For all the flak and attention Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinski has garnered over the years, the developer has always at least put his name behind solid video games. His most recent self-admitted financial failure, , at least did a fine job carrying Bleszinski's old-school, torch, in spite of its issues with difficulty curve and generic art.
But Bleszinski and his current studio, Boss Key Productions, made a sharp turn last week in pronouncing the figurative death of while simultaneously hinting at a new project. Turns out, that new project was precisely the thing that crowded out ' continued development, and the game maker only waited four days to announce its new focus: , an '80s-themed clone.
Boss Key's Monday announcement included a promise that would enter "Xtreme" Early Access the following day, so we decided to wait and give the game a whirl before making any assumptions. It sure looked like a bandwagon cash-in, after all, but maybe it'd come with some CliffyB magic.
Instead of blowing up our expectations, however, the free-to-play game has landed as a battle royale dud.
Gray box bonanza
Before even discussing the -like gameplay, there's the matter of abusing the benefit of the doubt afforded to an "Early Access" tag in PC gaming.
This tag usually works at its best when small, scrappy developers want to get novel or experimental game concepts into eager players' hands—at the expense of a few glitches or visual bugs. But very rarely do developers go as aggressively as Boss Key has this week in shipping a game whose assets couldn't look more unfinished or untested.
Current, popular battle royale games, particularly () and , are largely defined by their massive island arenas. Landmarks, specially crafted buildings, and meticulously designed cityscapes guide players both visually and strategically, and this adds to the fun and immersion of scaling and surviving these limited-time, ever-shrinking battles. , however, has shipped with a map that is made up of at least one-third "gray box" buildings—meaning, they're made up of incredibly simple geometry with zero textures and zero art-driven assets. In other words, they look like someone used a computer mouse to model the most basic architectural concept in only a few minutes, then copy-and-pasted it all over.
Worse are the various areas in the game's kinda-woodsy world that slap PlayStation 2-era cars, vehicles, and buildings into random spots. Unlike the gray-box buildings, these assets are textured and modeled, but only to a bare minimum. It's not just that all this stuff is ugly; it also feels entirely slapdash in terms of design and architecture. Nothing in feels like it was built for the kind of emergent battles—either close-up or ranged—that pop up in a given 15-minute battle royale game. Everything in this game's world is either stupidly flat (with 1-3 empty, useless cars tossed in for good measure) or set up as an obnoxious, twisty series of corridors.
Beyond that, doesn't do much to shake up the core gameplay loop of a battle royale shooter—at least, not in immediately positive ways. Just like other games in the genre, your mission is to land on an island and outlast all other opponents while the island's "safe zone" shrinks over time. You also land with nothing and must pick up weapons, ammo, and items scattered in the island's various buildings.
Er, that last detail has a caveat: you can find in-game cash during every session, which you can either spend during a given match stock away via any ATMs you find on the battlefield. That cash can then be saved for future games so long as you run to an ATM and tap its menus to "withdraw."
The ability to shore up past successes for future game boosts feels skeezy.
With so many kiosks in the game offering weapons, armor, and items in exchange for this in-game cash, there's absolutely a benefit to stocking your cash away once you've outfitted yourself in one match... as a way to more quickly boost yourself for your next match. You also keep a percentage of any cash you've picked up if you die without making a deposit.
(Worth noting: Every kiosk and building that has anything to do with in-game cash is lavishly rendered with flashing lights and details. But not the buildings or cars. Interesting priority there, Boss Key.)
All of this becomes more confusing when you consider that this in-game cash is advertised as a currency to buy cosmetic items—but as of press time, ' in-game shop doesn't accept in-game cash for its outfits. Instead, you have to pump real-world money into Boss Key's "gems" currency to dress your character up. To review: in-game cash is only earned via gameplay, while the game's gems require real-world cash.
Late to genre
This ability to shore up past successes for future game boosts feels skeezy, quite frankly. It's also the only notable genre-impacting tweak, as otherwise remixes battle royale tropes in shoulder-shrug ways. Instead of a constantly shrinking safe-zone circle, divides its map into a bunch of squares, then cancels most of the squares out as a match goes along. Instead of driveable cars or buggies, lets you hop on a BMX bike (because, um, the '80s). And the weapon arsenal is pretty much identical to other battle royale shooters: submachine guns, pistols, shotguns, semi-automatics, and sniper rifles.
All of which is to say: doesn't aspire to any particular heights in terms of twists or gameplay mechanics. That makes its unoptimized engine and abundance of bugs all the harder to swallow. The game currently runs like dog food on reasonable gaming PCs, in spite of looking like simple-texture, low-poly trash. Collision detection is all kinds of broken, which means your character's legs will often walk through surfaces, and you can expect glitches when approaching apparent objects and cover structures. Audio feedback for crucial cues like footsteps and weapon fire is currently quite inconsistent; some steps and movements are eerily silent while others send out far-too-loud signals to opponents. That's in addition to the game's current issues with servers and weapon balancing—but those are more forgivable in a game's first day of existence.
The last time Boss Key showed up late to a popular genre (meaning among a crowd of "hero shooters"), the company at least did so with ridiculous amounts of polish and serious attempts at remixing and fine-tuning what players had come to expect. But is trying to do the same thing—butt into well-trodden territory—with an astonishing mix of unrefined issues and a loud, real-world money marketplace. There's just no forgiving the game's lack of polish with a gesture towards the "Early Access" tag.
Later this week, we'll have a story on another emerging battle royale game—one so promising and interesting that we're not going to besmirch its name by slapping it onto the end of a write-up. I only hint to it to point out how hot and competitive the genre is becoming and, therefore, what kind of insane heights Boss Key will soon have to climb to have chance of me-too success.