One of three game concepts pitched at the Xbox community by Press Play earlier this year, “action-survival” experience, Project: Knoxville won the popular vote by a landslide, with 46% of votes. We have to confess to being a little deflated when the Danish studio announced that it would be its next Xbox One project (although the other two concepts aren’t gone for good – open-world vehicle builder, Karoo and procedural dungeon crawler, Dwarka are on hold as opposed to canned).
“Great, another survival game,” we grumbled through a mouthful of parboiled squirrel, absent-mindedly filling our pockets with tourniquets and kindling. “They’re like the new Gears of War clone.” Well, colour us, erm, re-inflated. “Survival”, it turns out, is a term that covers an exciting variety of sins. Rocks that unfold into sword racks, for instance. And pop-up wolves.
Knoxville isn’t about resource-gathering or managing your body heat. It’s basically how The Hunger Games would roll if it were a 15-minute-per-episode miniseries, with a splash of Left 4 Dead – a question of fleeting alliances, immediate upsets and inevitable treachery. Players star as contestants in a murderous reality TV show, tasked with navigating artificial environments that are home to lashings of weapons and unlockable routes. To open the exit door, you’ll need to find a coin somewhere in the level. It sounds straightforward but, as is often the case with reality TV shows, there’s a catch.
For starters, coins are also spent on upgrades between rounds. What these upgrades do remains to be seen – health boosts are probably included – but the upshot is obvious: make a quick getaway, and you may be fatally underpowered in the next round. But the longer you search for coins, the higher the odds of a messy end. Coins aren’t abundant, so you may have to take them from the bodies of other contestants.
Except that you might need their help against either the wildlife or better-armed groups. Oh, and some mechanisms, such as extendable bridges and weapon dispensers, won’t operate unless two or more players are present. And even dead players or those who have reached the exit are a threat: they’ll respawn as flying drones who can summon wolves at intervals from the bowels of the stage machinery.
Where does this leave us? Well and truly up the creek. Knoxville is a white-knuckle tug of war between co-operative gaming and PvP. You’ll partner up with other players, only to backstab the lot of ‘em once you’ve beaten some key obstacle. Then you’ll leap into a river to escape the ensuing wolf bombardment, only for a guy with a hammer to ambush you on the shore. A sparing set of emoticons – “I like you”, “I need healing”, “I’m going to kick your head in” – add an element of bluffing to the proceedings.
All in all, it’s a memorably nasty turn from Press Play after the amicable Kalimba, and proof that survival gaming doesn’t have to be a matter of patience and stamina. We look forward to spawning our first wolf.