Every week, Brendan is thrown into the deadly arena of early access to fend for himself amid the crafting games and first-person murderthons. This time, he tries to survive The Culling.
When the man with the pink mohawk walked into my tripwire and got his leg trapped, I knew I had him. This creep had been chasing me the whole way down-river, firing arrows at me and harrassing me every step of the way. He pursued me to the arena in the centre of the jungle, where I quickly set up a handful of traps at various entry points. He plodded in and - snap! - gotcha. I ran at him. This was it. Spear up, Brendan. Revenge!
Then I was smashed in the side of the head with a pickaxe. The man's team mate was still alive.
It has only been a few months since we last explored The Culling, the fatal Hunger Games-em-up. Alec dived in and enjoyed himself. For me, the incident above was pretty typical. At its worst, The Culling is a 15-minute jaunt through empty jungle followed by a shonky knife fight in the dirt. But at it's best, it is a messy, stressful bloodbath. At the end of my first kill (which took me an embarrassing 90 minutes of playtime to achieve) my heart was pounding and I felt like I had been given a shot of clandestine fluid from some giant animal's adrenal gland. What's more, the circumstances of the kill were exactly what I wanted from a Battle Royale simulator.
I began, as you sometimes randomly do, on the very outskirts of the dome. The map is fairly large. It's comparable to something like Rust, though not, I think, as big as ARK: Survival Evolved's huge island. At the centre you have the arena I mentioned - a metallic, multi-level ring where many of the "shows" come to an end. There's a reason for this, which I'll talk about soon enough. First, the murder.
I was near a tunnel entrance, a long tomb-like sewer. I already knew how to craft traps. Bash trees to get branches. Bash stone to get rocks. Smush them together (rock + stick = caltrops, caltrops + rock = tripwire) and you have a handful of nasty things. But in my hurry I also made a blowgun and discovered that you can make poisonous darts by dipping it in a nearby container of poison.
There are all sorts of things you can make with enough F.U.N.C, the game's nano-currency. But you rarely have enough to do everything you want, especially at the start. You have earn this stuff over time, or you can discover it in the long-decayed remains of previous contestants. Sometimes you find dismembered arms or bones in fridges. It is that type of game.
I hustled into the tunnel, where some side rooms full of lockers gave me extra goodies, including a barbarous hunting knife. I considered the tunnel. Hmmm. Only two entrances. All right then.
I set up tripwires at both ends and got out my trusty MAN TRACKER. This device is something you can usually have airdropped in with enough nano-monies. Simply go to a designated air supply point and press a button. But thanks to the perk system I already had the do-hickey in my inventory. This perk system was added after Alec went on his murder sprees. It offers you the chance to make a 'loadout' - specialised characters with starting items or better stamina. A ranged specialist might have a perk that grants bonus damage with any bow, a bestial knifeman might have health bonuses and a perk that grants extra speed when you have a knife equipped.
For me there were more interesting perks. The man detector shows the direction of the nearest contestant and begins to beep when they are within 99 metres. I also chose an ability which made me invisible to these devices, in case anybody else had one, and a perk which stealthified my footsteps and crafting noises. I was determined to be hard to spot.
I was fumbling about in the locker rooms, periodically looking at the man detector, when it started beeping. 97 metres. 88 metres. 79 metres. Someone was coming into my tunnel. I got the poison blow darts ready and ran to the tunnel proper just in time to see the doors spring open and the poor schmuck get caught on the wire. I fired off my darts.
FINALLY, a hit. Any second now they will succumb to the poison and -
My prey scrambled out of the trap and injected themselves with something. Then they ran straight at me. What followed was an inhuman scuffle of slashing, shoving and stabbing. With 9 points of health left, I landed the final blow. Amid a bloody haze and the sound of my own heartbeat, the game congratulated me.
"You killed Super Space Jesus."
Then the gas came.
This is the reason everyone ends up in the dangerous central arena as the show goes on. After a few minutes have passed, the map starts to "close". This means that toxic gas starts seeping in at the edges of the dome. The tunnel was beginning to flood. I ran down the sewer and out the other end, abandoning the blowgun that Space Jesus had knocked out of my hands. The gas is the main character of the game. It flushes everyone out, and the sickly green canisters dotted around the map can also be shot or triggered to release this stuff, making whole areas inaccessible for a time.
Unfortunately for me, this meant I was headed to the centre again. Where yet another pink-haired monster shot me and then stabbed me with a trident.
"You were killed by KARMA."
