Beneath Overcooked 2's charming wrapper is a brutal co-op romp

No game has produced more laughter mixed with yelling in the PC Gamer office than Overcooked. The four-player arcade game about cooking under pressure was one of our favorites games of 2016 because it delivered something pleasant and tough in a genre that's underserved on PC, the same-screen co-op game. Overcooked 2's biggest new feature, online multiplayer, breaks the series out of that shell. 

Playing it with Tim, Bo, and Jarred on our team, I was glad that getting friends into an online session is smooth and straightforward, considering how often smaller studios struggle with building matchmaking and lobby systems. You can jump into standalone levels or plow through the host player's story campaign together. I was surprised that there's even a public online play option, which matches you with whoever might be queued with you. There's no "estimated wait time" indicator here, as you'd find in big multiplayer games like Rainbow Six Siege, but having at all is an upgrade. 

Other than online multiplayer, Overcooked 2 mostly reads as a box of fresh, interesting levels, rather than a reinvention of the game. That's welcome. Some of the mid-campaign stages available in the incomplete build I played were more taxing than the the first Overcooked's final boards. On a later level where we had to bake chocolate cake and pancakes on an alien planet, our group managed a profit of five coins. For comparison, a typical success might earn several hundred. 

This stage is calamitous—thin paths of alien terrain rise out of a green lake the whole level is sat in, then submerge themselves every 15 or 20 seconds before rising up again with different shapes. Each of us at one or multiple points drowned trying to ferry eggs or chocolate across the screen. It's evident in stages like this that Overcooked 2 raises the skill ceiling, map complexity, and recipe complexity, and ramps up the difficulty quicker than the previous game on the assumption that you've played it.

On a lower-difficulty stage, our hot air balloon burger kitchen, manageably on fire (my only explanation is that Melissa McCarthy is the entrepreneur behind these restaurants) eventually fell from the sky and crashed into a sushi shop lined with conveyor belts. In another instance, two static, wooden docks begin to shift and float down a river halfway through the round as the water level rises, forcing you to use the new throwing mechanic to move ingredients in the final two minutes.

These level transformations are a new gimmick, and when one triggers, you sort of just freeze and wait for it to end, like an earthquake, except you still have to figure out how to make three kinds of sushi in the aftermath. I like them as generous visual showcases, but they're also really disorienting. Having to take in a new set of recipe combinations, cooking stations, and hazards with about two minutes left on the clock exhausts my brain more than hours of a competitive FPS. 

I respect that Overcooked 2 isn't shy about pouring on the difficulty, but I like Overcooked least when a stage feels like it's more about surviving and avoiding hazards than it is about outputting lots of meals. I also tend to play Overcooked with people who don't consider themselves everyday gamers, so hopefully the final game will have a healthy set of levels that don't require me to talk my friends and family through "What to do when the burger restaurant explodes and we enter the center of the Earth." The tumult of these map transformations makes me wonder whether it'd be improved at all by an announcer, but that would undercut the of miscommunication, arguing, and laughing that tends to arise on tough maps, and that's half the fun.