If Overwatch, Evolve, and Mario Kart had a baby.
If you've ever played Mario Kart or Mario Party, you're probably familiar with the vicious tactics required to win. By design, those games encourage you to be ruthless to your competitors, charting a path to victory by any means possible--even if that means stabbing them in the back. This approach to design is precisely what Rooster Teeth's upcoming PC multiplayer shooter Vicious Circle thrives upon. Described as an "uncooperative shooter," it's somewhat of an unusual breed against its contemporaries. Other shooters encourage jolly cooperation or heated PvP battles, but Vicious Circle is more about playing dirty and screwing over your friends--while being as entertaining to watch as possible.
At a glance, Vicious Circle resembles an asymmetrical multiplayer shooter, pitting a team of four mercenaries against a player-controlled giant chicken monster. If the monster kills all the mercenaries, it wins. On the other hand, the mercenaries win not by killing the monster but gathering a special resource called nuggets scattered across the map. Once they've collected enough, they can call in an evac and end the match, but there's a catch: only one mercenary can escape and emerge the winner.
This twist creates a competitive dynamic that encourages you to troll other players. If you're the monster, this is as easy as causing chaos to the opposing team by virtue of being a hulking beast. However, the mercenaries have it harder, not being able to harm each other with their weapons physically. Instead, they have to be crafty. As a mercenary, there are several strategies and tools available to facilitate your effort to throw other players under the bus. Gadgets like a vacuum suck the nuggets out of other mercenaries, while a teleporter grenade can zap mercenaries or the monster to the opposite side of the map. These mischievous plays felt distinctly Mario Kart in nature, and according to Vicious Circle lead designer Casey Donnellan, that was the point.
"There's a lot of Mario Kart influence in [Vicious Circle]," said Donnellan. "That was really like a huge part of the design of this game. We took to it for inspiration. That's why we have all these gadgets that allow you to ruin somebody else's day, basically. It's so much worse than getting shot."
Thinking about how to work alongside and contend against a team of players all looking out for their own self-interest felt overwhelming at first. Despite my best efforts, my natural inclination was to immediately shoot my "teammates," which, of course, did absolutely nothing. Instead, I had to think of other ways to stop them from stealing my precious nuggets. Sometimes this meant breaking the line of sight--a strategy that became increasingly important the more I played and observed subsequent matches. Special doors on the map allowed you to do just that, temporarily closing the way behind you to block pursuing players. And the mercenary I used--the four playable each have unique abilities--had a blink-like skill that allowed me to navigate in and out of danger easily.
Even death offers unique ways to rain on people's parades. If you die as a mercenary, you respawn as a small alien called a Little Dipper. As this snarling, highly-mobile tentacle creature, you can possess other mercenaries to inherit their skills, abilities, and more importantly, their nugget supply. However, successfully hijacking someone's body turns them into a Little Dipper themselves, inevitably encouraging them to possess you, others, or both. One person in the match I played got possessed as they were in the lead, and as you'd expect, things got delightfully salty.
Winning is more about being crafty, intelligent, and highly adaptable.
With so many different tools and strategies at your disposal, a lot can happen in a single round, and since each only lasts about 4-5 minutes, it all happens rather quickly. I was constantly challenged to strategize while remaining swift and spontaneous. Did I want to establish a temporary truce with other players to kill the monster to secure a wealth of nuggets only to risk being betrayed later? Or maybe I could purposefully get myself killed to become a Little Dipper and hijack the winning player’s body right before evac? Heck, both these strategies could very well play out in a single match amid several other unexpected twists and turns. That’s what excites me the most about Vicious Circle; rather than speedy reflexes and brute force alone, winning is more about being crafty, intelligent, and highly adaptable.
But I need to be honest; I had to drop out of playing after a few matches or so. As someone easily prone to motion sickness, the high frame rate in combination with the mouse and keyboard setup made me nauseous real quick. As I regained my composure on the sidelines, I observed that Vicious Circle's speed and intensity makes it highly entertaining to watch. The cartoony art style and Rooster Teeth brand of over-the-top humor certainly kept things fun and light, but it was the diversity of strategies and battles ensuing that kept me continuously engaged. Once again, this was intentional by way of the designers.
“We designed the game to be fun to watch from day one," commented Donnellan when asked about its spectator-friendly nature. "The whole drama where you die, you come back as this other thing, and now you're pitted against the people that you were with. It was always very central to the game."
It was amusing to watch folks get ambushed by the ridiculous chicken monster, whose powerful charge move easily flustered the greedy mercenaries. I'd hear groaning from those possessed by Little Dippers at inopportune moments, and then be on edge as I anticipated their comeback. Persistent nugget drop events kept players sprinting around the map, contributing to the chaos of a given round. All the while, a clearly-defined UI made it easy to keep track of who was currently in the lead, who was a Little Dipper, and how much health the monster has, ensuring I was rarely lost in the action.
Whether you're playing or watching, everything in Vicious Circle seems built to facilitate good-natured silliness and salt. At times, it almost seemed unfair how the game's tools allow players to quickly gain the lead regardless of how well you might be doing in a match, but the resulting misfortunes rarely kept me frustrated for long. Terrorizing others is a big part of why a game like Mario Kart is so enjoyable, and to see it enacted in an Overwatch-like, Evolve-ish multiplayer shooter like this is refreshing. Vicious Circle's merits still need to be tested by my buddies (many of which are easily susceptible to being upset and bitter) and me, but what I played has me more than enthusiastic about double-crossing them once it arrives later this Summer.