Impressions: The Callisto Protocol feels like my first time with Resident Evil 4
My hands are still shaky and sweaty as I write this, as it was intense and I died gruesomely many times, but I absolutely loved every minute of it.
In his pursuit of the next generation of survival horror games, Glen Schofield has stubbornly repeated time and again how, in The Callisto Protocol, you will need to use all your resources at hand to survive. Now, after playing the third level in the game, "Habitat", for about 90 minutes on PS5, I do understand the emphasis.
It is true that previous chapters "Cargo", "Outbreak" and "Aftermath" (doesn't that make three already?) probably play a more introductory role, like a tutorial so to speak, into the different systems and mechanics you as a player must consider if you want Jacob Lee to survive and escape the Black Iron prison. After all, being thrown this far into the game (levels are said to be quite long) with just a brief controls recap can be a bit dazzling at first, but at the same time it added another desperate notch to the already-stressing premise during my session.
Because every encounter with enemies can must be approached in different ways. Are you a shooter lover? You can't just hide in cover and shoot from a striking distance. More of a stealth guy? You will get caught and won't be able to run and escape. Into melee? You will have to learn when to resort to it. By alternating all these with the GRP gun and its Half-Life 2-like magnet ability, and only after some truly painful deaths, I realised how the key here is to combine all these actions, to improvise to some extent while looking at what seemingly emergent gameplay is giving you (which hides smartly placed scripted events), and to not think that, when the game reloads, all you have to do is the very same but more accurately, or skilfully, this time around.
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Shoot the tentacles, really
Let me give you some actual examples. A couple of situations in which I wanted to shoot my way through, I didn't have either enough ammo or time to reload, the latter being something I had to create myself, as I quickly learned. Besides, you better save some clips in case the enemy decides not to die but to grow a bunch of tentacles instead, which you have to shoot quickly to prevent them from mutating into something bigger and more brutal. Sometimes I had to be more creative because I had upgraded or 3D-printed other things I didn't really need right after (had I known, I would otherwise have saved for the powerful Skunkworks "Skunk" shotgun later in the level), such as the handy stun baton for CQC or improved the gun's capacity, as each has its own skill tree. And if you shoot say an arm off an enemy, it's something you can use strategically when dodging as they'll rely on the other one left. And if you decide to throw an enemy out-of-bounds with the GRP as an easy resort, then you won't be able to loot them after smashing their body with your boot, a stomping action that you'll pointlessly abuse when you've killed a tough one just because.
But the two encounters I enjoyed the most were, first, when the game presents these camouflaged wall-and-ceiling crawlers, as I had to keep throwing objects (or other enemies) at them with the Grip as I kept searching the surroundings for more ammo, found time to reload or heal, and finished them off with the baton. Then there was this narrow tunnel, with the light at the end meaning my own death in a very literary way, in which I had no choice, nor room, but to think fast to take the upcoming enemies down.
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Because this seems all about building tension and transitioning from mysterious, slower sequences to hectic struggles, and so far it seems like the devs know their tricks in order to maintain a nice game pace. And despite the sci-fi setting, they manage to keep it consistent and the feel quite natural or believable, as there's some elaborated balance between the action, the moves, and the so-important lighting and special splatter effects. This includes the generally smooth transitions from and into cutscenes, though a couple of Jacob's more gory deaths broke the immersion with the occasionally abrupt change of perspective.
By following this gameplay loop, solving some simple item-based environmental puzzles and collecting a bunch of hidden audio logs for added lore (you're shown how many bodies and profiles you can find), I started feeling smarter every step of the way and made it with Jacob from green water-filled sewers covering large rooms and narrow shafts (by the way it's "great" how you can't sprint all of a sudden when your legs are half-flooded), to a botanical harvest, organic research and process facility, where I met the first non-Biophage enemy, a walking sentinel droid that meant insta-death whenever he spotted me during a semi-stealthy section. Again, too bad I hadn't unlocked the shotgun I got the schematics for...
But other than enjoying the Grip I also had a couple of gripes, mostly in terms of the button mapping; for example prompting to press X when there's no use or seemingly having no quick U-turn move. On the contrary I appreciated how they dare mapping dodges and blocking to the left stick (left, right, and down), as it felt natural and fluid.
For now, all in all The Callisto Protocol feels like the game I want to play today. A focused, tense and mechanically interesting proposal with an obsession for detail and some crazy new-gen tech achievements elevating its visual personality. If it keeps introducing new stuff successfully in search of variety, and rounds off the 12-14 hour experience with a nice narrative touch, it could really set a new bar for the genre and become a firm GOTY contender when it releases on December 2.