It's July 11 and I'm one of the first passengers to have come aboard The Ship. Dressed for the first time ever in a ball gown (honestly), I stroll through the corridors of a vast ocean liner listening to the haunting echoes of the kind of 1930's music that helped drive Jack Nicholson mad in The Shining.
Nobody else I pass on the cruise seems to be in a welcoming mood though, as they are all racing around with only one thing on their mind, murder. Personally I'm here to get a feel for the atmosphere and enjoy that heady first night of a new online multiplayer game, not to mention the charming scenic views from the boat's bow. I might try and kill someone in a bit but, hey, what's the rush?
Then the current round draws to a close and I'm left waiting patiently at the end of a corridor. I just have time to spot a fire axe on the wall before three sharp-suited men barge past me to its glass case. I watch with mild interest now as they all turn to face me. 'Remain calm,' I remind myself. 'It's not like they are going to do anything - they must know random acts of violence are frowned on aboard The Ship.'
Almost simultaneously they now pull out their newly collected weapons. I sense this is not some sort of 1930's foreplay - thank God, as the game forced me to be a woman and I'm uncomfortable in new situations - and an edge of panic creeps into my previously relaxed demeanour. Things move fast and I barely have time to yank out the one weapon I'd stumbled across, an umbrella (perfect), before I'm mercilessly hacked to death. Agatha Christie this most definitely is not.
A few days later such random acts of violence are far more isolated aboard The Ship. Everyone seems to finally be getting a handle on arguably the oddest commercial online multiplayer title outside of those worrying Eastern ones populated with cute little children and fluffy animals.
'... its gameplay and design draw on everything from Poirot to Quake...'
Built on Valve's sturdy Source engine, Edinburgh-based Outerlight's first release in pushing two years is hardly a true original - its gameplay and design draw on everything from Poirot to Quake, with even a slightly unhealthy dose of The Sims thrown into the mix - but the game is much more than the sum of its well worn parts. Like most multiplayer titles, beginners are best off starting offline to get used to the nuances of the game before taking on human opponents. With no sign of the previously touted Story Mode (apparently arriving with the boxed retail version due later this year), the best option is the Arcade (offline) Hunt challenge. Here, after tweaking the level settings, you are randomly assigned a character, a room on a boat and someone to kill.
The aim of the game is then to locate your prey and 'do them in' without being spotted by the (bribable) guards, other passengers, shop/bar staff and even CCTV cameras (a bit out of keeping with the Art Deco setting but I'll let it slide). Get caught and it's off to jail for the kind of sentence the government seems to currently favour for serious offenders - a small fine and 30 seconds behind bars. Oh, and did I forget to say, someone else is after you too - so watch your back, especially when walking into a dark, empty room. Both you and your assassin get regular updates on their respective victim's last location, ensuring the chase is perpetually on - especially since, after the first onboard murder, a 90-second countdown to the next round begins after which a new hunter/victim is assigned.
With no starting weapons and only a rudimentary map, the first real goal is to navigate the vessel (there are six in total, all with a unique look and layout) and find something that will beat, shoot or slash someone to death. There are plenty of containers, suitcases and closets to search but most of the more deadly paraphernalia are snapped up fast, so don't hang around admiring the, admittedly, sparse scenery and period furniture too long.
The combat itself is normally a brief hacking affair but, with so many factors to consider before drawing your weapon, it's certainly never dull - though I'd advise trying to bring a gun to a knife fight every time. Pulling off the perfect murder is very satisfying and, with traps and unorthodox weapons to experiment with, The Ship gives even Hitman a run for its blood money.
A mysterious Mr X pays you for your efforts, with bonus cash for using different weapons, and extra booty can be collected from the bodies of the recently departed. Your total earnings then place you on the leader board, so it's wise to deposit most of your money whenever you come across an onboard bank or cash machine (in the 1930s?!).
Adding a bit of depth to the game, each character has Sims-esque needs that have to be sated (eating, sleeping, conversation, entertainment and the loo - complete with the most realistic 'dropping the kids off at the pool' sound effects yet committed to a hard drive). So picking up as many snacks and books as possible along the way is always a good plan, though grabbing a nap is practically suicide anywhere outside of the guard room. Although it can be desperately frustrating to have to down an energy drink or read a magazine when you are only moments away from a clean murder, this system does help ramp up the already palpable tension another notch. Ironically, the only real relief comes in death - when you restart afresh with a new character.
It's also worth noting that the levels are filled with restaurants, bars and shops to explore, along with bonus items to find that make life a little easier - like a catheter that stops any embarrassing little accidents while you ramble the decks in a desperate search of the gents.
There are other game modes outside of the main Hunt to master too, from a straight ahead Deathmatch (where the only risk, outside of a painful exit to a new spiritual plane, is being caught out by the guards) to a one-on-one Duel with a rival, and Elimination, or Last Man Standing as it's more commonly known. Online, where the real action is, Hunt is understandably the most popular pursuit, but it's Elimination that potentially offers the most depth. Staying alive is the only way to win, leaving players no option but to bide their time for the perfect hit.
With The Ship currently only available as a download from Valve's once hated Steam service, the servers are hardly up to Call of Duty numbers, but those I played on were all friendly and light hearted - making a pleasant change from Battlefield 2's endless insults and curses for bumbling nOObs. There are loads of tucked away gags too - The Ship's Bible synopsis describes it as 'Epic angry fiction about an angry omnipotent guy known simply as God' - along with secret passageways and extra clothes to disguise yourself in. It's little touches like these that often make a game, and that's certainly true here.
With the first update just available, many of the game's launch bugs have been ironed out and the whole experience appears smoother and less prone to the annoying glitches that kept hauling players out of this virtual world. Sadly, the attempt to force a slower pace, by giving players only a short rechargeable sprint, remains up-and-(not)running and causes real frustration as the timer creeps down.
Still, while it may not be the refined, leisurely paced kill-'em-up many eager landlubbers might have signed up for, The Ship does quickly prove itself a subtly addictive, relentless nail biter that will only get better as those already aboard learn to rule the bloody waves. Notch this one up as another killer for Steam.