This review is based on my experience with the game after both the launch day and follow-up hotfix patches were released to remedy shader compilation stutter and engine PSO caching.
The developer, the game
It must have been at least a year ago now that I first caught wind of The Callisto Protocol still in development. A story where a pair of cargo ship co-pilots hit their luck with a new shipment that has a lucrative pay allowing them to retire. Naturally, things take a turn for the worst and this is where the game begins and we are introduced to Jacob and Max, played by Josh Duhamel and Jeff Schine.
Striking Distance Studios are the developers, helmed by Glen Schofield, creator of Dead Space, one of the games that formed a staple part of my love for sci-fi survival horror. That alone gave me certain expectations and a level of peace of mind on what I should be expecting from this new title.
I played this on the following specs:
- CPU: Core i7-12700KF
- RAM: 64GB DDR4-3200
- GPU: RTX 3080 Ti FE
- Display: 34" ultrawide QD-OLED (3440x1440, 144Hz, GSync Ultimate)
- SSD: Samsung 970 Evo Plus 1TB
Schofield brought onboard a number of key people that were also part of the original Dead Space, too, and in recent months we got to view a series of behind-the-scenes videos showing and talking about the game's progress, why certain things were chosen, how they are creating the sound and adjusting the lighting, you get the idea.
Striking Distance was not shy about throwing money at this game to deliver a truly memorable experience, with full access to Sony's motion capture studio, as well as famous names in horror within the film industry giving further insight into what makes great horror. The behind-the-scenes series was entitled "Mastering Horror", and you can still view the series on the Striking DIstance YouTube channel.
I did not get a review copy of the game but having followed its development through their PR machine for the good part of a year, I felt happy with buying it at the base price of £50. A Season Pass also being available at £70, but I didn't feel I needed that right away, besides, the story DLC and additional content are not available until early 2023, so why spend an extra £20 now?
I dim the lights and up the speaker volume preparing myself to be immersed.... Only to be disheartened by a very lacklustre set of graphical options, doubled down by a button system that requires you to press and hold the apply button to save changes. Whenever I see this sort of thing in games, I automatically form new expectations of the game, because to me this highlights a potential lack of care for the PC platform.
Nevertheless, I loaded up the campaign and we are soon presented with Jacob Lee and Max Barrow who have been transporting cargo between Jupiter's moons, Europa and Callisto. The contents of the latest cargo heading to Black iron prison on Callisto remains unknown to them, and an incident is imminently unfolding below their feet, time for Jacob to go below deck and investigate...
I was wowed by the facial animations and clarity throughout this introduction, the lip syncing is also very realistic and zooming into Jacob, you can see sweat on his skin, individual pores and facial expressions. Unreal Engine 4's capabilities really have been utilized here and it is beautiful to see, especially in ultrawide on an OLED monitor.
I was also impressed by the ambient sounds coming out of my speakers, they are only stereo stand-mounts flanking the desk, but the level of cinematic fidelity was outstanding and I felt like I was onboard a ship with Jacob and Max. Every little detail could be heard, even Max's voice in the background shouting to Jacob was precisely positioned based on distance and echo against the other noises going on. To me, audio quality in a game weigh high up alongside gameplay mechanics, and The Callisto Protocol was exceeding my expectations for audio and graphics so far. It was too early to comment on the gameplay.
On the note of graphics, trying to play with the graphical settings brought about my next annoyance. This game, for whatever reason, requires you to exit back to the main menu to view and change graphics settings. This is extremely frustrating, and whilst you can manually save at any time, you only "continue" from the last checkpoint it seems, which makes manual saves pointless because the game auto-saves at every checkpoint anyway.
The ray tracing options do make a subtle difference in most cases, but in my opinion not enough to warrant the huge framerate cost, the reflections in the mirror at the start is most obvious, but rarely will you find another mirror in the rest of the game. In fact, I don't recall any at all... and even though Digital Foundry recently talked about this game appearing to be made squarely around lighting reflective and wet surfaces where ray tracing is of use, I found the difference with it on versus off to be minimal simply because screen space reflections and illumination does an outstanding job anyway.
