Battle Royales Are Best When They Get Weird With It
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Battle Royales Are Best When They Get Weird With It

In recent years, battle royales have gone from a curiosity to a fully-fledged genre of their own. After the runaway success of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, the genre has budded in the mainstream, with Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty: Warzone all putting their own slight spin on the core concept.

And what a concept! Something as simple as “Where we dropping?” transforms a roving deathmatch into an endlessly compelling challenge. Adding context to the round-based battles of arena shooters, channeling players around the same map by introducing an ever-tightening noose of death, gas, or storm clouds.

The sad fallout from this is that the principles have been pretty solidly enshrined in a really short space of time. Battle royales are a rich space for design, and their popularity has elevated a new set of verbs for game design. New takes on map design, player sightlines, loot density, and so on need to be considered.

Each game shakes its core map up on occasion: Fortnite and Warzone lay narrative breadcrumbs through a combination of map manipulation and glitzy cutscenes, whilst Apex routinely cycles through a series of maps, each one receiving revisions based on story events. Ultimately, though, the core of each game is the same. Very little changes, and that is a real shame. This rich genre is bursting at the seams with opportunities to do new and exciting things, and has proven to be fertile ground for new ideas.

Take Hunt: Showdown as an example. On the surface, this Wild West battle royale looks similar to its peers, but with a fresh lick of cosmetic paint. It doesn’t take long to realise Showdown is twisting the genre in new and exciting ways. The addition of non-player threats is the main change; zombies of all shapes and sizes are a constant threat, and need to be dealt with while players remain aware of the possibility of being ambushed by other flesh and blood hunters. 

Instead of a physical ring forcing player interest, each map instead has two bosses that must be hunted for their rewards before players can extract with them. Finding clues in the segments of the map narrows the field of play, and zones without bosses become less rewarding. Play flows naturally and centres around boss habitats as players slowly circle towards them and decide how they want to approach.

Like most battle royales, choosing how and when to engage is incredibly important: do you take the boss tokens yourself, or do you ambush players outside of the boss arena? Players with tokens get a limited use of x-ray vision which highlights enemy players, so ambushing isn’t as easy as it first seems. Extracts are clearly marked, so you have to decide if it’s best to guess where players will head and set up ambush, or stalk them and pick them off in a rolling gun fight?

By swapping the literal closing circle of Fortnite and Apex Legends with a more theoretical one—zones of overlapping interest instead of zones of safety—Hunt adapts the genre into something new and exciting. There is even the option to completely avoid human encounters and focus only on NPC foes and dodge firefights when possible. With Hunt‘s stunning sound design—where gunshots ring out from one corner of the map to another—and its lethal, hard-to-master weapons, it provides a meaningful sidestep to the genre.

In a similar vein, Escape from Tarkov stretches expectations so far, it might not even be correct to call it a battle royale. However, it feels logical to bundle it under the umbrella of the genre due to its static maps and emphasis on freight player versus player encounters.

Taking place in the fictional Russian city of Tarkov, you play as a private military contractor sent in to loot guns and goods from the abandoned city. A plague (carried by money) tore through the place, and it was abandoned. Frozen in time, it feels a little similar to Warzone‘s Verdansk, but instead of being a mashup of popular game areas, it is a set of more continuous zones. Areas like Interchange feature a multi-leveled shopping mall that backs onto an Ikea knockoff filled with clutter that ranges from useless to absurdly valuable. A “raid” on one of these areas will see players getting filtered into an instance of the map along with other players, and NPC Scavs that will shoot PMCs on site. Your job is to pick up loot from shelves, boxes, and bins, and extract at one of the designated points on the map.

Unlike a regular battle royale, there’s no victory royale winner here, just a battle with your greed and ambition, a bunch of kitted military cosplayers, and the uneasy realisation that everything you do in a raid is dripping with permanence. This is the key difference between Tarkov and Warzone et al; if you take your PMC character into a raid, everything is up for grabs. All your gear is from a permanent stash. Any gear you get out of the raid adds to that stash.

More on the NPC Scavs mentioned earlier: some of those may actually be players in Scav disguise. Tarkov encourages you to alternate between permanent PMC character raids and Scav raids. The latter are a chance for you to grab guns and loot or kill players for their gear, all without consequence. Progression through the game’s meta layer is similar to the battle pass tasks found in Apex; you’ll be tasked with challenges like killing Scavs or PMCs with specific weapons or taking gear from raids and giving them to one of a few vendors. The permanence really stretches the battle royale genre to its breaking point, but each raid feels as self contained as a regular battle royale—just with the tension turned way up. Going through the same motions, circling the same loot points, constantly being on guard against other players, sitting in bushes fearing the worst before getting shot by a sniper from leagues away—it’s all the same scenarios, written in a different book.

As a genre, battle royales started with a simple yet innately egnagenly premise, but the genre has so much to give. Even a throwaway joke like Totally Accurate Battlegrounds added a wrinkle with its surreal take on the ever-present closing circle: what if instead of a cloud of gas, or a raging storm, it was a series of floating monoliths which can crush players under them as they close rank?

Games are fundamentally sets of systems that can be bent, tweaked, and stretched to create new systems. With battle royales, it has been exciting to see them picked up by the biggest developers out there; but what is even more exciting is the knowledge that developers will continue to use them as a baseline for expansion.

Hunt and Tarkov might twist the genre so far beyond its norms that they are something else entirely, perhaps rooted more the existence of games like DayZ, but given PUBG‘s own genesis, it seems right to bundle them together under one banner—one that will hopefully continue to be filled with diverse and interesting takes on the current multiplayer mode du jour. 

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