A man in black scrambles through the overgrowth, looking lost. So I shoot him. Puffs of bloody air erupt from his body, but he runs on. Behind him something explodes from a stray bullet – my bulet or somebody else’s? I don’t know. But the man in black keeps moving, dodging behind some trees, over a ridge. Behind me, a wall of wobbly energy closes in. I give chase to the man in black, and we come face to face in a dirt glade with a tall, odd structure that might be a radio tower. I lift my MP5 submachine gun and mow him down. Soon afterwards, the game ends. I’ve won. I won’t claim my performance in the upcoming 400-person battle royale game Mavericks: Proving Grounds was a heroic victory. Because there were only 5 people playing. It also lasted less than 5 minutes, and the man in black was the lead devleoper. He definitely let me win.
We were playing a tiny slice of the game-in-progress. There was five of us, boxed into a shrinking area of 125m squared, with boxes of guns neatly placed close to our starting points. In the full game, Thompson tells me, you'll drop in from above, thrown into a much larger map via drone. Like in other Battle Royales, you’ll see a lot of the map as you arrive. The technology they’re using to run the game – SpatialOS – has been bandied about as a way of making big worlds even bigger. World’s Adrift uses it to accommodate its sky pirates and grappling hook physics, for example. Here, it will theoretically allow the developer to render the map in greater detail as it rises to meet the feet of each slowly falling royale rumbler – adding to that strategic mid-air decision-making. Do I land near that wooded area? Or over by that large building?
That’s the promise, anyway. Mavericks is far from completion, and as functional and good-looking as my forest feud was, it was all too brief to get a fleshed-out impression beyond “it’s a lot like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds”. But the developers are keen to stress the features that will make it more exciting than Brendan Greene’s bullet scavenging sim - and it isn’t just the 300 extra people.
“More players doesn’t necessarily mean more fun,” says James Thompson, CEO of Atuomaton. “It’s not about your twitch shooting skills. It’s about how you inspect the environment.”
To this end, players will leave footprints in certain areas (for example, a muddy road). Grass and plantlife will also stay parted if you’ve tramped through it, and weather will affect how much these things make an impact. A rain storm will cause players to leave more wet footprints behind, for instance. I didn’t see any of this in action because I am too stupid to look down, but some journo colleagues have confirmed it was in there.
There are also plans for buildings and props that can be easily destroyed, which would mean wreckage and debris left behind after a fight but also more significant changes to your surroundings. They’re aiming for “Rainbow Six Siege levels of destruction".
“You can go so far as blowing up a bridge,” says Thompson, hinting at a world that can change in drastic and permanent ways. Imagine trying to escape from that encroaching wall of death, only to have your quickest escape route destroyed by another player. Again, this is the promise – the most impressive thing I destroyed in my mayfly playthrough, aside from some explosive barrels, was a single empty water bottle sitting on a rusty oil drum. Still, this potential for “tracking” your enemies or simply noting their presence will appeal to players of Battlegrounds, for whom the closest thing to a footprint is a door left ajar.
There is a sense of competition between Battle Royale games. Fortnite’s battle royale mode upset Plunkbat developers Bluehole so much so they publicly complained about it. I ask Thompson if he sees Mavericks poaching players from Plunkbat, since it seems to be boasting a very similar set-up.
“I feel like if you look at Playerunknown’s … [it] is a very limited game. I think Mavericks is a much richer game than Playerunknown’s.
“We believe that a back drop of a fictional world leads to a better experience… We also see the world as an evolving world.”
By this he means the larger world outside of the battle royale. After all, this 400-person countryside arena is just a game mode within a 1000-person MMO-style open world. This will have a social hub, which they describe as “similar to a town in World of Warcraft” rather than the smaller, tight-knit hubs of Destiny 2 or Call of Duty: WWII. Here there will be player-to-player trading and other activities. There aren’t plans to add lots of game modes, however, as they’re wary of splitting the players. As far as loot and in-game rewards go, Thomspon answers my question about loot boxes in a way that is both cautious and non-committal.
“We’re generally avoiding loot boxes,” he says. “We’re currently looking at alternatives...”
That sense of a game still under construction extends to the rest of the battle royale mode too. They hope to invigorate the “mid game” of these massive deathmatches, says Thompson, by throwing in objectives. Players will be challenged to capture a particular point on the map, for example. And success will mean rewards at the end of the match, even if they should die far from the final circle of death. The idea is that this will liven up those too-quiet moments from Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, and give folks another reason to play, besides the all-or-nothing pursuit of a hot chicken dinner. However, like everything else, they’re still experimenting with these ideas. We still don’t know exactly what these mid-game objectives will involve.
It’s much too early to say if Mavericks will beat Playerunknown to death with its own frying pan. But it is certainly taking a brave run at it. Although Automaton say they’re confident about their capability to host so many players at once, the real test will only arrive when it comes to early access. To besmirch this cautious preview with a colourful metaphor – we can see some of the footprints, yes, but we still don’t know where they lead.