I’ve started playing Overcooked 2, which just recently came out. There’s two entertaining things about the reviews for this game: most of them open ‘I played this with my girlfriend,’ or some variation thereof, and most of them are also kinda unimpressed with the game as a whole. Well, ah, I played this game with my fiance, and it’s not that great. The most convincing summary I’ve seen described it as a 6/10 for Overcooked 1 fans and 9/10 for people who’ve never played before. That’s pretty much it! It’s just more Overcooked, which is a good game, but it’s not much different for people who played the original. Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about today. Let’s chat about the level design.
In the original Overcooked, you had a bunch of worlds, and a series of levels within each world – kinda like Super Mario. 1-1 through 1-6, 2-1 through 2-6, and so on. And each world revolved around a theme. You had the vanilla city world, the ice world, the haunted world – so on. And it makes sense. You’d get clusters of mechanics that were all themed around that location – so the ice was always slippery, and the haunted world would have things move or be all dark and spooky. Obviously there’s a degree of overlap going on – things are moving in just about all the levels – but within each world, the movement would be attached to the theme. The haunted levels have things floating around mysteriously, whereas in, say, the city levels you might get two trucks moving apart and coming together to create opportunities for crossing. Functionally the two might be quite similar, but thematically they’re distinct.
And you can see why the game is set up like that. There’s a sense of cohesion to each world. Ideas are developed and spun out in a bunch of different ways – so for example the first haunted level involves tables moving, and then the second is a dark room, and then the third and fourth involve tables moving again. It’s not a strict unity – there’s a bunch of one-off ideas (like the dark room) that never really get taken any further. Similarly, the first two worlds are mostly kinda generic city spaces, and at least half the ice levels are just icy versions of city levels. There’s four ice levels – two on ice floes, one on trucks, and one on a pirate ship. The pirate ships were originally brought up in the city levels, but now they have snow so it’s a snow level I promise. So it’s definitely not a strict unity.
Against all of that, then, Overcooked 2 goes in quite a different direction. It seems to have decided that themes are for woosies. There are a few different types of level – including the air balloon, the city sushi store, and the Harry Potter castle – but they’re all just spread all over the place with no real care. There are six worlds in Overcooked 2, each with six stages. One or two of those stages might be themed if you’re lucky – so we get a couple levels cooking fried chicken and chips on a New Orleans-styled river, and a couple levels in the mines. But rather than theming the whole world around, say, the New Orleans river, and reskinning the environments to fit the theme, it’s much more like six basically identical worlds with one or two additional theme levels. The theme levels serve the same role as the dark room in Overcooked 1: a one-off level revolving around a particular gimmick that’s never taken any further.
Obviously I found this pretty disappointing. There’s not the same sense of closure or progression upon finishing a world – it’s not like wrapping up the ice world, for instance. Once you’re finished with the ice world, the ice theme is done, and you know you’re moving on. Here, if you play through the mines world, you finish the one or two mine levels but you know that the broad generic categories of air balloon and Harry Potter castle are still hanging around. There’s not the same sense of completion.
One last thing. There was a major moment of missed potential, in terms of narrative progression or continuity. When the advertising for Overcooked 2 came out, I was really struck by the idea of changing levels. So for example in one of the hot air balloon levels, it catches fire, plummets to the ground, and explodes through the roof of a sushi restaurant. From then, you have to start making sushi meals in the rubble of your busted up air balloon. That’s a great idea! There’s transition, there’s this sense of moving between stages – what’s that? They did nothing with it and it has no narrative significance at all? Oh. Never mind then.