The only thing shocking about Namco Bandai announcing a partnership with the Food Network for new game, Cook or Be Cooked, is that it didn't happen sooner.
Cooking Mama, What's Cooking with Jamie Oliver and Personal Trainer: Cooking all got a good head start on an official Food Network video game. But with each new game for the Wii or DS that features a virtual kitchen with virtual people making virtual food, it looks like we're getting closer to a true Joy of Cooking experience.
Here's how Cook or Be Cooked stacks up.
The hands-off demo featured only an entrée "level" where the player has to put together pan seared steak, mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus. The game starts out with only one dish for each meal time – a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner recipe – and you unlock more by completing each with a satisfactory rating.
The challenge here comes from having more freedom than you do in other cooking games to complete a recipe's steps. For example, most cooking games decide that you'll chop the vegetables, boil the water and then add the salt – but in Cook or Be Cooked, you've got a recipe, ingredients and a tiny version of the Food Network's Susie Fogelson recommending tips at seemingly random intervals. It's up to you to decide when to chop the potatoes, whether to boil the water first or add oil to the pan and warm it even before getting the steak out of the refrigerator.
Because the demo master had already made this dish half a hundred times that day, he barely hesitated as he moved around the virtual 3D kitchen, opening drawers and cupboards to locate ingredients and cookware. The size of the kitchen was impressive, but it looked hollow and unused like the stage kitchens on Martha Stewart – especially since when the demo master opened a drawer or the refrigerator, the only things inside were the exact things the player needed.
To open drawers or access the oven or the stove, it looks like you point to it with the Wii Remote to zoom the camera in on it. Then the reticule becomes a ghostly hand that you use to turn dials or grab pots and stuff. The motion controls come in with obvious tasks like chopping or mashing – and in Cook or Be Cooked, you're also using tongs to turn the meat (although there's probably no one-to-one match up with the squeezing motion).
When you complete a step, the recipe card appears onscreen with that step checked off. In some cases, a completed step also in a little inventory icon appearing on the right hand side of the screen that lets you access, says, potatoes you've already boiled or that pan of stake that needs to go in the oven. And sometimes the deformed gnome version of Susie Fogelson pops up and gives some physical reaction to what you've done – such as scowling when you burn the meat or clapping when you've mashed the potatoes perfectly.
When the meal is cooked completely with all steps checked off, a finished version appears on the counter and a rating screen pops up, awarding up to five chef hats for the various components of the final meal. It seems to be the cumulative chef hat score that determines whether or not Susie yells at you, though.
Overall, Cook or Be Cooked looks like a more elaborate form of the serious sides to other cooking sims. There's really not much in the way of "gaming" involved, even if little mechanics like the inventory system exist to remind you that this isn't real life. Stuff like a stove heat gauge and a dial to speed up time so you don't actually have to wait around for twenty minutes while the steak sits in the 400 degree oven seem to be more about minimizing the work you do in real life when trying to cook a full course meal instead of about having "fun."
There is, however, a two player mode where you're competing for the best chef hat score. You could probably make that into a drinking game and thusly up the fun factor.
For a serious cook, though, or someone who wants to do more with their Wii, Cook or Be Cooked might just turn out to be the hipper alternative to the Betty Crocker Cookbook. And if they throw in Paula Deen, I'm down. Look for it late in 2009.