The video game industry is no stranger to fizzled hype. But for all the controversies about delays, unstable launches, or games that are just plain terrible, until recently I've never had to stop and wonder whether or not a game actually exists. Then I went in search of a mysterious fighting game named Death Cargo.
I started to poke around online for Death Cargo earlier this month after Kotaku received a number of complaints from disaffected customers who had been trying to play it since March, when creator and publisher Necrostorm says it was first released.
A studio better known for its work making gory horror films, Necrostorm first announced Death Cargo back in 2011. It even released playable beta in 2012. After that, however, the game that had piqued fighting game aficionados' interest suddenly went quiet. Necrostorm pushed back its official release several times before finally settling on the March 2014 launch.
What happened next? The stories that Death Cargo customers told me all went something like this: after ordering (or pre-ordering) a version of Death Cargo from Necrostorm, they eagerly awaited the arrival of what looked like an exceedingly bloody self-aware throwback to the glory days of Mortal Kombat. After the wait went on longer than expected, they started to get curious or just plain impatient. Physical copies of the game never showed up, and the digital versions either got stuck during the activation process or didn't work at all.
When these dissatisfied customers demanded refunds for the game, Necrostorm was quick to oblige. But when they took their complaints to the company's official Death Cargo forums, they were greeted with legal threats. Or, more often, they were threatened with legal action and then kicked out of the forums and issued refunds whether they wanted them or not. Necrostorm made similarly aggressive statements to irate and expectant Death Cargo customers on the game's Facebook page, and even other gaming forums on occasion.
The frustrated Death Cargo customers who reached out to me presented similar records of their relevant transactions and communications with Necrostorm. Their experiences also mirrored those of others who wrote about their experiences on Test Your Might (TYM) and SRK, two popular fighting game forums, and NeoGAF, a more general interest counterpart.
Throughout all of this, Necrostorm representative Tiziana Machella continued to assure me that there were more than six thousand happy Death Cargo customers who hadn't come forward yet. At first, Machella said that this was because footage of the game was under embargo until Necrostorm posted a new trailer for the game on May 12. A new trailer did appear that day, but I didn't see additional footage surface afterwards.
To date, the only recent footage I've seen comes from an hour-long video that was posted to Twitch shortly after Necrostorm released its new trailer. As you can see in the video, there is a game here that's being played. But it's not exactly functional. It suffers from periodic glitches, and all the characters have the same sound effects as Plasma — the first character who was revealed in semi-playable form back in 2012.
As for my personal experience trying to play Death Cargo? I purchased a digital standard copy from the game's website for €14.99 (a little over $US20) the morning of Monday, May 9th. As I explained in my original story that went up later that day, I was put through an exceedingly complicated process of trying to negotiate the game's unique form of digital rights management (DRM). I received a link to download a file and begin the first step of the game's activation process, which was outlined in an email I received after completing my purchase:
After completing all of the steps outlined in that message, Necrostorm's customer service team told me that the "file creation" process could take up to five days. Tuesday, May 13th came along and I still hadn't received any notification about the file creation process being completed. I reached out to customer service again, and they told me that I would be put through another round of the activation process:
I followed these instructions and still couldn't get my hands on the game. The next day, I received another email saying that my file had been created and I could start playing the game... once I completed these steps:
I completed these and sent them an activation code that popped up on the screen after opening the new file. Nothing happened. I reached out again. On May 21st, I was told that I would receive a code that night.
I didn't receive anything that night, so I reached out again the next day. On Monday, May 26th, I heard back from customer service in a message saying that Necrostorm had been inundated with an overwhelming number of download requests and apologizing for the delay. The email promised I would receive a link "very soon," and noted that customers would receive a partial refund for the delay.
Since then, Necrostorm's customer service channel and Machella specifically have both told me that the game is still incoming. When asked for a specific time by which I could expect it, they pushed it back several times. I did receive a partial refund for €7.50 (about $US10, or half the game's original price) as promised.
In the last series of emails with Machella that were sent back-and-forth last night and this morning, she first told me that I could receive a copy of the game today by 3 pm Eastern and that I should also be on the lookout for an open letter from Necrostorm's director explaining the game's curious saga sometime "soon." This morning, she reached out again to say that the code was once again delayed and that I should wait until next week to see the director's statement on the matter.
To reiterate: Necrostorm is a small Italian production company best known for making movies in the blood-drenched horror sub-genre known as "splatter films." Machella therefore told me that the studio's core fans aren't necessarily as tech-savvy or video logging-inclined as straight up gamers, which would explain the relative absence of Death Cargo footage from third party sources.
I spoke with a seasoned horror movie buff and occasional critic for enthusiast publications who's familiar with most of Necrostorm's film work. He asked that he remain anonymous for this story, but he told me that his experience purchasing and trying to play Death Cargo was nothing like the ones he's had watching and reviewing the studio's movies.
"The big question seems to be, here: Is the game fake?" he wrote me in an email at one point. "I say 'no'. What I think it is, is unfinished."
"I think this company has run their own little silent crowd-funding scheme on a project that wasn't actually completed and ready to ship at the time of advertisement for purchase," he continued. "I think they have gone ahead and mocked up a final release in order to save face, and been unable to get everything finalised as quickly as they'd hoped."
I understand the allure of an intriguing mystery. But after trying to chase down Death Cargo for more than two weeks, I was left wondering why even the most fervent fighting game fans are still holding out for this title. Is waiting for the next real Mortal Kombat game really that bad?
Mike Riazy, a TYM forum moderator and one of the first people who brought Death Cargo to my attention, told me last week that, yes, Mortal Kombat fans really are that forlorn. Hopefully if the Death Cargo saga doesn't end up panning out in their favour, the latest tease for a new Mortal Kombat sequel will satiate them instead.