The perfect multiplayer party game needs to have a clear and simple goal, such that should be immediately apprehensible to anyone willing to pick up the controller and give it a go. By the same measure, it is likeliest to benefit from a somewhat lighthearted theme and brisk pacing, free from any of the dense cinematic trappings or voluminous walls of expositional text which, while perhaps effective toward enhancing the immersive experience for single-player games, might turn away a more casual audience and impose a counterproductive limit on the number of prospective partygoers. Somewhat paradoxically, then, it needs to take so much lighthearted simplicity and bury it under as many frenetically moving parts as possible, so as to cultivate that atmosphere of chaotic hilarity that conduces to a room of almost invariably soused revelers hurling earnest expletives at one another between bouts of uproarious guffaws. Whether or not the game is meant to be a cooperative experience, it is never inadvisable to leverage the inherently egotistical nature of the human mind for comedic effect, letting the players' disparate strategies for achieving their collective task lead to scenarios of them bumbling into one another like a coop of decapitated chickens. Overcooked gets all parts of the equation precisely right, resulting in arguably the most delectable cooperative experience among 2016's banquet of games.
In the main "campaign" mode, you and up to three other players take on the role of the proverbial "too many cooks" in a series of zanily constructed kitchens. Orders from your hungry patrons flood into a queue on the upper left corner of the screen, and it is the responsibility of you and your fellow chefs to work together to fulfill as many of them in as timely a fashion as possible. You must gather the ingredients for each meal from their respective supply stations; prepare them on a chopping board; heat them in a pot, skillet, oven, or similar cooking vessel appropriate to the food item being produced; place the finished meal on a clean dish; and deliver the plated entrée to the dining area. A few seconds after a successful delivery, a dirty plate will be returned to the kitchen, which can then be taken to the sink, washed, and used again for the next order. If a soup is left to simmer on the burner or a meat patty left to sizzle in its skillet for too long, you risk allowing the game's eponymous plight to befall you, whereupon not only must the meal's putrid, scorched remains be discarded and a fresh replacement assembled from scratch, but someone will need to man the fire extinguisher to ensure that the fiery aftermath of your negligence does not tarnish the other precious foodstuffs still loitering about the adjacent counter space. For each order fulfilled in a timely fashion, your team of chefs receives 20 points, plus tip; if the timer for any individual order expires before you are able to plate and deliver it, a penalty of 10 points is deducted from your score. A general timer in the lower right corner of the screen dictates how long the stage will last, and the ultimate objective is to assemble, cook, and deliver enough orders within the time limit to exceed one of three target scores, which will determine your mastery rank (tallied in gold stars) for the current level.
Abetting the simple clarity of the game design is the matching austerity of the controls. The game requires the use of only two buttons—one to pick up and place objects, and the other to initiate contextual interactions with them (chopping ingredients while near a chopping board, washing dishes when next to the kitchen sink, etc.). An optional third button may also be used to give a brief burst of speed to your busy chef—handy when long distances between supply cupboards, chopping boards, and cooking stations must be quickly traversed. The controls are so basic, in fact, that there is even an option to do the whole lovey-dovey-"Let's use the same controller together, Walter!"-"Okay, Perry!" thing, where the full controls for operating each individual chef are condensed to the pair of shoulder buttons and single analog stick on either side of a solitary gamepad.
"It's the outrageous mishaps occasioned by the maddeningly mischievous level design—moreso than the players' eventual mastery of their chaotic circumstances—that tend to provide the game's most memorable moments. Nothing can rival the hilarity of watching a fellow chef pull a freshly cooked plate of soup from the pot, only to hurl himself forthwith into the frigid ocean and squander all the painstaking effort that had gone into the meal's preparation."
