In the 1990s I was a 6-foot-6 offensive lineman, built like a brick shithouse, and standing near a cornfield in northern Illinois. It was a hot summer night when the fire barrels went off, shooting flames 30 feet into the air on either side of James Hetfield. Behind him, the rest of Metallica was pounding out “Fuel” and, as the rolling chorus came around for the second time, I fell backward into my first mosh pit.
Inside that space was the same kind of violence and momentum that I had previously only known in the moments after coming off the line of scrimmage, but sustained for the duration of an entire song. That’s what it felt like to play Metal: Hellsinger for the first time on Saturday, except in this video game I was surrounded by demons and armed to the teeth.
“I wanted to make the most metal shooter ever,” said David Goldfarb, creative director and writer on the project. After playing a small slice of a very early alpha version of the game, I’d say he’s on the right path.
Metal: Hellsinger is a rhythm shooter being developed by The Outsiders, which Goldfarb co-founded. He’s an old hand at making first-person shooters. He served as the lead designer on Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3, and was also the game director for Payday 2. He’s spent the last 10 months working on Metal: Hellsinger with a team of around 25 people, and he says that he’s never had more fun making a game in his entire life.
Goldfarb’s goal for Metal: Hellsinger is to blend together two different kinds of flow state — that pleasurable, trancelike experience you sometimes fall into while playing an excellent video game. There’s the flow that comes from playing an FPS, which is tied to skills like movement and aim. Then there’s the flow that comes from games like Guitar Hero and Beat Saber, which is much more musical and based on sound cues and timing.
The small portion of the game I played hits all the right notes. Movement is quick and kinetic, with a midair dodge and a double jump that gives me tremendous range. I’m armed at first only with a skull that calls down lightning bolts, stunning my enemies. By tapping the mouse in time with the music, I can build up a multiplier. Then, using the bone sword strapped to my back, I can leap into a pile of demons and annihilate them all with a single swing. Next comes a double-barreled shotgun that fires both rounds if I pull the trigger at just the right time.
Driving the action is a pounding heavy metal soundtrack. The multiplier keeps climbing based on my performance, jumping to the beat or hitting enemies in time to the music. When it reaches 16x, that’s when the final vocal layer kicks in.
“There have been plenty of games that have made cool metal things,” Goldfarb says. “Obviously Doom. [...] But they were making a certain kind of techno metal. I didn’t want to do that. Brutal Legend had their thing, which was cool, but it also wasn’t quite right for what I wanted to do.”
Metallica isn’t involved here. For this soundtrack, The Outsiders went much, much darker. Artists include Trivium’s Matt Heafy, Dark Tranquility’s Mikael Stanne, Björn Strid from Soilwork, and Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy.
“In the course of this project I’ve helped write lyrics for these heroes of mine,” Goldfarb said. “That’s been super cool.”
Audiophiles will not be disappointed. The Outsiders told Polygon that the game will include high-quality digital signal processing and “true 3D spatial audio” for sound effects.
Voice-over work for the main characters comes courtesy of Jennifer Hale and Troy Baker. Goldfarb says more names will be announced over time. Meanwhile, The Outsiders still needs to finish making the game. Metal: Hellsinger is scheduled for a 2021 release on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Xbox One, and next-gen consoles.
Another design goal for Goldfarb’s team is to make the game as performative as possible. That means supporting extreme difficulty settings, which in turn means limiting the amount of “slop” that players get to time their moves. On easy settings, keeping the beat will be relatively, well, easy. But on the hardest settings, Metal: Hellsinger will require an immense amount of skill. That should make it perfect for venues like Twitch or the speedrunners from the Games Done Quick charity marathons.
Part of the challenge, he explains, is working with control inputs. I played the game on keyboard and mouse, which Goldfarb tells me has had the most development time. Eventually, my hands began to hurt from the repetitive movements. Moving to a controller was much easier on me, but ultimately felt less refined. Switching between weapons, for instance, was not all that intuitive.
“There’s good and bad in both,” Goldfarb said, “and I can’t talk about the next-gen stuff, but it works in a different way. With controllers the issue is finding the right bindings, which we’re still working through. Because the particular things that you need to do, with beat matching and shooting and those things, they’re very fiddly. It’s much, much more fiddly than you would think.”
Expect more information — including further details on Metal: Hellsinger’s ultra-hardcore difficulty settings and post-campaign game modes — in the months to come.
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