As a proud resident of the state of Michigan, I know a thing or two about surviving the bitter cold of a northern winter. However, my main concerns are simply staying fed and keeping warm. In Project Winter, which has been available on Steam since 2019 and lands on Xbox Game Pass for PC and the Microsoft Store today, surviving the harsh winters are a bit more complex than that. Whether it be from predators in nature or the assholes in your own party playing via cross-play, death is around every corner.
Thanks to the recent resurgences in socially-centric online games like Among Us, it has recently become acceptable to lie straight to your friends’ faces. Lucky for me, I’ve already been doing this for years, so it comes naturally. If nothing else, this trend has enabled a majority of the population to determine who amongst their social groups is a maniacal sociopath. At first glance, Project Winter follows a very similar formula, only with infinitely more depth to the gameplay and a decidedly less interstellar setting.
Honor among friends?
Featuring online madness for you and up to seven of your closest friends, Project Winter is a survival game that helps answer the age-old question: Who can you really trust? The octet of players is divided into parties of survivors and traitors, respectively. As a survivor, your responsibility is to either outlive all of the traitors or escape the godforsaken tundra with your head still perched atop your shoulders. On the other hand, the traitors are focused on either killing all of the survivors or making their attempts to evacuate as difficult as feasibly possible.
The big key is that all eight players in the group are in the same voice chat room. This means you can verbally discuss what is going on at any given point in the action. Because the survivors have no idea what everyone else’s alignment is, they get the tough job of trying to suss out the finks using only their finely-tuned eardrums. Traitors, however, actually have the advantage of knowing everyone’s alignment right out of the gate. So, as you might imagine, it doesn’t take long for plenty of bullshitting and shenanigans to ensue.
If you’re keeping track at home, currently everything that I’ve described so far could also be said about Among Us. Fortunately, this is where the similarities come to a screeching halt. Instead of being stuck running astronautical errands, everyone is focused on surviving by whatever means necessary. There are numerous different ways to die in Project Winter. These potential deaths include starving, freezing, being attacked by bears or wolves, or the total betrayal of someone that you used to consider a friend.
Each faction of players have their own set of objectives they are trying to accomplish before their opposition can mount an offensive. As a survivor, the goals usually revolve around attempting to repair the power plant and helipad. Once these objectives have been completed, the survivors can then attempt to hail a rescue and get the hell out of Dodge. The counter to this involves the traitors, who are trying to sabotage all the survivalists’ efforts, or just straight-up bump them off in cold blood.
Aside from trying your damnedest to keep your body above ground, the one consistent through-line for both factions is the need to gather resources. Just a simple glance around the barren, white-washed wasteland will present numerous opportunities to get your hands on crafting materials like lumber, healing herbs, minable stones, and wildlife galore. I only mention the wildlife because it’s also very important to hunt so everyone remains fed.
Pretty much any material that can be gathered can then be fashioned into a variety of items like scythes, axes, health packs, gasoline canisters, and so on. While the survivors can exclusively get these key items through the crafting system, the traitors once again have the easier path here. There are numerous “traitor boxes” scattered throughout each stage that can contain crafting materials, or in some fortunate cases, pre-fabricated weaponry such as firearms or crossbows.
If you can’t tell, I genuinely think that the balance of the gameplay is weighted against the survivors. Virtually every mechanic reinforces this unjust tilting of the playing field, resulting in the traitors getting yet another advantage over the poor, defenseless survivors. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that literally every single match that I’ve played has resulted in the traitors coming out victorious. The survivors never even came close to mounting any sort of legitimate defense before they were hammered back to the stone age.
Voicing your concerns
Balance concerns aside, the actual depth of the gameplay in Project Winter is impressive, and in some cases, borderline overwhelming. It feels like there are so many aspects of a match that need to be considered when coming up with a plan of attack. The problem is that there are always going to be plenty of people who are playing on their own and/or never have any intention of chatting over voice comms. Though there are other ways to communicate with fellow players, the non-verbal emotes or pre-canned text messages are hardly detailed enough to trump the power of your voice.
The only time I felt like I legitimately stood a chance at being competitive was when I finally connected my microphone. It was almost like a veil on the moment-to-moment chaos was lifted, and I was able to see what the true potential of this title could be. It just feels as if you need a full group of eight folks, all of whom are earnestly attempting to win, to get the most out of every second spent in the unforgiving tundra.
The ideal gameplay scenario for Project Winter would be gathering a group of eight of your closest friends and then letting all hell break loose. Unfortunately, many either don’t have enough friends to party up with, or they don’t have any interest in the social aspects of the experience. If you’re just playing with random strangers, it’s safe to say Project Winter delivers an inferior experience for all involved in that scenario. Layer on top of this the number of folks who are either phoning it in or not understanding the mechanics at all, and you have a recipe for a very inconsistent experience.
If you’re looking for a chance to blow off some steam – and perhaps a couple of your fellow players in the process – there are certainly far worse ways to spend an evening. Though Project Winter has strong potential, it only has the chance to shine under a handful of “perfect storm” scenarios.