The early stages of Overcooked's campaign start with the most rudimentary recipe—soup—which always comprises three of the same kind of ingredient—tomato, onion, or mushroom. But later levels will add slightly more complex items to the menu, like the hamburger, which must always comprise a bun and a cooked beef patty, but may potentially include chopped lettuce and/or tomato as well. Since customers can order a burger with any permutation of these ingredients, players must be mindful of their customers' demands and not accidentally deliver, say, a burger with lettuce and tomato when only one with lettuce is presently showing in the queue. This is where the potential increases for some entertaining mishaps and miscommunications between players, not to mention some possibilities for tactical circumvention of the general order of play. Someone might mistake the tomato symbol above a meal for the similarly red-hued meat icon and deliver it before the final necessary ingredient has been added, resulting in a failed order (at which point it is a perfectly befitting and not at all psychotically histrionic punishment to murder the inattentive player and use his meat to rectify the neglected component in your patron's order). It's easier to assemble a hamburger composed of just plain meat and a bun, as opposed to one with all the works, and so it may occasionally be an advisable strategy to forgo the whole first-come-first-served rule, delivering the plain burgers regardless of their sequence in the queue in order to ensure the maximum tip, which might otherwise prove unattainable with the more time-consuming lettuce and tomato requests. Eventually, the stages will mix two or three kinds of meals together, escalating the game's intense plate-spinning act to its most formidable extreme, and straining the limits of the players' capacity for cooperative multitasking.
While the goal of the game may be fairly straightforward, the amount of complexity requisite to ensure a satisfying challenge is more than adequately represented in the game's devious level design. Most real-life kitchens are constructed with the convenience and efficiency of their resident chefs in mind, but it wouldn't be a proper co-op party game if every single facet of the level design was not mischievously contrived to maximize the potential for hilarious chaos. In the early stages of the main campaign, these little deliberate design flaws are simple and subdued: the food preparation and delivery areas of a kitchen may be connected by a narrow corridor, through which only one chef may pass unhindered at a time, thus forcing the players to coordinate their movements to ensure the most efficient flow of traffic. (Alternatively, one could just jam incessantly on the circle button and dash with abandon through the kitchen's narrow confines, shoving every other hapless soul out of one's way to the accompaniment of a comically cruel "slap" effect.)
As the team progresses further into the campaign, the kitchens begin to exhibit more ridiculous obstacles and blatantly counterintuitive design choices. The fanciful variety is really rather impressive, and surprisingly few of the mechanics are repeated in later stages without a deliberate intent to expand upon the challenge they represent. One stage takes place on an open highway, with all vital components of your kitchen scattered across three trucks that periodically switch alignments with one another, forcing the chefs to wait until the vehicles are properly positioned in order to transport the pertinent supplies to their appropriate stations. Another level isolates each player to a separate quadrant and forces them to use conveyer belts to transfer the necessary goods and utensils back and forth. In one of the more hilariously unexpected stage designs, your kitchen is experiencing a minor rat infestation, and players must be careful not to let too many unused ingredients linger overlong on the counter, lest they become the target of the greedy rodents' theft; fortunately, should any of your precious provisions succumb to the filthy purloiners' clutches, a timely tap of the square button can be used to dislodge it from the fiend's toothy maw, and after a few seconds of being inadvertently kicked around the dirty floor by the heedless stampede of your fellow chefs, it can be retrieved none the worse for wear (and with your customers none the wiser).
The organizational challenges inherent to each new kitchen almost begin to feel like the sort of brain-bendy challenges you might expect from a more traditional puzzle game, as you are constantly being forced to rethink the most efficient way for all chefs to contribute to a meal's creation without stepping too violently on one another's toes. Most of the time, the minimum passable grade for each stage can be achieved by just playing things by ear, forcing your way past each new obstacle with couthless tenacity until the job is done; but if one aspires to attain the coveted three-star ranking, all players must thoroughly commit to a well-coordinated plan of attack. In the earliest stages, it is often easiest to have each person assigned to one specific task: "Okay, Billy, you can gather all the ingredients and place them on the counter… so that Sarah can chop them and add them to the pot… while Tobias R. Winklebottom handles the plating and delivery of the cooked meals… and Mr. Poopybutthole, being good for little else, can be relegated to dishwashing detail." But as kitchen designs start to get more complex in the later levels, the most efficient solution is not always immediately obvious, and it can be a fun challenge trying to muddle your way out of the miasma of mind-numbing confusion that each new obstacle invariably imposes.
