There are a lot of things you can do in eight minutes. Make a brew. Reply to a couple of emails. Pop to the loo. Eight minutes is a surprisingly long time, actually, and I know this because I’ve lost loads of eight-minute segments over the last couple of weeks as I sat in front of my PC, trying to play The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
I feel a little mean kicking off a review by whinging about matchmaking, but when populating a lobby is so important – no, make that essential – to your experience, I feel I’d be doing you a disservice by opening with anything else. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good this game is –and it is very good! – if you can’t bloody play it.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre is, at least, exactly what it says on the tin. An asymmetric horror cast from the same mould as genre leader Dead by Daylight, four victims fight to escape the clutches of Leatherface by lockpicking doors to get out of the basement, steathily navigating the exterior environs by avoiding its traps and antagonists, and escaping to the road. The twist here, however, is that our chainsaw-touting maniac is not alone; yes, it’s still asymmetric, but Leatherface is accompanied by two Family members, which makes it 4v3. And it absolutely works.
Because as much as we love stomping around as the Big Bad in Dead by Daylight, playing the Killer is essentially a pretty lonely experience. Not so in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, though. Here, Family members can chase down their quarry together, working as a sickening tag team to power up their detection system – more on that in a sec – corral Victims into traps, and working together to catch their prey. The Victims’ job is to escape – the Family’s job is to ensure that they never do.
Interestingly, I found the infamous Leatherface the least exciting Family member to roleplay. Yes, he gets stuck right in – as the only Family member that spawns in the basement with the Victims, he has first dibs on all that murderin’ – but his thick-set frame and heavy torture device make him incredibly cumbersome, especially as Victims can shimmy through gaps and crawl through spaces Leatherface can’t reach. That said, I’ve been absolutely battered by Leatherface mains who are clearly much better than me at navigating the map and timing his brutal attacks, so make no mistake: in the right (or should that be wrong?) hands, Bubba can be deadly.
There’s also The Cook, with his heightened hearing that can focus in on noisy victims, The Hitchhiker, and his ability to set sneaky traps to slow victims down (I played in one lobby where the Hitchhiker put a trap behind every single exit from the basement, the dreadful genius), and Johnny, who can track the footsteps of his victims.
But I had the best time with Sissy, a bare-footed dreamer with the ability to contaminate key items, chase through those narrow gaps, and do all kinds of terrible things with the sweep of her razorblade. Sure, she’s not very powerful, but thanks to the character-specific skill trees and attribute points, you can level up her Savagery to inflict more damage, whereas someone like The Cook may need to dump points into his Harvesting ability to maximise the amount of blood he collects to feed grandpa. (Wow. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)
Ah, Grandpa. Endlessly famished Grandpa. Whilst this patriarch may not be able to hunt them down like he used to, he does sport an extraordinary supernatural roar that lets the antagonists see any Victim unlucky enough to be moving at the time. The more you upgrade his ability by feeding him – and by feed, I mean throwing blood down his gullet – the more deadly it becomes, until eventually, all players will be periodically highlighted whether they’re moving or not. Admittedly, it feels a little unfair when you’re the last Victim standing, but it certainly stops matches from dragging on. Victims can’t even while away the clock hiding in a cupboard somewhere, either; thanks to the fall they took escaping the meat hook at the beginning, all victims’ health will deteriorate as the match progresses.
Talking of the Victims; this unlikely squad is similarly selected from the movies’ rich back catalogue, and whilst they too have different abilities, these aren’t quite impactful as those of the Family, particularly as the environmental tools you can pick up – lockpicks, health items, you know the sort – are available to all. You’ll never shake the feeling of being the underdog, just as you’ll never tire of the pure exhilaration of bursting out of the gate and limping to freedom. The odds will always be stacked against you, though, not least because it’s incredibly difficult to shake off pursuers even if you do try to take cover in the grass. And the less said about the incredibly off-putting mist that pulsates at the periphery of your screen when enemies are near, the better.
The frustrating bit? You’re not explicitly told that you become essentially invisible in the long grass because you’re not told anything. Perks and attributes aren’t properly explained, nor how they can be upgraded. There’s no playable tutorial that instructs Family members that they need to electrify the exits, for example, or tell Victims that the basement exit door will automatically slam shut if they don’t get there in time. Most of the 40+ video tutorials were dry to the point of tedium, but I would’ve happily sat through them whilst queuing for a match. Sadly, you can only access them via the top menu, though.
I’m all for hands-off-ing, especially in horror, but with no ability to play with bots – another reason why matchmaking is so irksome – there’s no way to learn this stuff without doing it the hard way… and this is especially annoying if you’re a Victim and rarely manage to get out of the basement, let alone escape the Family compound entirely. And while I loathe skilled-based matchmaking in casual play, Texas Chain Saw Massacre desperately needs to better support its newcomers. As it stands, new players are queuing for five, sometimes ten minutes to get into a game, only to be insta-killed by a player 20 levels higher than them that already knows where all the Victims exit. It’s a vicious cycle that hampers progress and breeds contempt.
But oh my, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is gorgeous. I know that’s a weird thing to say about a game that drips with the red stuff, but the environments are careful, clever, and incredibly good fun to explore, not to mention stuffed with an array of delightful fan-service-y detail for those who know where to look. There are only three maps – three extraordinarily similar maps; Family House, Slaughter House, and Gas Station – but each is realised with aching, loving detail and boasts three daytime variants, so they change slightly depending on whether you’re there in the day, at dusk, or at nighttime. But they’re expansive – almost too big when you begin – and without the aid of any map whatsoever, their similarities make them tricky to navigate. This means that muscle-memory and endless replays are the only way to learn your way around.
The trouble is, it’s almost impossible to get the lay of the land when you spend more time queuing for matches than actually playing in them. You may wait up to five minutes to find a match, and another three to populate the lobby. And even if you do manage to get a squad of seven in the same place at the same time, then you’re at the mercy of the absolute ballbags that seemingly refuse to ready up, forcing you to sit and wait for another two – two! – minutes as the clock counts down, which inevitably makes some players pull out in frustration and forces you to go through the whole rigmarole all over again.
You see, if you don’t manage to find another six players to join you – which currently happens far too often, even now the game’s out, and the servers are active – you’ll be kicked back to the beginning like a gory Groundhog Day, only this one isn’t populated by Ned Ryerson and Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe but instead Bubba and the sound of a chugging chainsaw. There is no option to enter a game with just five or six of you. There are no bots to fill the gaps. There’s no chance to rejoin if the server throws a wobbler and you’re disconnected. You can’t even switch sides between Family or Victim once you’re in a lobby, either. This means you’re endlessly fighting the server, instead of the opponents you want to take on.
Perhaps inevitably, then, it’s much easier to find a game if you’re prepared to play as one of the Victims because most people want to maximise their match time, which is easier as a Family member. I can’t even muster the energy to blame them for that, either. Some Victims may queue for minutes at a time to get into a game, spawn in, run into Leatherface’s chainsaw, and then be sent back to wait for another eight minutes all over again.
There’s so much to love about Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and yet so much that aggravates me, too. As much as I revelled in the twisted cat-and-mouse chases and the deliciously macabre cut-scenes when I was actually in a game, its onboarding and matchmaking are currently so wildly unpredictable, I can’t feel the thrill of the hunt because all I’m really feeling is frustration.
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