Until Dawn Preview: Motion sensing that isn’t a nightmare

Until Dawn is a difficult game to pin down because I suspect its gameplay experience will vary throughout the story, which hops between teenagers trapped in a serial killer’s machinations. My hands-on demo at PlayStation Experience put me in control of Sam (the apparent main character, modeled after Hayden Panettierre) and shifted from tentative exploration reminiscent of Heavy Rain to a thrilling chase sequence that called to mind The Walking Dead’s urgent choices.

Until Dawn is more technically advanced than both those games thanks to its heavy emphasis on DualShock 4’s motion sensor. Lest you think the game is scarier for its Sixaxis implementation, the motion sensor works extremely well. Rather than being an arbitrary obstacle to movement and selecting choices, only the most basic left and right pointing (as if moving your head) is necessary to run, hide, throw a vase, and the like. Because of this, motion sensing feels far less like an arbitrary obstacle and achieves a greater sense of involvement without going first-person and losing the cinematic luster.

Indeed, motion sensing’s best uses are the more involved techniques. Quickly jerking left or right to close a door latch, slamming down to topple a book case, thrusting forward to break through a locked door—these worked perfectly the first time without any concerted effort on my part. The motion sensor’s accuracy is especially evident during the most interesting prompt: standing completely still. Hiding behind a wine rack, holding her breath while the masked killer shuffled past, Sam couldn’t move a muscle for fear of alerting him. Onscreen, this took the form of an outline in the shape of the DualShock 4’s light bar. An ever-so-slightly smaller light bar needed to be kept within that outline. To suddenly dial back my intensity in the heat of the moment was physically jarring, mimicking the same feelings during real-life chases. It was also very difficult—every imperceptible twitch of my controller was reflected on-screen with no forgiveness. This challenge was refreshing and truly unfamiliar—I failed it on both of my demo playthroughs.

In my second playthrough, I was disappointed to find my choices had very little impact beyond the few seconds of action that would follow. Whether I chose to hide beneath a bed or leap over it to a window, Sam would inevitably exit the room in basically the same fashion immediately after or just a couple sub-choices later. Even toward the end of the chase, where my choices took me to different rooms, the result was the same: Sam was caught by the killer and subdued, presumably to be taken to the same place as her missing friends. A few choices made before the demo began had minor effects on its content. I was asked questions like what scares me more, crowds or creepy crawlies? Needles or suffocation? The latter changed what weapon the killer used to subdue Sam, either a syringe or a gas mask. It’s unclear what role these pre-demo choices will have in the final game. I was told to expect more of them, but will they all fall before the game begins? Between its chapters?

I got far less time with exploratory gameplay, which opened the demo. As a bath-toweled Sam searching the house for her missing clothes and friends, I merely walked down a couple flights of stairs and suffered a jump scare at a loud grandfather clock. My demo’s frights were primarily derived from jump scares and the nervous thrill of being stalked, but a video shown to Sam in a theater room on the ground floor hinted that profuse blood and gore will play a role in the terror. How much detail this viscera will be rendered in remains to be seen, as the video was a grainy projection filmed by the killer, but so far the game looks stunning. Sam’s face is fantastically detailed and articulates in all kind of realistic ways. Until Dawn and The Order: 1886, two of Sony’s big 2015 exclusives, are undoubtedly going for different aesthetics, but it’s a testament to the former that its photorealistic character visuals rival and perhaps even trump the latter. Lighting was also excellent, with detailed rays cast through window blinds and door cracks to boost the house’s haunting aura.

Replayability might be hindered by choices making only small differences, but I don’t think replayability is something Until Dawn is overly concerned with. Rather, I think it absolutely nails this sense that you’re the director in someone else’s B-horror movie. There’s a story to tell that will be told in pretty much the same way regardless, but you can “direct” the moment-to-moment action simply because you want to see it proceed in a given way. The cinematic luster and motion-sensing combined to immerse me rather heavily despite the fact I probably did more watching than playing, so I’m onboard with this direction. I do hope exploration, puzzle-solving, and other change-ups keep things fresh over what could otherwise be several hours of running-from-a-killer, but for now, Until Dawn has promise as an introduction of teen horror to video games that plays as well as it looks.