Kills are hard to pull off in The Culling and your first attempts at survival suffer greatly from the professional murderers who know the map and the crafting system by heart. It soon becomes clear when you look up at the scoreboard (a gorgeous list of deaths floating in the sky) who has been playing a lot of this game, and who has not. Which is arguably true to the spirit of something like the Hunger Games, a story in which contestants are divided into those who can slice a man in two and those who can barely hold a stick.
It's a sharp and nasty distillation of Rust. But obviously it lacks the edge of uncertainty of that game - you might meet a person in Rust and stare at each other for a few seconds, then back away slowly, run away, and never see them again. To take another example, in the Division's Dark Zone, you might hang out with a stranger for a while, travel with them and kill enemies together, then double-cross them as they try to extract their loot (you bastard). Like Battle Royale and its imitators, you do not know who to trust in these games. But you can trust, if you chose.
The Culling forgoes all that new age mumbo jumbo. It simply lifts all the survival and crafting elements wholesale, implanting them into a vast 'one life only' deathmatch. This makes it both familiar and strange. The rules are as straightforward as Quake - kill everyone (unless you're playing team mode, in which case you will have one friend) but the methods of rubbing rocks together to make knives are a la mode. You could probably call the genre "craft 'n' kill" or something. I don't know.
Myself, I probably got more enjoyment out of spectating. In terms of survival, I wasn't bad - often getting down to the final three or two. But this was probably just because I was excellent at avoiding other players. I only wish being a trap-loving sneak was as viable a playstyle as gathering as much ranged weaponry as possible and touring the buildings while murdering all around you.
As such, it doesn't lend itself to a spidery playstyle. Hiding is not really a valid long-term strategy, what with all the poisonous fumes. And this is my major bugbear. It's a game which suggests you can lie in wait like a tasseled wobbegong. It even has a pre-made loadout called the "Trapper", with perks that improve traps and decrease crafting time. But while you could lurk in a single building or cave or sewer, you'd be ill-advised to. The gas will always flush you out eventually and while you have been holed up, those constantly moving from building to building are reaping the benefits of picking up new weapons, and crafting as they go.
I'm a sneaky, awful person. I love being Winston in Overwatch, jumping behind enemy lines and harassing the snipers, then leaping away when things get tough. In Dark Souls 3 I like to use the Young White Branch to pretend that I am a gravestone when someone invades, and then I play hide and seek with them for AGES. The Culling comes tantalisingly close to letting you play like this, but ultimately it rewards brute strength and better sword fighting. Not only does this force you to fight in close quarters using the slightly wonky combat system (first-person stabbing, blocking and parrying has rarely been done well, especially in multiplayer) but it also means there are some completely obsolete elements.
For instance, a backstab attack inflicts a lot more damage than a normal attack and there is a perk that gives you immunity to these backstabs. But there are so few opportunities to commit to this strategy. This is an online FPS for the PC, after all. Everyone is permanently glancing in every direction like a paranoid crow on cocaine. So what's the point of this perk? And with so much of the map based on wide open spaces, what is the likelihood of you getting the chance to backstab at all? For gits like me, it's very frustrating.
At the same time, it can still be very funny. After I died to Karma - the pink-haired, trident-toting monster - the map closed in with more gas, flushing the last remaining survivor towards him. My murderer ran out of rounds and threw his rifle at his opponents head.
A few seconds later, he knocked the man's bow out of his hands. He ran towards it, grabbed it, and then immediately threw that at the man's head as well. The whole scrap went on to last about two full minutes, with both of them dancing around like marionettes trying to slap one another without getting their strings tangled up. It was ridiculous. Of course, Karma won in the end.
This opens up another criticism. Matches are 25 minutes long, so the time investment of a single show (not to mention the long wait times to join a bloodletting) is sizeable. It means that a fight to the death can be exhilarating, especially when it comes down to you and one other contestant in the last minutes, taking swipes at one another with sharp rocks. But it also means that an early loss, or many deaths in a row, are extremely aggravating. While games like Rust aren't exactly noob-friendly, there is at least some chance the person you just saw dandering across the plains won't cull you from the world. Here, it is literally the name of the game.
So there it is. By it's nature, The Culling is an unforgiving game. It requires speed, constant movement and a lot of practice. The frantic cousin of DayZ, if you will. But it is also a funny game in its own right (and I don't mean the announcer's quips). It's not for the likes of a rogue such as I - it is far too hectic, the playerbase too skilled at murder - but having felt the rush of the kill I can definitely understand why it has been riding high in the charts for so long. So if you do see me out there again - running into a tunnel perhaps - please do come and say hello. That's it, in here. Come in. Come in.
The Culling is available on Steam for £10.99/$14.99. These impressions were based on build 1205242