like Alien: Isolation made quite a production out of the moments when you're spotted; and an even bigger production of dragging out your slow, horrible demise as seen through your character's eyes. This game made me feel like I was just running a constant marathon, and if all I wanted to do was run from "nothing" all the time, I'd frankly play a sports simulation.
In all fairness to the devs, it's kind of borderline impossible to even imagine how a truly scary multiplayer game could possibly be implemented. At the end of the day, games like this are essentially like, well, competitive team sports - to keep that particular analogy going - and I don't know how many genuinely terror-inducing football matches you've watched lately (okay, so I know there's some genuine suspense in there for people who fanatically follow such things, but it's still not quite the same as a game which genuinely makes you feel like a helpless victim fighting against desperate, life-threatening odds).
Now to play Devil's advocate...
I get it. I really do. Some people play games purely for "fun". Me, I like to have an experience, and that's probably why I mostly favour fairly immersive, atmospheric games (a great many of them qualifying as "horror", for lack of a better term). This isn't to say that I don't "enjoy" games, but it's a bit of an "art" versus "entertainment" argument, when all is said and done.
I have absolutely nothing against entertainment. Heck, I love it as much as anyone else. But if I'm going to be asked to find a game "scary", then I'm afraid it needs to do more than just entertain me. It needs to immerse me; increase my heart rate a bit, fuck with me a little. This game ultimately fucks with you no more than the Team Fortresses of the world, save perhaps in the fact that the survivors permanently die, rather than respawn (a potential problem in its own right, as no one wants to sit around for twenty minutes while their smart-arsed friend "survives" a bit longer, hence why they invented respawns in the first place).
It's like getting tagged "out" in a children's game: never you mind, you'll get to rejoin the game again in five or ten minutes. There's no stakes, in other words. A good horror game - indeed, a good single-player game of any genre - is all about "progressing", and the game simply ain't gonna let you make said progress until you've conquered the bit you're on. They're ruthless bastards that way. And I need my horror games to be ruthless bastards, or else it just isn't tense enough.
Even a recent, borderline-brilliant horror game like Layers of Fear arguably suffers a bit from the fact that you can't die, and there resultantly isn't that much on the line...rendering it not quite as terrifying as it could have been. When a truly ruthless single-player game beats you, you feel like your character has been truly defeated, in the most crushing possible way. When some "skilled-up" anonymous fourteen year-old beats you over an internet connection, it just feels like you've been bested by a fourteen year-old with loads of spare time on their hands, not by some horrible monster or unthinkable evil. And until these multiplayer horror games begin to resemble stories more, and games of "tag" less, I'm afraid they're just not liable to scare me all that much.
This is all very personal, of course. Would I recommend this game to people simply looking for a decent competitive multiplayer game, to play with their friends or randoms over the internet? Sure. I'm not confident it's one of the very best multiplayer games available (my money would still be on Left 4 Dead 2 as the greatest such game I've encountered; and even sticking within the confines of the "trying to be scary" genre, I probably preferred Dead Realm, which apparently now lives up to only the first part of its name). But as long as you don't expect a great deal of variety - the maps are quite small, and there's all of three killers at the time of this writing - and seek nothing more than a handful of hours of light-hearted "fun", be my guest. You could do better, you could do worse.
Just don't come in expecting an experience of soul-crushing terror (or even, for that matter, a notably "gory" game), 'cause you're certainly not going to find any of that here. I've had much, much scarier walks home from my local gym at 11.30pm at night. Compared to that, and to truly terrifying single-player games like Outlast or Monstrum, this is more like a walk in the park, with the occasional waylay as you're forced to step around a minor minefield of dog poop. The only tension comes from a fear of being recognised in a future lobby by someone who kicked your arse last time, who now wants to gloat about how "shit" you are 'cause you don't have as many hours in your day to spend on "getting gud" as they do.
It's a competitive/cooperative game in an ostensibly "horror" setting, simple as that. Know what you're signing up for, and you may well emerge less than disappointed. Me, I'm still gonna keep vaguely hoping for that one multiplayer game which actually manages to give me the willies, though as I said at the beginning of this review, that may be some time in coming, if indeed ever. I guess there is that (rather similar-looking) Friday the 13th game coming up...not that I'm gonna be holding my breath for that one, either...sigh...though the single-player Outlast 2 looks like it's also going to have a similar setting, so I may yet get my fix of truly terrifying backwoods psycho-horror this year, after all...