Preview: SOS is a survival shooter with a reality show twist

I’m all for games taking existing genres and remixing them in interesting ways. Golem Gates, for example, is a hybrid between a full-blown RTS and a digital collectible card game -- something I never thought would really work. Deep Rock Galactic takes cooperative dungeon crawling, puts in the setting of mines with a futuristic sci-fi aesthetic, and layers procedural generation on top to make for one of the best, most exciting co-op shooters in recent memory.

SOS is a game that takes a relatively standard shooter concept, in which players must search for ancient relics and then escape the island with the relics without dying in the process, but then adds such a unique twist it totally changes everything. The catch here is that in SOS you’re actually a cast member on a hit reality show.

I know, right? It’s pretty unique.

Life Is Just A Game

Before the match starts you get to pick from a stable of character models and tweak things like hair and clothing color but for the most part everything is predetermined. First there’s a highlight reel that plays out just like you’d see as the intro bumper for a TV series in which all of the contestants are standing in front of a logo-ridden backdrop.

The camera then proceeds to pan across each and every person individually, allowing you to actually verbally speak out and watch your character’s lips move in real-time. You can even use your pre-assigned emotes to add some flair. Once you play enough matches you’ll establish a reputation for being a betrayer, or friendly, and how much fame you’ve accrued throughout the game.

It’s a unique concept and the theme is strung along throughout the entire experience. While you’re playing actual real-life people are setup as viewers, watching players as they progress across the island. Eventually viewers will even get to vote on which care packages are dropped for which players, giving it a very Hunger Games-esque vibe.

The Tribe Has Spoken

In addition to the other players you’ve got to worry about, there are also plenty of NPC enemies too. The locals of this island resemble a sort of tribal, Native American era zombie creature. If you get too close they’ll come charging and winning a fight, even one-on-one, is difficult to do early on.

If you take too much damage then you can get infected, which is denoted by a slow-creeping border around the edges of your PC screen showing a thick, black-goo seeping into your vision. Once the infection fully takes over you’re a goner and become one of the monsters. The only way to fend it off is with medical supplies and the glowing mushrooms spread across the island.

For each and every match the objective is always the same: find the relic and get out alive. The trick here though is that among the 16+ contestants that spawn onto the island, there are only a very small number (I think three?) of relics to find. Naturally, this means some people are going to have to be killed or get left behind some way somehow.

SOS encourages people to interact and be as emotive as possible. Holding C I can talk to players using proximity voice chat and all of the game’s features are built into the game mechanics to limit the use of menus and other abstract elements. For example, if I want to trade an item I press T and my character physically holds it out for someone to take. Or, if I want to join up in a group with somebody we just press F to hold up our hands and do a high-five.

Keep Your Enemies Close

What’s remarkable about playing SOS is that literally every single player I’ve encountered thus far, and I’ve played with dozens over the course of several matches, have all been actively using their mics -- which is essential. Holding up your hand to group up is one thing, but pleading with someone that you’re friendly and won’t hurt them, or that you’re new and want someone to help show them around the island, introduces a whole new level of interactivity and social engineering.

The smartest and most natural instinct I’ve developed from years of playing games with people on the internet is to be apprehensive and suspicious -- but SOS made me question that. Almost everyone I met was genuinely nice and wanted to work together. I don’t know how Outpost Games has managed to foster such a positive and welcoming community, but they’ve done an outstanding job.

Since the endgame almost always results in only one or two actual victors, there is little incentive to work together forever, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. I was in a group of seven people near the end of one match (that’s nearly half the starting number of random players) and when I eventually died they all banded together to find a pair of defibrillators and resurrect me. Players will scavenge for mushrooms to get infections at bay and trade fruits and syringes to heal each other. Despite all of the signs pointing towards “betray that other human” it’s hard to muster up the courage to do so because of that special part of your heart that wants you to believe it’s all going to work out.

Until your so-called “friend” literally stabs you in the back.

Once you do die you become a spectator and I’ve seen some truly disturbing things happen as the game gets down to the wire. One time a guy lured a woman into a shack saying that he would heal her, but then just killed her in cold blood to take her axe. Another man had the relic and hunted down the other players so there would be less competition at the extraction point. And perhaps worst of all was the time I actually watched a player reach his breaking point live mid-game after being betrayed and then going on a rampage. He won the match.

At the post-match wrap up scene the top players get a chance to say some final words and he issued the most depressing apology I’ve ever heard. He sounded truly devastated about what he’d done.

SOS is just as much a remarkable game as it is an intriguing social experiment. If you’re curious about this survival shooter meets reality show, then check it out. SOS is available right now for PC on Steam Early Access for $14.99.