Friday the 13th [official site] is occasionally tense and often hilarious in the way that long-running horror franchises tend to be. As Jason, your objective is to kill every player-controlled counsellor, and as a counsellor you're trying to escape, call the cops, or simply survive until the end of the round. I've only played for a few hours but I'm already hooked. There are frustrating bugs and the matchmaking won't let you play Jason as much as you might want to, but Friday the 13th cleverly uses the tropes of slasher films to build its ruleset, and when it all comes together, it's fantastic.
Oddly, Friday the 13th isn't the only asymmetrical multiplayer slasher game available right now. It's not quite reached Battle Royale proportions and become an entire genre, but I wouldn't be surprised if copycat killers start cropping up over the coming months. For now, Friday the 13th only has one sizeable competitor though: Dead By Daylight has a headstart and a large audience, but despite the thematic similarities, the two games can happily co-exist.
I've played a little Dead by Daylight but it's much more reliant on strict adherence to objectives than Friday the 13th, which means I struggle to contribute when stuck as a potential victim unless I'm in a group of friends. The camps of Friday the 13th are more sandbox-y, allowing counsellors to go their own way. Coordination can help them to escape or fight back, but the conclusion of the round seems less important than the laughs and scares along the way.
Dead by Daylight feels like a competitive game with a slasher film skin stretched across its bones; Friday the 13th feels like a slasher sandbox with competitive elements.
Of course, plenty of people are going to disagree with me, including some of the strangers I've played alongside. I've won two games as a counsellor, both times by surviving until the time limit expires rather than by repairing and refuelling a car, or bringing in the cops to help. It's even possible to kill Jason but I've only ever got so far as knocking him down and then running away as fast as my little legs will carry me.
As a counsellor, it's easy to fall into the mindset of the hunted. Jason is an intimidating figure and because hiding is an option, it's tempting to do precisely that. My successes as a survivor have come when I've played as if I'm in a survival horror game, using stealth to stay out of the action. The killer himself is clearly the greatest threat, but fear is a great danger. Essentially, the more frightened your character is, the greater the chance of detection. Terrified counsellors scream, giving themselves away, and managing your composure is vital.
To stay calm, you'll want to stick to the paths rather than running into the woods, avoid seeing Jason or the corpses of his victims, and try to keep your friends close. Brilliantly, all of this fear management feels like an emergent part of the slasher sim side of the game rather than a meter to handle. As Jason, you want to divide and conquer, chasing your victims into the woods where their fear level rises, isolating them from their friends, cornering them in cabins and then dragging them from underneath beds or from inside closets.
Counsellors have a few tools that can help them, mostly by throwing Jason off the scent. Their abilities are best understood by picking apart Jason's four powers.
What I love about Jason here is that he behaves, through use of his abilities, exactly as I want a lumbering slasher villain to behave. His most useful power lets him detect nearby counsellors and causes any building containing a potential victim to glow red. The entire pursuit mechanic at the heart of the game is based around speed; as a rule, counsellors can run faster than Jason but when their stamina runs out, they're winded and slower than his stride. But his ability to track them can give him the drop, allowing Jason players to approach each counsellor tactically, cutting off escape routes rather than going straight for the kill.
When he's in the vicinity, counsellors hear a musical sting, alerting them to his presence. It leads to some great moments, which feel fittingly cinematic. You hear the music and you know that you're suddenly the star of the scene where the audience leans in, waiting for the gore. But the music is fair warning; you can hide, or you can run, or you can stand back to back with your friends and try to hold your ground. As I've already mentioned, I've never seen the counsellors kill Jason, but I've seen him knocked to the floor, at which point the person controlling him has to hammer a button to get back to their feet. Again, it's all about speed – you're creating an escape opportunity.
But you're more likely to run because death comes quickly. A couple of swings of the axe are enough to finish off a counsellor and if Jason is close enough, he can grab a counsellor for a signature kill. There are environmental kills as well, but these can be tricky to pull off and only really worthwhile if you're really trying to rack up points, which are dished out for kill variety.
Oh, but that musical giveaway? Jason can temporarily mute it when he enters stalking mode. Even knowing that the Jason player has that ability, I've still been startled to see the big bastard standing there, unannounced. He has another frightening ability as well, that allows him to sort of transform into the Evil Dead demon-cam for a brief period, moving super-fast to close the distance on a victim, or simply to shift from one place to another in order to confuse and intimidate.
The final ability is a teleport, called Morph, that drops him elsewhere on the map. It's not 100% accurate, leaving you somewhere in the vicinity of your cursor rather than directly on top of it, and I've mainly found it useful when mopping up survivors toward the end of a round. It's the most 'cheaty' of the powers and feels like a bit of a design shortcut, but it does the trick, keeping the counsellors on their toes.
All of the game's design hangs on these abilities and the ways that they can be subverted. The detection, for example, can be thrown off by radios. Before leaving a cabin, as a counsellor, switch on a radio and Jason will think that building is occupied. To survive, you need to think about every aspect of your environment all the time, keeping one eye on the windows in case a shape is moving outside in the dark, ensuring you don't lock the door that is your best escape route, and never standing too close to a window in case a throwing knife smashes through and punctures your gut.
It all boils down to a couple of simple things: Jason is terrifying and unpredictable even though he's a giant lumbering hunk of meat, and counsellors have to be smart and lucky if they're going to survive. Playing as a victim is scarier than anything in Dead by Daylight, partly because there can be entire stretches where you're just trying to hide or run rather than actually working toward victory. And the variety of victory conditions means that there's less pressure to play as part of a team – I've been playing mostly with strangers and have had a blast.
But, and it's a big but, there are problems. It's early days, of course, the game having launched properly earlier today, but oh lord the bugs. There is a (fair, decent) progression system, unlocking perks and cosmetic items, and I've had successful rounds where experience hasn't been properly added after a victory. Perks that I've equipped haven't actually worked, leaving my character without equipment they should have had at the beginning of the round.
Most frustrating of all, as Jason I killed all but one of eight survivors and had the final one cornered in a cabin. I saw him run into the building and at this point, my RAGE ability had activated. This lets Jason walk through doors and some walls without slowing down, rather than resorting to slow Here's Johnny axe hacking. I shambled through the door and saw him run into a closet. I could hear him whimpering inside, absolutely terrified.
And the button prompt to open the closet and instakill him didn't appear. I pressed the button anyhow and nothing happened. So I swung my axe at the closet and left damage decals all over it. He was still whimpering inside.
Suddenly I wasn't Jason, I was real life me, trying to open a jar of pickles.
The timer ran out and the little cowering wretch won the round, all because the game had glitched out and wouldn't let me rip the doors off a bloody closet.
It's a sign of how much I'm enjoying the game that I just shrugged, cursed and then started a new round, but if this kind of thing is still happening a couple of days or a week in, I'll probably be holidaying somewhere other than Camp Crystal Lake this summer. For now, I'm on board, even if I don't get to wear the mask as much as I'd like. Jason is randomly assigned in each game, though you can express a preference to tip the odds in your favour. That's my only real complaint with matchmaking though, which has been quick and efficient. What I really need is a group to play with and I'll be recruiting across the upcoming long weekend.
Friday the 13th: The Game is available now for Windows via Steam for £29.99.