Gang Beasts is a brilliant, drunken multiplayer brawler
Back in 2012, Hotline Miami created more than a minor stir at the first Rezzed PC and indie gaming show. Chatter about the game spread around the event like wildfire, notes were made to drop by the stand to see what all the fuss was about, and the game rightly rode this wave of enthusiasm all the way up to its release. A similar buzz rose up around another game at this year's show, and it's not hard to imagine that the same good fortune awaits it.
Gang Beasts wasn't like any of the other multiplayer brawlers available to play this year, and it's not even really like any other multiplayer brawler you've played full stop. Taking its starting cues from 2008's QWOP frenzy, the game stars a handful of nondescript sparring opponents who are only really distinguished from one another by the colour of their plasticine-like flesh.
It's a last-man standing affair, one where you and up to three friends wobble your characters around a healthy selection of hazardous environments, doing precarious battle with one another. Combat is primitive and amusingly unreliable, and whoever survives the most number of rounds in each session is declared the winner.
The secret sauce that makes Gang Beasts so much fun to both play and watch is found in the flailing - yet by no means random - nature of these wobbly controls. There's a drunken lack of precision when it comes to steering your amorphous blob of plasticine around the game's arenas, and yet you feel very much in control at all times. As you dance around your opponents, you must also choose when to throw a drunken left punch here, or a right hook there. Go at the opposition with both hands raised and you'll be able to lift them up and hurl them clumsily and unreliably towards danger.
Although the controls feel loose enough to ensure that victory's never yours until the last blob's standing, there's enough skill in the timing of your grapples and punches to add meaning to the impish thrill that accompanies every successful take-down. Play for a little while and you learn to wait for your opponent to gain height before grabbing hold of them, for example, making it much easier to topple them over the ropes of the boxing ring, and out of play.
This first simple boxing arena helps you get to grips with the controls easily enough, but the next zone packs the sides and centre of the room with meat-grinding rollers. Get too close to any of these mechanisms and you're sausages before you know it, but some frantic button-mashing may just help you dance out of danger, and tumble back over the safety railing so you can fight another day. And even if that doesn't work, you might just end up dragging the bastard down through the grinders with you, to the delight of everyone present.
Despite their featureless forms, there's a surprising amount of tragic humour and personality to be found in the creatures while all this is going on, and that's largely a result of the lolloping way they spar and latch on with one another. A quirk of the physics engine might cause them to grapple with each other's nether regions, for example, or make one of them haul the other across the floor by one of its glowing, hollow eyes. It's rather easy to form an attachment with your plucky little fighter as they suffer these indignities, and you'll wait patiently for your next chance at revenge.
It's because of this attachment that you can expect a steady stream of cheers and jeers to pour forth from those eliminated from the current round. It never takes too long for a pursed-lip grudge or two to take hold amongst a group of players huddled around the TV, but at the same time it's impossible to resist letting out a triumphant cheer whenever a match, so obviously wrapped up just a moment ago, takes one final twist.
Somehow, miraculously, the second-to last man standing manages to claw himself up from the inferno licking at his feet, and manages a lucky grapple that sends his opponent tumbling into the abyss instead. He might have killed you just minutes before, but this is a game about underdogs and you'll cheer every last one.
Other battle zones provide different opportunities for emergent slapstick silliness. A fight set on top of a convoy of trucks involves little room for error, as you struggle to make your play before your nearest opponent can execute their own. On a window-cleaning gondola there's less room for manoeuvring than in any other battleground, and confrontations are rapid enough to ensure they often end with an accidental suicide-pact, both creatures plummeting to the floor while gripping the other's hand. It's this tragic unpredictability that makes the game as fun to watch as it is to play, and you'll switch your allegiances back and forth to suit the current state of play.
Very few games allow you to enjoy your own failures while retaining a sense of achievement for the winner, but by wrapping itself so snugly around its drunken mechanics, Gang Beasts gives everyone an out from failure, and makes a fool out of everyone - even the winners. You have permission to laugh at yourself, in other words. Why not bring your friends?