The Culling Impressions: Battle Royale For The Masses
The Hunter Games
Coming in 2017: The Culling Of Battle Royale Games. 16 last man standing survival games fight to the death to be the only one allowed to briefly top the Steam charts. Yessir, as the glut of DayZ-inspired games perhaps come to the end of their time in the sun, the Zeitgeist has moved onto their more frantic and openly murderous offspring, the battle royale game. The film-inspired concept was popularised by another Arma mod (much as DayZ was), which did well enough that Daybreak scooped up the creator to build something similar into the DayZ rival H1Z1. There are going to be bloody dozens of these things doing the rounds before the year's out, you mark my words.
For now though, The Culling (from Lichdom: Battlemage devs Xaviant Games) gets the cachet - and the rocket-powered ride up the Steam charts - that results from being the first brand new game built around the Battle Royale/Hunger Games/Running Man concept. It's got the gleeful showman sadism of a Verhoeven movie, it's got a whole lot of sights lifted directly from those Jennifer Lawrence films, it's got silly haircuts and it's got a whole lot of crafting. This latter is a big part of why it's doing so well, and also what sets it somewhat apart from its big-studio antecedents.
Here's the deal: 16 players are deposited, empty-handed, into a vast dome containing big stretches of grassland, forest and lake, as well as a smattering of abandoned buildings. Then they all have to kill each other (although a team variant is on offer too) with whatever they can find to hand. The last one standing wins, and the crowd goes wild. There's none of the attempted politicking of Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, by the way: this is openly a gameshow.
Where the earlier Battle Royale games are hung around finding and using ready-made weapons, The Culling is more about crafting basic killing tools out of rocks and sticks, at least until such time that you've spilled enough blood to be able to afford loot crates bearing more sophisticated murder-toys. Two rocks make a knife; add another one in and you've got a hatchet. Two branches make a bandage. Yeah, just go with it. Sticks and branches in appropriate quantities make a bow, or you can sew yourself a satchel with which to carry more, or even some basic body armour.
It's pulling from the simple, memorable recipes of Minecraft, but it throws in the additional element of being limited by how many 'F.U.N.C.' points you have. Takes five of 'em to build a knife or a bandage, for instance, while if you want to summon in a supply crate full of higher-end goodies you'll need around 120 F.U.N.C. They're gained by exploring and by killing, though you can also recycle unwanted tools or components at special stations. Point is, they're not plentiful: between that restriction and extremely limited inventory space, crafting anything is a pretty big deal.
But craft you must, and quickly, because if you don't have a bow by the first time you sight another player, you're almost certainly dead. If you don't have a knife or a hatchet when they charge at you once they're out of arrows, you're also dead. If you don't have a bandage when they peel a few slices off you, you are once again dead. Some basic stealth - particularly backstabbing - is possible, and guns and grenades can come into play in the later stages of a match, but really The Culling's violence is all about messy, frantic, almost laughable collisions. While broadly well-presented, its straight-from-the-asset-store animations and physics leave a lot to be desired, and its most crucial dramas wind up looking like shop dummies re-enacting the greatest hits of Chaturbate (obviously I have absolutely no idea what that is. I just heard it mentioned somewhere and thought I'd namecheck it to sound contemporary).
Presentation notwithstanding, there is some strategy to melee fights: it's not simply a case of he who carries the biggest stick wins. Blocks and ripostes are possible, as is good ol' circle-strafing, and big upsets are eminently plausible. Especially once you factor in stuff like easily-made blowdarts which do persistent poison damage over time, or even hurling anything in your hands right at your opponent's face for a spot of crude insta-damage. The Culling is tense and unpredictable even when looking its wobbliest - and I have no doubt that many of those wobbly edges will be straightened out during what will doubtless be a generous spell in Early Access.
There are multiple other layers of strategy, too, revealing a thread of higher-level ingenuity running through what might otherwise be a timed arena deathmatch. You can construct caltrops and snares with which to create ambushes or turn the tables on a pursuer, and you can monitor the skies for crate drops that might reveal the likely destination of an opponent. Certain drops even include 'man-trackers' which can lead you directly to an enemy's location - though, of course, someone else may well have one tracking you. Gas canisters, and a big white button which remotely triggers them, can also wreak havoc. Even if they don't outright kill someone, they might flush them out into the open.
There's plenty of ingenuity in The Culling's brutality, and while it's an intimidating prospect for a rookie, it's currently balanced in such a way that you're fairly unlikely to meet a game-over within a minute of starting because someone shot your brains out from half a mile away. You might even get to clobber a bloke in full body-armour to death with a stone knife because he didn't see you coming as you snuck up on his snipey hiding place. Quick wits, not necessarily the sharpest hatchet, can win the day here.
This will, I suspect, be a challenge for The Culling as its development continues. Players will inevitably demand new crafting recipes and new drops in order to remain interested, and I can only imagine that retaining any sort of flatness - i.e. ensuring that a naked chap with a rock still has a meaningful chance of surviving an encounter with Johnny Machinegun - is a fearsome design challenge.
I also hope the writing and humour could enjoy a few tweaks between now and then. I'm partial to a bit of SmashTV-style sadistic gameshow host patter, but right now the gags are both broad and thin, as well as looping regularly. It's getting annoying fast, in other words, and if I'm to buy that for a dollar then it either needs to have masses more variety and some sharper gags or simply tone it down. I think, if anything, The Culling could stand to a bit a wilder, though - it goes some of the way there with its silly haircuts and a few dress-up options, but it's stranded in a slightly awkward halfway house between absurdity and grittiness. It's on the road to Saints Row, and I think that destination would suit it rather well.
What I really like, presentation-wise, is how it depicts the act of crafting. While there's some in-fiction magic nanobot stuff going on to ultimately transform a stick and rock into a working bow in less than ten seconds, you do get some proper, almost toothache-inducing noises of grinding and splintering as your character mashes the resources together. It's a little thing, and the concept it's wrapped around is still inherently crazy, but it makes all the difference: you feel like you're making something from the Earth's own bounty, not just pressing buttons on an interface.
I'm fond of The Culling, even if it's not entirely where it needs to be yet. It's rickety, but it's managed to bundle appealing theme, stressful conflict and logical crafting into a setup that feels very natural, and it's got a constant undercurrent of tension. Heading into an apparently empty building in a DayZlike, knowing there's a risk but knowing that, at the very least, you'll get to respawn if someone gets the drop on you, is one thing, but knowing that you're out of the game completely if they do is another. Matches last 25 minutes, so you stand to lose a great deal of time and effort if you get offed in the later stages. Add to that smarter players who know how to use tempting locations or items as traps and the pervading sense of menace is absolute.
The Culling is understandably and somewhat justifiably very popular, and if it can keep it up without succumbing to the over-familiarity or hardestcore-pandering that has seen so many other survival games fade away, it should last a whole lot longer than any of its ill-fated contestants.
The Culling is in Early Access via Steam now. I played revision #88858 on March 8th, 2016.