Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the wilds of early access. This week, Fraser’s trying to win prizes and also senselessly fight strangers in '80s battle royale game show, Radical Heights.
With Lawbreakers being left to fend for itself after failing to seduce enough players, Boss Key Productions has pivoted to something that’s undeniably more popular: battle royales. There’s been quite a bit of cynicism regarding Radical Heights and Boss Key's 180, but not from me, a man without a cynical bone in his body. And as someone who was five at the end of the '80s, I have an incredibly strong connection to the era. The Poll Tax. The miners' strike. My first day of school. All the highlights. But how high are the highs of Radical Heights? There's only one way to find out.
If Radical Heights was any more early access, we might well be trying to play a design document. Whole chunks of the map are unfinished, featuring texture-free, empty buildings. It’s a construction site. Even the more complete buildings look like placeholder assets - plain houses, generic shops, empty flats, things that don’t particularly suit either the gameshow or ‘80s nostalgia conceit.
There’s little change to the battle royale structure - drop in, loot, kill everyone and don’t get caught out of the safe area - and only the glimmer of Radical Heights itself. For a game about muscular mullet boys shooting each other for cash prizes, it doesn’t come across as particularly confident. That I’ve occasionally enjoyed myself, then, comes as a bit of a surprise.
I spent one game just doing sweet stunts on a stolen BMX, until I was cruelly gunned down, exploding in a shower of loot and confetti. I guess if I have to die, I’d like some fanfare. I don’t want to paint Radical Heights’ players in a bad light, because plenty of people seemed to be pretty happy to let me muck around on my bike, not even taking potshots. They could see I was no threat to their royale battling and left me to my rad hobby.
Clearly the BMX is the primary tool in my arsenal, but that’s closely followed by the reliable trampoline. It’s handy when trying to grab loot that’s hidden away in hard-to-reach places, but I just like using it to get up to rooftops, where I can survey the map like a vigilante gymnast. If you’re feeling really wild, you can use the trampoline with the BMX. It’s probably a good thing that there’s no fall damage. No, it’s definitely a good thing that there’s no fall damage. Every window becomes an exit and every rooftop somewhere to dramatically leap from while unloading a clip or two.
Most of the time, however, I just wandered through suburbs and forests, surrounded by deafening silence. The game is eerily quiet, right up until the point where you hear the impotent crackle of gunfire. Aside from the huge ‘Radical’ sign, the map is almost as dull as Plunkbat’s, but it also looks a bit more slapdash. While you can see a designer’s hand in some areas, most seem like they’re just filling space until something better can be put together.
It’s too large and cluttered, at the moment, to really support the kind of fast-paced action that it’s otherwise aiming for. There are just too many places to hide for most of the game, while the play area shrinks in a way that doesn’t generate nearly as much conflict as the traditional shrinking circle. Instead of closing in, the map is split into a grid with squares that randomly get locked down. The problem is that even when there are only a couple of squares left, there’s enough room for dozens of players to hide. Even at the very end, when it’s down to the final square, the game gives the remaining players five minutes before they have to reach it for the showdown, in which most people - yes, you’ve guessed it - hide until the last few seconds. It feels less like a showdown and more like a competition to see who can pop their head out last.
It’s loot rather than map design that pushes players together and generates firefights. Special mini-events, drops, vending machines and items that can be exchanged for cash fill the map and create tempting targets, but also great places for ambushes. Radical Heights rewards the bold even if they don’t ultimately win. Kills, cash and random bits of junk become currency you can spend on customising your character. Cosmetic items have to be found out in the wild first, however, before being purchased, giving you another thing to fight over. I have killed for an ugly hat and I have some regrets.
The special events are particularly welcome touches, briefly adding another dimension to the competition that goes beyond killing. When I was, yet again, messing around on my bike, a race event appeared on my map, tasking me with heading to the start area and then racing across the map to the finish line and my reward. I managed to beat all but one player to the end, but that’s when the guns finally came out, theirs at least, and my dreams of BMX trophies and my face on the cover of BMX Bad Boys went up in smoke.
Despite the lack of feedback when using weapons, I’d been racking up enough kills that I didn’t feel completely embarrassed to invite a buddy to join me for some duo silliness. When you’ve got backup, it’s easier to be confident and take risks, lending duo mode a more aggressive tone than solo. There’s less time to muck around on bikes and trampolines when there are hungry pairs of murderers stalking the streets.
Across the five or six matches my friend could stomach, I can’t remember a single enjoyable moment because they either devolved into a run-of-the-mill last man standing affair or ended before we'd had enough time to do much of anything. We’d drop in, frantically trying to find each other, because there’s no bus or plane and everyone starts freefalling immediately, and then desperately hunt for some guns. That’s usually when death struck, though sometimes we’d find guns without ammo and ammo without guns.
We were pretty unlucky, but the trick to a good battle royale is that it keeps you coming back for more, even after you’ve just had three games in a row where you were shot in the head within the first five minutes. Radical Heights hasn’t learned that trick yet. Maybe if I could ride the BMX and shoot at the same time...
There’s so much room for shenanigans thanks to the gameshow theme, but Radical Heights too frequently relies on the bare bones battle royale formula, which is a shame because being a battle royale is by far its least interesting feature. And it’s so early that it’s extremely difficult to predict what type of game it will grow into over the course of what Boss Key predict will be a year-long stint in early access. It doesn’t even have an identity yet. It does play You’re The Best during the victory celebration, though.
Radical Heights is out now on Steam for free.