Take the below screenshots as one example, the top half is all ray tracing on and set to high for ray traced reflections. The bottom half is all ray tracing off. There is only one difference I can immediately spot, and it is not a significant difference to warrant the big fps loss. Like I said earlier, there is nowhere else in the game where I recall seeing a mirror-like surface to observe reflections off, and screen space seems to do the same reflecting for most light sources on surfaces anyway. Ray traced shadows however as visibly softer, but this is not a night and day difference because the non-ray traced shadows are very good as it is anyway.
|Ultra settings + All ray tracing on||Ultra settings + All ray tracing off|
Or how about another example below, where the wet floor reflects this light the same, whether ray tracing is on or off, notice though the framerate difference is huge, 70fps vs 157fps. Keeping in mind that the start of the game here is the primary area where the framerate is high anyway, the rest of the game largely sits in the 60-70fps range with ray tracing and FSR enabled with the random dip to the mid-40s which i can only explain away by pointing fingers at the poor CPU optimisation mentioned previously.
|Ultra settings + All ray tracing on||Ultra settings + All ray tracing off|
With ray tracing disabled, the visual fidelity is still extremely high and you won't miss out on anything major, just the missing reflection in front of the only mirror I came across in the game and some minor reflections off shiny floors. My personal recommendation, for now at least, is to play the game with ray tracing turned off. You then benefit from what appears to be up to a locked maximum of 157fps and much lower frametime latencies, if your GPU is capable. Then, once Striking Distance Studios have released a full optimisation patch, ray tracing can be explored once again.
Aside from these technical observations, the rest of the game kept me engaged throughout the 13 hours I played through. According to Steam, I managed 19 of the 26 achievements by the game's end without even realizing, which was nice.
Credit where due, too, the level of detail on characters is simply incredible. I don't think I have played another game that offers this amount of clarity on every bit of surface of your character and the things attached to them. Just take a look at this little clip, and be sure to set the highest quality on YouTube:
Gameplay and Interfaces
The gameplay mechanics are very akin to Dead Space, if you are familiar with that game, then this feels like a sideways evolution wrapped in a prettier skin.
I found the default mouse sensitivity to be too low and ended up increasing it to 90. This is with an MX Master 3, so your mileage may vary. There is no RAW input or mouse smoothing option to tweak. There are no advanced audio options to change or game settings either. Everything within the menu system feels like a direct lift from the console version with no meaningful additions for the PC platform, a shame. You cannot even use the arrow keys to navigate the photo mode, everything is done via WASD which isn't logical for textural menu navigation.
Not long after the early acts we are introduced properly to Dani Nakamura (Karen Fukuhara) and from this point onwards, Jacob's partnership with her will continue.
Without giving away any spoilers, just like Dead Space, the first half of the game revolves around objectives such as restoring power to certain areas, finding certain items to pass a tricky situation. Along the way you will meet new characters and what is happening inside Callisto's Black Iron prison begins to unfold.
The level design is also quite linear, the path is never pointed out to you with markers, only subtle audio cues from Jacob or whoever is on the other end of the radio. You have no map either, just your inventory screen. You always know where to go due to the level design, and sometimes it feels like there are multiple entry points to an area, but this is by design as there is usually an item to collect in one direction, and you then double back through to the other with said item.
I read comments about too many vents to crawl through but honestly, this is only common through the first half of the game, and the level design changes to a more vertically orientated one through the second half. I enjoyed that change of direction but will say that the number of jump scares along the way did get slightly tedious to the point where I ended up expecting a jump scare around the next corner resulting in me not actually jumping or being scared.
I felt the combat system was a good idea in principle, just not polished enough as it could have been. For example, you can dodge sideways from short ranged enemy attacks effectively becoming a quick strafe left or right, this is predictable and easy to do if you are dealing with one or two enemies, or biophages as they are known. But the moment you have at least three, there is just no point at all in dodging, as you will end up dodging the wrong one, or dodging into a handful of them by accident. In situations like this you must combine melee, gun and the gravity grip glove which you acquire early in the game to tactically fight your way through larger numbers.
The grip glove works the same way as Half-Life 2's gravity gun, and is easy to use, but the power on it drains quickly requiring battery packs to recharge it, and in the heat of the moment you won't notice the juice has gone, best be on your toes.
There is also some levelling up that can be done, not to Jacob, but to your weapons loadout. Throughout the game you will come across stations with 3D printers, here you can print new weapons, upgrade existing ones, or print other items such as ammo and health boosters.
These things must be bought using Callisto Credits that are found throughout the game, and from stomping on killed biophages - Much of the gameplay is a mirror of Dead Space, this is a good thing since it is a tried and tested mechanic that works. If it ain't broke....
My recommendation here would be to focus on keeping a large stock of ammo for the Hand Cannon (your first pistol), as well as stacking up the melee skill tree and upgrade both as high as possible. They end up being very powerful throughout the game and in combination with the grip glove, makes you nearly unstoppable, until the glove runs out of power or ammo needs a restock.
The other weapons are nice too, but the main three offer all you'd need generally. I will replay the game with a focus on the other weapons once a few more patches are released, and I can hopefully experience a new challenge with those.
Overall, the difficulty is manageable. I say this because there are tedious parts of the combat system to figure out, such as how to deal with multiple biophages coming your way, or how to deal with a boss. Your running speed is not as fast as you'd think either, so running away is not the always possible. In times like that, I found myself tactically deciding what to do and how, and typically this resulted in multiple deaths to try something new before making progress.
