Overcooked Review: Fun on a Bun
Four friends are working in a kitchen together. An order comes in: a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomatoes. Simple. One friend will cut the meat and pass it to a second friend, who will cook it. The third friend will cut tomatoes and lettuce. The fourth will cut the bun, prepared for when the meat is finished. Don’t forget a plate, though. But as the first friend grabs the plate, the meat begins to burn. So the second friend takes over the first’s job as cook. Now another two orders come in. Whose job was it to grab tomatoes and lettuce, again? More meat has to be cut up. Oh, and now plates have to be washed before being used again. And the meat is burning. And the counter is on fire. And time is counting down for each order before it’s too late to send it out.
Overcooked is a simple game that continually ups the ante when it comes to creating chaos for the players. The game can be played by one to four players at one time, but it shines brightest when at least three people are playing and is hardly fun at all when in one-player mode. Driving a food truck from level to level across time and space, players will see a variety of obstacles put in place to make their job of preparing and cooking various meal orders that much more difficult. And difficult it is, even in the earliest levels, to organize your friends into some manner of order. The game does a terrific job of introducing players to a simple yet lengthy list of things they will need to do throughout the game, such as chop vegetables or cook meat, and then placing them in situations where completing a set of tasks becomes anything but simple.
Some of these situations are effects of the gameplay that stretch across all levels. Having limited resources, such as plates that need to be washed before being re-used, requires attention to every step in the meal making process since one hold-up can lead to a failed level attempt. Players can try to plan out jobs for each team member but since each player has at least two or three things they have to worry about, things often fall apart quickly. No one player is able to stay in one location for a long time. The game becomes stressful, but enjoyably so, with the game’s cartoon art and lack of punishment easing the weight of failure. Communication between team members is key here and a lot of communication will likely be swear words and sighs.
Each level too adds a different challenge for players. Some levels separate players from each other and from resources in such a way that your perfected kitchen plan is now null and void. Other levels have more dramatic challenges. One is set on a ship and its kitchen counters move around with the sway of the vessel. Another is set on a iceberg, making footing slippery. A personal favourite has the kitchen split across two large moving flatbed trucks that are driving down a highway. Despite these set pieces, sometimes the simple things, like two kitchen counters that are too close together to allow two players to go by at the same time, are the toughest impediments. All in all, there are nearly 30 different levels in the game and each plays differently enough from the others as to offer something fresh each time they are introduced.
One of the few weaknesses of the game is the design of its overall level structure. Players visit levels in succession but can always return to retry past ones. A number of stars, from one to three, are awarded based on reaching a score amount for that level. A certain number of total stars are need to continue in later levels, meaning that players will need to go back and try to get the maximum three stars for older levels. The issue here is that not only is it incredibly difficult to get three stars on levels when three or four players are playing together (it’s easier to get the three stars with only one or two people playing), the whole idea goes against the fun nature of the game. Having to go back and retry a level five times or more just in order to unlock a new level, that in turn will need to be aced, eventually turns the game’s stressful but enjoyable situations into tedious challenges. If the game simply let players go through the story’s levels one by one, perhaps more would complete the entire game instead of shutting their system off in frustration three-quarters of the way through.
The biggest strength of Overcooked is that at its core, it is incredibly simple. Anyone will be able to pick this game up and play it. It’s two button control system is inherently obvious, letting players grab, place, and chop items (two additional controls are actually in the game: the dash move and the have-your-character-swear move). Yet despite the simplicity, Overcooked’s levels are designed so that the simple quickly becomes the complex. It leads to hilariously stressful situations where players will never really feel like they are in total control and which make success that much more sweet. Overcooked is a fantastic example of a four player cooperative game where failure, success, and the paths to both lead to an enjoyable time with friends.