As PUBG-like contenders emerge, Islands of Nyne might already have them beat

() and . And this week, we learned that even  of these games will likely show up by year’s end, with rumors circling around major series like  and .

The news follows plenty of latecomers to the battle royale genre, which all have a few things in common. Roughly 100 players parachute onto an island with the goal of being the last shooter standing, and that contest is made all the more tense by random-item pickups and a constantly shrinking battlefield.

But what does it take to make a good battle royale game at this point? As more games pile onto the fray and triple-A entries poke their head in, I want to point to one out-of-nowhere game that has done more than bolt the niche’s basics onto existing properties. It’s called , and after playing a lot of battle royale games, I have to say, this indie entry is  one to watch from here on out.

Under the Dome

This game’s elevator pitch—like  but with a harder sci-fi edge—only begins to scratch ‘s impressive surface. A better way to summarize it is to say that battle royale games (like ) originally emerged as an answer to the pacing and watchability issues inherent in early-’10s, large-scale military shooters. , in turn, has emerged to answer those same issues within the genre’s current heavy-hitters.

The game is currently only available in an early, closed-alpha state, which requires buying into ‘s limited pre-sale program, but this isn’t the stuff of “X-treme early access.” For starters, the game’s primary battle arena, an island dubbed “The Dome,” is the giddiest, most diverse battle-scape that I’ve yet to clamber over in a battle royale shooter. It may not look that way in the above screenshot gallery, but that’s because Define Human Studios has drenched its architecture and forests with a blue-green-violet palette that lands somewhere between and James Cameron’s .

It’s a smart move on the studio’s part, because The Dome comes with an enjoyably over-the-top sci-fi conceit: that the game’s battles are orchestrated by a near-extinct race of time-traveling aliens. The aliens dot a massive battleground with relics stolen from nine Earth eras, then let humanoid super-soldiers battle it out for their own amusement. Yet somehow, ‘s range of landmarks—from medieval castles to Roman Colosseums to pirate ships to dystopian future-human wreckage—looks unified, and that’s a testament to the game’s art direction.

More importantly, this conceit lets every air-drop landing open up a new strategic opportunity. The giant buildings and unified battle zones in and are limited by some simple structural guidelines, like repeating houses and warehouses or endless lines of shipping crates. But lets players walk into a new century—and savor its specific architecture and vertical-battle possibilities—by only running a few football fields’ distance.

really wants you to sink your teeth into its full map, as well, and it also does something I haven’t seen in other battle royale games: it makes landing position a viable one in a given game. This is the result of some mathematical tweaks to what already exists in the likes of : each match’s opening “safety circle” (much smaller than in ), the speed of your skydiving supersoldier (waaaay faster), your running speed (faster by default, without requiring that you find a car for speed), and The Dome’s map size (smaller but still huge).

In action, this plays out as follows. When you skydive into an match, you don’t wait for a plane to ferry you around; you just start dropping from a random point. Three seconds later, a small “safety zone” is marked out relatively close to your trajectory, at which point you can steer your high-speed skydiver so quickly that you can reach nearly half of the map. This is the inverse of existing games, in which you land and  learn where the safety zone is. (The safety zone, for the uninitiated, forces battle royale players to run to a central point; if they fail to do so, a poison cloud emerges that drains their health, and this organically forces dozens of players to eventually converge at a center point.)

The result is that you (and your squadmates, if you have any) have an immediate choice to make, which will set the rest of your session into motion: your landing position, where you’ll scour for gear, and your running path to the safety zone. You can also, of course, land right in that safety zone, but since it’s much smaller than in competing games, that means you’ll likely land in a violent ruckus. Either way, the game’s opening tweaks combine everything unique and fun about battle royale games—carefully gathering gear, randomly running into competitors, hunkering down for a final showdown—and speed the formula up in measured, interesting ways.

does what rivals don’t

The weapon and armor variety isn’t wildly different from existing games, though ‘s tweaks are still welcome. Weapons are pretty standard, with military-grade options like shotguns, semi-automatics, fully automatics, pistols, and snipers—but adds one major sci-fi twist. Every bullet in the game apparently contains bright powder, and, as a result, you’ll see laser-like bullet trails in The Dome’s skies.

The further you are from gunfire, the more vague these trails appear, which is a pretty solid compromise; you won’t necessarily give your position away as a distant sniper, and defensive players will still need to rely on wearing headphones to pick out exactly where distant shots are coming from. But it’s still one more really useful clue to help soldiers triangulate their foes’ opposition. (, like , shines with a really solid audio-modeling system, and in massive-arena shooters like this, that quality matters.)

Armor, meanwhile, is broken down into five categories: four for body parts (head, arms, chest, legs) and one as a general “shield.” Standard stuff, you might think, but the closed alpha hints at how Define Human Studios may tweak this for gameplay’s sake. The most common helmet option adds perks to your heads-up display, like a compass guiding you to the next safe zone, but a “medieval” helmet option lets you trade those HUD tweaks for more protection. is the first battle royale shooter that I’ve seen give players such a tactical choice, and I’m hopeful that this is expanded with more strategy-altering options for arms, chest, and legs. Other battle royale shooters simply dot their battlefields with “better” armor (level 1, level 2, level 3), and I’m much more intrigued by ‘s equal-but-different approach.

The rest of ‘s fun really boils down to tweaks and polish. For starters, players never have to divert their attention with out-of-game menus; instead, the map and inventory systems appear as trippy, augmented-reality pop-ups in your field of vision. The pre-match lobby system isn’t a sit-and-wait slice of the game’s world; instead, it’s a makeshift deathmatch that immediately lets players practice using the game’s guns while waiting for a game lobby to fill up. (‘s deathmatch lobby is pictured in the above gallery.) This is fantastic from a newbie perspective, since it’s often difficult to rack up shooting practice in large-scale battle royale games.

And the game’s supersoldier conceit feeds into a nice break from battle royale convention: no fall damage. You learn this after your first skydive, when you land by slamming your fist into the ground, and you can take advantage of this by jumping off of giant cliffs or taking advantage of -like bounce pads scattered around The Dome.

has been in development since 2015, when battle royale games were only beginning to heat up. (Quick history lesson: before launching , Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene was working on a few battle royale-themed mods for the likes of and , which were all out by 2015.) While the game’s original pitch included some zanier ideas, particularly a VR mode, Define Human Studios has scaled those back to admittedly hew close to the formula. So far, that works in the game’s favor, because all of its best qualities come from asking, “What if we started from scratch with a hard sci-fi base?”

In some cases—like being able to fall from great heights and having greater skydive speed—the freedom from ‘s military shackles shines quite well. In others, like weapon selection, the developers opt not to overdo the -like angle. I’m not sure that beam swords or shield-draining pistols would necessarily work in the gameplay’s favor, anyway, though I do think some weirder weapons could bolster what’s already fun.

Either way, I bring up in its early state, even before it gets additional maps and content, specifically because it’s already doing things that other existing series likely won’t be able to. Should and/or  confirm this week’s rumors and go the battle royale route, chances are they’ll be forced to resemble by default (what with their focus on “realistic” military weapons and tactics).

Define Human hasn’t announced a formal schedule for a transition out of closed alpha or when its store will re-open sales of its closed alpha pre-order packs. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on when that changes, but that’s mostly for selfish reasons. I already want more people to blast away with me on these weird .

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Sam Machkovech Sam has written about the combined worlds of arts and tech since his first syndicated column launched in 1996. He can regularly be found losing quarters at Add-A-Ball in Seattle, WA.
Email[email protected]//Twitter@samred
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