Zack and I were sprinting through a field of head-high flowers, and we were very afraid. Ahead of and behind us, two hordes of semi-zombified humans with alien entities clinging to their faces closed in. I fired my rifle, piercing shots driving them to the ground in droves. Earlier in our trek through the retrofuturist facility, I found a machine which enhanced my rifle fire and the impact radius of my grenades. Both kept me alive as the field filled with fire. Our teammates, Isaiah and Ari, languished behind as the horde overcame them. Yet we pressed forward, my abilities enhanced by adrenaline: The Anacrusis invites cooperation and cruelty in equal measure. This is thanks to its stellar AI director.
The Anacrusis is a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead which recently entered “Game Preview,” which is what Microsoft calls early access. It is currently in pretty rough shape, but the foundation developers Stray Bombay have laid is incredible. The Anacrusis, for all its current flaws, will probably end up being absolutely excellent. The game’s firearms feel alright, its levels are very well designed on the whole—albeit with some difficult-to-follow bits here or there—and the special enemy types range from your traditional bruisers to guys who are just…really bright. But in spite of some middling aspects, the game features an incredible pacing which brings it all together in a thrilling way.
Left 4 Dead was defined by its AI director, the cool, behind-the-scenes robot mastermind that dictated enemy spawns, resource placement, and just about every other aspect of the game aside from level design. It was the series’ signature feature, delicately crafting game difficulty to match the skill level of each specific group of players. The Anacrusis has significantly refined this system with a suite of new variables, per a blog post written by the game’s developers. The results are incredible.
In our test plays, The Anacrusis’ AI director managed to put together one of the most exciting video game experiences I’ve ever had. The ebb and flow of combat was impeccable, giving us just enough time to rest and explore between waves of enemies. It was especially impressive as the game appeared to tune its difficulty in accordance with our performance. When Ari and Isaiah were killed by a zombie horde, the game’s difficulty seemed to increase for Zack and I, but not through sheer numbers. Enemies began spawning in less predictable places, alongside increasingly disorienting special enemies.
To counteract the onslaught, Zack and I managed to learn how to use the game’s many grenades to our advantage. Shield grenades do an alright job of protecting you in a bind, but their greatest strength was creating artificial choke points. Enemies will tear them apart, but only if they absolutely need to. Forcing them between shield bubbles allowed my piercing assault rifle to absolutely shred, while keeping us safe from surprise flank attacks. Incendiary grenades devastated hordes, but left special enemies mostly unaffected.
The real stars of the show were Vortex, Stasis, and Goo grenades, which have stellar, flashy crowd-control capabilities. Vortex grenades create a gravity well which draws enemies in, grinds them up, and then sends them flying. It’s basically a get out of jail free card for when you’re overwhelmed, and chucking them into approaching hordes almost crashed my game in the most entertaining way possible. Stasis grenades create a bubble of frozen time, totally pausing an enemy’s advance…a massive boon. Finally, Goo grenades slow enemies and can be ignited to create massive areas of burning mess—but that isn’t necessarily their best. Early in the outing, Zack unlocked a perk which allowed goo to provide temporary HP to party members, turning him into our de facto healer for that run.
However, for all of your grenades, weapons, and unlockable perks, the game’s five special enemies have just as much going for them. The ranged grabber steals away your party members to isolate them in the heart of the horde. Brutes are powerful tanks which use sheer force to devastate your team. A ranged stunning enemy called a gooper encases your allies in a stiff goo that you have to shoot off. The flasher is a relatively weak foe enhanced by the extremely bright light it gives off—completely blinding anyone who looks in its general direction. It’s extremely disorienting, and an inventive use of the game’s lighting system. Finally, the spawner summons weird little orb worms, which have a weak ranged attack, but will effectively swarm you if you allow them to get out of hand.
These aliens constantly kept us on our toes, requiring a ton of different strategies to stay ahead of the hordes. Luckily, a suite of useful perks helped take the pressure off. Machines called “matter compilers” are spread throughout the game’s levels, and dispense powerful perks. By the end of the run, my character had enhanced grenades, a piercing assault rifle, and a handful of adrenaline abilities which enhanced my damage, defense, and fire rate in proportion to how many allies were wounded and how many times I’d been knocked out. In the end, it was these perks that saved me.
Like Left 4 Dead runs tended to, The Anacrusis’ first episode concludes with a desperate final stand against a massive enemy horde. During this objective defense segment, you’re offered a collection of grenades, healing items, and ammo deposits before being asked to hold out for a few minutes as enemies pour in from every direction. Within the first two, two of my allies were dead. In one particularly harrowing moment, my assault rifle ran out of ammo, forcing me to make a desperate rush to the heart of the enemy horde, where our weapon-charging station was located.
Using a handful of grenades, desperate, weaving movements, and a collection of shots from my pistol, I was able to cut my way to the charging station, at which point I realized that Zack was about to die. Dear Audience, he did, in fact, die. And I was left alone with a loaded gun, a few grenades, and a lot of powerful stat boosts—so I did what any reasonable young woman would do and charged directly toward the two Brutes that killed him in hopes of finishing them off before their allies showed up. It did not work very well, because they have a lot of health. Instead of cutting them down quickly, I found myself in a one-on-several-hundred fight that pushed me to the limits of my resources and abilities.
As a Brute slammed me against a nearby wall, and my health dipped below 20 or so percent, I heard the objective complete and began a desperate sprint through the dozens of enemies between me and the episode-ending prize. I made it with barely a handful of health points left, my boosted defense from my allies’ deaths leaving me standing by a hair’s width.
RIP my friends. The Anacrusis is a good video game.