I like food - perhaps a little too much. Although I am a notoriously picky eater, those times I break out of my comfort zone and try new things ends with me finding a new favorite dish. It even inspires me to want to cook more at home, rather than spending precious money on going out all the time. Thanks to services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh (even Costco is getting into the meal kit game), I can have a ready-to-make box that has everything I need to create something good and tasty. And that’s when the cold, hard reality sets in: I am no chef. I can boil water and know a few knife skills, but even that is spotty. I don’t have the proper tools to make a garlic spread from scratch and one time, I left a wine sauce simmering a little too long and didn’t get the necessary consistency. While the dishes were certainly edible (and delicious!) at the end of the day, the whole process made me realize that I won’t be on Iron Chef America any time soon.
What does all this have to do with a review for a video game about cooking? Everything! Overcooked! 2 is a party game about the trials and tribulations of preparing food for hungry people and learning to navigate the obstacles that get in the way. A sequel to Ghost Town Game’s 2016 debut, it delivers on the excitement associated with couch co-op experiences that typically evolve into everyone screaming at each other. I never got a chance to play Overcooked! and only when I played a demo for the sequel at E3 did I realize what I was missing out on. I love the teamwork involved with fulfilling more and more complex orders before time runs out. What will really ruin friendships are the creative levels designed around gimmicks that make a change to the structure of the kitchen and make a significant impact on the efficiency of the group.
Overcooked! 2 is at its zenith when played with friends. You and up to three other players (local or online) travel the world in a food truck under orders of King Onion to search out new and exciting flavors. There’s a little bit of a story that connects the journey - Onion’s reading of the Necro-NOM-icon accidentally creates an invasion of half-eaten Unbread - but it really doesn’t matter. You’re here to do one thing and one thing only: make culinary masterpieces! The game starts your group off with some pretty manageable one- and two-ingredient dishes. To fulfill an order, someone has to pull the raw food item from a marked crate, prepare it (either by chopping or boiling or mixing), cook it if necessary, plate the dish, then send it down a conveyor belt. Food orders are tracked by tickets displayed at the top left corner of the screen that list the ingredients needed and how they must be prepared, which I found to be really handy in the event that the pressure gets too much and you forget how to make nigiri. Dishes need to be put together fairly quickly, a visual green-yellow-red timer on each meal ticket displays how much time you have, or else it counts as a failed order and gets deducted from your end level score.
The further your stalwart crew of chefs get in the game, the more complex and difficult the dishes become. Instead of easy things like tomato salads and sushi, more involved foods like hamburgers, burritos, fried chicken and french fries, and pasta become the norm. These levels turn into a plate spinning act to ensure the ingredients are properly prepared without being wasted, burned, or worse, cause the kitchen to catch fire. The design of the kitchens makes things even more interesting as workstations, such as cutting boards, stovetops, deep fryers, and sinks, are strategically placed far enough apart and out of the way to make you sweat. Countertops, useful for setting down plates and food, double as barriers and roadblocks hamper your ability to move and dash around the kitchen, even more so knowing that a player’s avatar can’t walk through another. This is where the food throwing mechanic comes into play. Although it only works on raw food, it’s an incredibly useful ability whenever the party of chefs have been split up or can’t reach a station. This happens frequently because of the playfully designed dynamic kitchens that constantly change their form and function. There’s one stage set on a split raft that floating down the river. One side has all the food items, fryers, sinks, and conveyer belt and the other has chopping stations. The players have to toss raw food to each other in a parody of a circus juggling act. A favorite stage of mine is set on a hot air balloon that gets pushed in different directions by the wind, causing the counters to slide left and right. The balloon’s burners also cause intermittent fires that block your path. Halfway through the stage, a lightning storm causes the balloon to crash into a sushi restaurant. Not only do you have to fulfill the food orders from the balloon stage, now you have to make sushi too! This stage encapsulates the crazy, frantic joy of Overcooked! 2.
What’s not so enthralling is doing all yourself. Overcooked! 2, like its predecessor, comes with a single player mode that’s great at making you feel bad for not having anyone to play with. Played solo, Overcooked! 2 gives you two chefs whose controls can be swapped at the press of a button. Not only is the thrill of coordinating tasks to other people lost but the practice of using one controller to guide two chefs in making a dish is clunky. You have to train your brain and hands to work independently of each other or, at the very least, set one chef on one time task while you do another. Again, it’s easy with the stages that aren’t particularly demanding. It all fell apart, though, when I got to a stage where I had to make burgers and steamed buns. I found the whole thing to be overly complicated and really difficult for one person to manage and the multiple failed orders took a huge chunk out of my score, leaving me without the stars I needed to advance to the next level. Even though Ghost Town Games came up with a clever controller solution for solo play, I developed a strong distaste for the mode because it's not properly evocative of how Overcooked! 2 is meant to be played and eventually I abandoned the single player option altogether. Thankfully, online play makes single player obsolete but because this review was composed before the official release, that service was unavailable to me. Thankfully, my wife was available and as we traveled the world in our food truck along an interactive map bringing yummy nom-noms to the land, I learned to love the game again.
Overcooked! 2 is fun, exciting, and keeps the joy of couch co-op alive. The formula and flow of the game are fantastic and I was constantly delighted by the challenges posed by unconventional kitchen layouts modeled around different themes and mechanics. This is definitely going to find a place among the games to break out when I have friends over. Overcooked! 2 succeeds as a party game and while I do appreciate the addition of a solo mode, this game isn’t meant to be played that way. It succeeds when everyone is playing Gordon Ramsay, yelling back and forth to delegate different tasks and toss food to each other across chasms and through portals as countertops switch places and minecarts deliver food in a symphony of chaos. I may not be a great chef in real life - I get nervous when a recipe calls for tossing ingredients together in a saucepan and I don’t know the difference between a brunoise or a batonnet cut - but Overcooked! 2 gamifies mealtime in a way that’s endearing and wonderfully charming.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.