It's the outrageous mishaps occasioned by the maddeningly mischievous level design—moreso than the players' eventual mastery of their chaotic circumstances—that tend to provide the game's most memorable moments. Nothing can rival the hilarity of watching a fellow chef pull a freshly cooked plate of soup from the pot, only to hurl himself forthwith into the frigid ocean and squander all the painstaking effort that had gone into the meal's preparation. But when the slippery footing of a kitchen inconveniently established on top of an ice floe causes me to overshoot my intended target, and instead of emptying the contents of a deep fryer basket onto an empty plate, I toss it irrevocably into the adjacently positioned trash receptacle, the game is various disquietingly harsh expletives made by a bunch of incommensurately egregious racial epithets who all deserve nothing less than to meet their gratuitously gruesome fate in a fire.
If you would prefer to keep your true monstrous nature a secret from others, or are simply a control freak who seeks to tame every volatile situation by curtailing the number of external variables, you can technically tackle Overcooked's campaign as a single-player exercise. Since the game is all about efficient multitasking, the lone player's natural handicap in this area is offset by placing two chefs under his control and allowing him to toggle between them on the fly. It works well enough, but such compensation is a clear indicator that the game was designed to be enjoyed as a cooperative experience, and its true potential as a party game is only fully realized when at least three players (and preferably the full capacity of four) are maintaining the appearance of working together while clearly doing everything in their power to sabotage each other's sanity.
One might argue that the simplistic nature of the game guarantees that there isn't much it can get wrong, but that should not diminish the fact that Overcooked accomplishes what it sets out to do in nearly flawless fashion. My only real grievances with it are a minor quibble concerning the heads-up display and a personal wish for additional game modes. One or more icons always appear above every meal to help the players identify which ingredients it contains, but while essential for discerning at a glance which recently prepared dish matches the next order that needs to be fulfilled, so much on-screen clutter can occasionally obscure other important items or elements of the kitchen. It is nothing that cannot be rectified by a slight modification to your organizational tactics—arranging your dishes on a horizontal counter space rather than a vertical one, for instance—and it can even be perceived as an additional wrinkle to the more consciously designed puzzles that the game expects you to suss out.
Aside from the main campaign, where players cooperate to achieve a collective high score in each of a series of progressively more challenging stages, Overcooked also features a competitive versus mode. I never found the opportunity to try it out, so it doesn't factor into my final estimation of the game's merits, but it appears to be a serviceable diversion from the main game, where players split into teams of two and vie against one another to complete the most orders before time expires. In both campaign and versus play, however, all the action is encapsulated in brief four-to-five-minute chunks. Appropriating the game's gastronomical theme to add a bit of garnish, as it were, to my writerly wit, I would have probably enjoyed a slightly more substantial course in addition to these bite-sized morsels: something like an "endless" or "score attack" mode, such as often constitutes the main attraction of games like Tetris, where maybe a certain number of failed orders triggers game-end instead of a strict preset time limit, and the players are set loose to rack up as many points as possible until they can no longer keep up with the gradually escalating tempo of incoming demands. It is always possible that a mode like this could be patched in later as part of some free or paid DLC, but the two instances of post-release content that have been offered thus far—the free holiday-themed "Festive Seasoning" and the $5 "Lost Morsel"—have merely been addenda to the main campaign—a decent value in their own right for the additional levels, recipes, and cosmetic character skins they provide, but not really anything that substantially mixes up the already established gameplay.
Many game titles unwittingly provide a self-disparaging double entendre that the not-so-clever-as-he-thinks game critic can use to accentuate his derisive disdain. The perfect simplicity of Overcooked's gameplay defies this tradition. If you are looking for a good, lighthearted, cooperative party game to share with friends and family, there is no other game released in 2016 that I can recommend more highly than Overcooked.
*: too long; didn't read (but I'm actually literate--pahlease! omg**! seriously!
**: ow, my groin!