When I finished watching The Game Awards reveal trailer for Rumbleverse, the new Epic-published battle royale game that looks a bit like Fortnite but with melee combat, I raised a practiced eyebrow of derision. "Well, that looks terrible," chortled I, knowing full well that I'd still give it a go at the earliest opportunity because I am an absolute sucker for battle royales.
Two things happened later that day that I did not expect. First: I got the opportunity to dive into Rumbleverse's action-packed 40-player matches far earlier than I'd anticipated, as part of a one day early look at the game. I downloaded and installed it in short order, and jumped right in. Two hours later, at 1am in the morning as the servers shut down, I happened across a second, far more unexpected thing. I found myself absolutely desperate to play more. I've sunk thousands of hours into Apex Legends, Fortnite, Plunkbat, Hunt: Showdown, Warzone, and various other behemoths of the genre. Yet those two hours I spent playing Rumbleverse might be the most fun I've ever had in a battle royale.
Rumbleverse's big spin on the battle royale formula is its focus on melee combat. You've got basic attacks, which can be blocked, and vicious attacks, which are unblockable but can be dodged. It's simple and familiar, and provides a solid foundation on which developers Iron Galaxy quickly pile complexities such as jump attacks, throwable items, and special skills that you must learn by reading magazines in between fights.
That's barely scratching the surface, but there's little point going deeper into it because an hour with the game will teach you what you need to know. There was no tutorial beyond some instructional billboards in the pre-game area, but I found I didn't need anything more than that. With each death I learnt something, and then I was in another match in 30 seconds, utilising my newfound knowledge. By the end of the session, I was dismantling the more maladroit players as though I'd been playing for months rather than minutes. It all felt very intuitive, and that allowed me to get past the frustrating "I don't know what's happening" stage in a flash, and start really appreciating just how much fun it all was.
Rumbleverse is the kind of game that will frequently make you belly-laugh even at your own death. There was one match where I became embroiled in this massive street-level free-for-all brawl with about six other players. Eventually it was just me and a fabulously-mustached bodybuilder remaining. I mean this guy was 50% muscle, 45% facial hair, and 5% spandex. For a long dramatic moment, we circled each other, both heavily wounded, respecting each other's skill, each waiting for the other to make a move. Just then there was a wonderful hollow "THOCK" noise: some rooftop-dwelling fucker had hurled a wooden plank into the side of my head, knocking me out instantly. I howled with laughter. It might have been annoying if the comic timing hadn't been so utterly perfect.
In another match, two other players and I fought a ferocious battle around a coveted health-replenishing chicken. Street signs were ripped from the ground and slammed into people's heads. Chairs were thrown. Suplexes were... suplexed. Eventually I spotted my moment while the other two were grappling with each other. I dashed over, scooped up the chicken, scaled the wall of a nearby building, and then stood on a rooftop chomping mightily at my hard-earned trophy, watching my two rivals fight to the death over a prize that neither of them realised was now halfway down my digestive tract.
That's another aspect of this game that brings me endless joy: the value placed on chicken. In Rumbleverse, health pools are large and must be whittled down slowly. Elsewhere the high health pools might make me groan, but it really suits this game, and it avoids the familiar frustration in other battle royales of having your match come suddenly to an ignoble end because you were headshot by a sniper in a bush eleven miles away. Because of the high health pools and the melee focus, there's a degree of control in these matches that I found refreshing. Being endlessly third-partied is an inescapable part of the genre, but here it felt more manageable because I could distance myself from enemies and heal up.
Or I would, if I had any chicken. Most of the time there's no passive health regeneration in Rumbleverse, so you're reliant on finding chicken drumsticks and rare whole chickens to get you back up to fighting fit. They're very valuable items, so whenever someone brings out a chicken, it's kind of like that moment in The Incredibles where Mr Incredible holds up Syndrome's remote with a triumphant shout, a half-second before being crushed by the Omnidroid. There were several moments in my time with Rumbleverse where someone would whip out a drumstick to try and heal, and suddenly everyone in a half-mile radius would careen towards them like a pack of burly hyenas and pound them into the ground so they could take the chicken for themselves.
There's something very familiar about this combination of deep, skill-based mechanics, and the frequent moments of stupid satisfying chaos that prompt me to stop and cackle at my screen. It's a bit like certain moments I've had in Nidhogg, and Chivalry. Maybe it's a melee combat thing, I don't know. But it's certainly not something I've experienced in a battle royale before. In a span of two hours Rumbleverse completely shocked me, both with how skill-based it is, and how stupidly fun it is. I went in expecting to say "nope, not for me" after a couple of games. Instead the deluge of endorphins offered by this silly-looking game completely swept me off my feet.
Of course, it's been a few days since then, and with the wearing off of the endorphins I've started to see a couple of potential concerns. For one, despite how much I enjoyed my time with Rumbleverse, there's a fairly high chance that others will bounce right off it. Or its popularity might drop off quickly after release. It wouldn't be the first time a competitive game I adored was killed by low player counts. Another concern is that I'm not sure whether Rumbleverse's tight skill-based melee combat will translate well in squad modes - if that is even something that Iron Galaxy are planning, I don't know. It could work, but I can also easily see the game becoming frustrating in situations where enemy players gang up on you and stun-lock you with the right rhythm of moves. That kind of thing is why I quickly bounced off Naraka: Bladepoint, after all. It'd be a big shame if it turned out that I couldn't properly enjoy playing Rumbleverse with friends because of this, so I hope I'm wrong.
But even if I'm not, the solo mode is such a ridiculous amount of fun that I think once Rumbleverse releases in Early Access in February, I'll be content to play it by myself if need be. I don't need friends. All I need is an inventory full of chicken and I'm ready to rumble.
Note: since this piece went live, we've been told that in addition to the Solo mode I played, there will be a Duos mode available when the game launches on February 15.