In all honesty, other than seeing what some of the other weapons are like once levelled up, the base game doesn't offer much in the way of replay value. There is only one direction each level can be played, no multiple endings, no events that change based on how you play or decisions you make. Striking Distance has said there will be new explorable areas in a story DLC, but the exact release date of the expansion is not yet known, so it remains to be seen what kind of new content we can expect.
I played the game in the standard medium difficulty setting and found it to be adequately paced in terms of health, ammo, and biophage toughness.
The technical bit
Yes, The Callisto Protocol did do the unthinkable (but entirely predictable) and launch on December 2nd with Unreal Engine shader compilation stutter on PC. Yes, #StutterStruggle was realised by all playing it at launch on PC. A day 1 patch was released several hours after the European Steam unlock which did fix the core of the stuttering problems, but some stutters still remained, and as of writing this review, a further 10GB patch has been released to address PSO caching issues in Unreal Engine 4, with further PC optimisations coming soon.
However, even after the patches, there are still regular framerate dips, too, and CPU optimisation issues regardless of what class of CPU you have, for example, here is a typical observation on my 12700KF playing the game in a non-busy area after the game's introduction stages:
Notice that two of my performance cores are essentially idle/parked, whilst the remaining cores are barely doing anything, with only one core over 40% - I expected to see a healthy workload spread across all performance cores, not just one single core, maybe two at a stretch. This may also explain why I saw the GPU use drop to 85% at times as well, what is an RTX to do if it is not receiving data from the CPU in a timely fashion?
The framerate dips are frequent and also affect the frametime quality in areas you would not expect at all, such as walking up a flight of stairs, in the exact same spot the dip can be replicated every time, the same applies when going down the same stairs.
I even saw the GPU hitting 85% utilisation in some parts of the game which is quite hilarious. I did not let these remaining technical issues compound the gameplay for me, though, and as such, I ploughed on through the missions.
Thankfully, because this is AMD-sponsored, the game uses FSR 2 as its only true upscaler (the Unreal Engine's Temporal method is not really that useful), we can gain a framerate uplift, just like we do with DLSS in other games. I played the entire game with FSR set to Performance upscaling to 3440x1440 which offered a good experience. both visually and for framerate and frametime quality in general, aside from the framerate dips as mentioned. DLSS is unlikely to ever feature in this game due to its AMD sponsored nature, but I wasn't too concerned having seen what the quality of FSR was like. I welcome both techniques in all games, they just work and give a nice performance boost without much sacrifice to image quality.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the game. Even though there are glaring problems for PC gamers, the story itself and visual presentation was mostly excellent. The animations and voice acting felt like being in a sci-fi movie, and it helps that well-known actors play the roles of key characters.
I have to say though that I don't think the game on PC represents what I expect when paying £50 for. At this price I expect only minor bugs that are patched within the first few days. Not gameplay-breaking shader stutters that force the developer to respond, and then continued optimisation problems with CPU usage and other technical problems.
I even experienced some level of detail texture pop-in, take this toxic label on the barrel for example:
It's things like this that you just don't expect to see on a high budget game that has clearly had high levels of development piled into it. These are things that should never have passed quality control at testing, but here we are today. In one of the behind-the-scenes videos released it was mentioned that Striking Distance had Epic give them a hand with implementing some elements under the hood from Unreal Engine 5 to make this UE4 engine more bespoke to this game.
You would think that conversations regarding optimisation and shader compilation/PSO caching would have taken place given the engine's creators were lending a hand here!
Whether you can play this with ray tracing on or off does not matter, both graphical presentations offer a superb cinematic experience that keeps you engaged. The gameplay mechanics are tried and tested, but some refinement in the combat is needed. On these merits alone I can recommend this game, but at the same time I would say wait until the game is much cheaper, because unless the remaining issues with optimisation are fixed, then I do not think the game represents the price it is commanding, since the technical issues let it down.
Finally, having recently posted on Reddit about games that leave files behind after you uninstall them, it seems there were many people who didn't realise how many game uninstallers still do this. This applies to all PC games whether on Steam, Origin, Game Pass, or any others. Chances are you will see that registry entries, folders and game files are left behind.
The Callisto Protocol only seems to leave some registry entires which are easy to remove.
This game could have easily scored and 8 or 9 verdict, but the repetitive jump scares, technical issues and marketing hype leading up to launch changed the dynamic of expectations. This is a practice that really should not exist in 2022 and in some ways I feel that modern internet speeds, gaming PC power and such have allowed the industry to let things slip by and just ask for forgiveness after the game is out.
We saw a similar situation with Cyberpunk 2077 and many other games released in the last two years, and it is about time that game releases having the quality at launch that reflects their asking price were once again a thing, just like the good old days.