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More than anything, The Callisto Protocol wants to sh*t you up – hands-on preview

Striking Distance really isn’t bluffing about The Callisto Protocol’s difficulty, intensity, or scariness.

“I hate this f**king place,” says protagonist Jacob Lee after sliding down a waste water pipe, dodging turbine blades, mutated human abominations, jutting rocks, and all manner of other hazardous shite. You’ve just had to cave in the head of what was assumedly an old inmate acquaintance, but you don’t know for sure, because he had tentacles where his face should be. You’re now waist-deep in human waste, wading through a sanitation plant just so that you might, maybe, live to see another day. I hate this place, too, buddy.

Discover what terrifying secrets lie beneath Black Iron Prison in The Callisto Protocol on December 2, 2022.

For our The Callisto Protocol hands-on preview, we played a level entirely set in the sanitary system of the prison. You’re in a penal colony on Callisto, the second-largest moon of Jupiter, and something has gone wrong. A virus is ripping through the inmates and staff here, and you appear to be one of the few humans left in a locked-down industrial building full of stuff that wants to kill you. But the violence isn’t the scariest bit – not really. It’s the masterful way Striking Distance plays with tension that gets its hooks in your brain and refuses to let go.

Whether it’s steam vents depressurising at you, noises from pipes clunking right next to your head as you walk, skittering and scuttling in vents above and beneath you… there’s enough in just this one level to shred my nerves and keep me with a twitchy finger on the DualSense triggers throughout my playthrough. It’s a good job Jacob is as stoic as he is – he doesn't even flinch when a steam valve pings right next to his head! – because I was doing my anxiety breathing exercises and damn near reaching for a Propanolol by the time the demo was up.

The sound design really highlights all the fleshy thwaks you'll be hearing.

The Callisto Protocol is tight. The camera hugs Jacob real hard, and as a result, his hulking ex-pilot frame takes up a meaty third of on-screen real-estate. This gives Striking Distance so much freedom to play with scares that get real close before you even see them. It makes you, player, feel like any of the scares you perhaps didn’t clock early enough are your fault – that you obscured your vision and deserve to get a nice, firm smack to the temple from zombie’s meaty fist.

When you’re not desperately checking how much ammo you have left and calculating whether you can survive another wave of rotting undead carcasses, there’s a heavy emphasis on exploration. The whole demo has you following a big red pipe through the behind-the-scenes sanitation facilities of the prison. You go on a tour through sewage, filtration systems, you name it. En route, you’re subjected to claustrophobia, scat, the threat of drowning, sharp things near your eyes, rusty blades… it’s a rogue’s gallery of all the topline fears and phobias someone might have (and then some more obscure ones, just in case).

The enemies get much more up-close and personal than you'd like.

Simple puzzles tug you away from the golden (or red) path, but you always have a through line telling you where you need to go that you can come back to if you get spun around. It’s less invasive than Dead Space’s objective marker line that Isaac could summon from the palm of his hand on a whim, and more in-keeping with this horrible, brutalist-industrial world. Veering from the path might reward you with a clip of ammo, but punish you with another tentacled ghoul intent on sucking your brains out through your eye. Is the trade-off worth it? It’s up to you.

If you do opt for more combat than is strictly necessary, you best be careful. You’re just a pilot – a normal human man – and can really only take a few hits. Timing to dodge and block is important. You’re a man that’s probably seen his fair share of prison fights and manual labour; you’re heavy, mean, and slow. That feels great when you’re fighting for your life, but it’s yet another part of the big picture that plays into you feeling vulnerable. Dodging and blocking and reacting by caving a bloke’s head in with a baton feels way, way better than any of the physical encounters in Dead Space (but that might have just been the adrenaline dump you get when you manage to successfully stave off a zombie with one blinking bit of red health left).

Even the visual effects on the enemies will put you off.

And you don’t rely solely on melee, even if it is the main way of getting things done in here (the prison shiv feels particularly gratuitous when you land it right in a wayward undead inmate’s neck). You have a pretty good armoury at your disposal, all of which can be upgraded with 3D-printed bolt-ons if you scavenge enough flotsam. Unlike a lot of other survival horror games, ammo isn’t non-existent; it’s fairly common, and comes in clips. This means you know you’ve always got enough left to sink a clip into a body… but whether that’s enough to finish a foe off before it evolves or bites the dust is a different story. Because these assholes use cover.

And they’re smart. They react to you. If you try and bludgeon them all to death, they’ll learn and flank you or rush you in numbers. Or maybe they’ll cloak and come at you when you aren’t looking. If you keep shooting, they’ll duck and dodge and weave when you aim down sights. These bastards are tough, and it makes you genuinely quite nervous of any encounters to come – even if you did clock the explosive barrels and environmental hazards on your first trip through this area.

That health bar on the neck is a great in-world way of telling you you're screwed.

But it’s not all horror; the game is funny, too. You know, in the way that the scariest things are – they give you a laugh and make you feel a mite more comfortable before sucker punching you with something powers more awful than you were expecting. Whether it’s a knowing nod to Visceral/EA forbear Dead Space with a blood smeared message of “Kill the Virus” above a sign that says “keep this area clean”, or a perfectly comedically-timed spray of blood from a fan after you kick a zombie into a wood-chipper, The Callisto Protocol knows how to make you relax before ramping it up with even more squeaky-bum time all over again.

Glen Schofield and his crew at Striking Distance know what they’re doing in The Callisto Protocol. Every encounter, every mechanic, every time your eyes widen, and your fingers grip your pad a bit tighter… it all feels intentional and well-orchestrated. The breaks in the tension are well-placed, and the explosive payoffs work to keep you scintillated as your heart climbs and settles, making you feel eternally on the edge of a cardiac event.

“I hate this f**king place,” mutters Jacob again, as we respawn after a particularly nasty ‘murder dessert’. I’m sorry, mate, because I can’t wait to make you live through it all again.

The Callisto Protocol is coming to PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on December 2.

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