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One game is betting hard against the direction of PUBG and Fortnite (correction)

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Why horror belongs in battle royale

Hunt: Showdown - A figure stands in front of a burning building Crytek

Correction: The article has been edited to reflect that there is a solo mode in the game and extraction takes 20 seconds, not 90.

All battle royale games are horror games at their core.

I’d put the experience of being in the final 10 players of a PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds match up against any moment in any horror game, in terms of sheer terror. Scouring the landscape, trying to get information on enemies and making sure you have enough time to get into the circle is one of the most stressful situations in gaming. It was one of the things that drew me to play hundreds of hours of PUBG in the first place.

I’m now desensitized to PUBG’s brand of horror, however, and I can’t find anything similar in Fortnite Battle Royale’s lighter action. Hunt: Showdown, however, mines the horror of this genre for everything it’s worth.

Crytek’s first-person entry into the PC battle royale genre does a lot of things differently from its genre counterparts. There’s a PvE element with wandering zombies. There are boss battles, which give players an objective to focus on. Hunt: Showdown gets rid of the “circles” of a traditional battle royale game, instead allowing players more freedom of movement. It’s something new, something terrifying.

Should I stay or should I go?

It was nighttime in the game when I loaded into my first match of Hunt: Showdown. To my east, there was a zombie with its head on fire. To my west was the sound of ... something. Beyond both, my objectives: a pair of clues that would tell me where to find a giant monster named The Butcher.

I was carrying a 19th-century rifle and a few dozen bullets. My buddy Andy’s hunter was next to me. We knew that somewhere out there, there was some number of other player-controlled hunters roaming around, searching for both us and any zombies they could take down. We had no idea how many other players were on the map, which makes it much harder to know how safe you should feel.

This was the battle royale-style game I was looking for.

I still don’t know how many other players enter into any single round of Hunt, but I don’t want to find out. I’d rather always wonder, knowing that any number of enemies could be tracking me at any moment.

Hunt: Showdown works like this: You and a partner, if you’re not playing solo, are searching for a boss monster on a large, swampy map. You’ve got to find three clues, each of which narrows down the search area significantly, to track it down.

There are two bosses in Hunt’s early access state: The Butcher and a giant spider. Killing them rewards you with tokens, which can be exchanged for a ton of in-game money and experience — if you survive the mission.

I’ve never successfully gotten out with a token in hand.

The gold is used to buy new guns, consumables and other tools that will help you survive. The experience is used to level up your character. The more experience you get, the more capable of killing zombies (and other players) your hunter becomes.

But there’s a catch: You die, and your hunter is gone for good. Every item they were holding, gone. Every perk you got for leveling them up, gone. You’ll have to start all over, buying new gear sets and leveling them up all over again.

And you thought losing in the final circle was brutal.

To make matters worse, if you’re the one to bring down a boss, every other player on the map knows exactly where you’ll be for the rest of the match. It takes 20 seconds to extract with the tokens, giving your opponents time to catch up and bring you down. You have to survive for a minute and a half knowing that everyone else who is still alive wants you dead.

Hunt: Showdown - player holding a shotgun as they walk into a clearing in a swamp Crytek

You can always choose to extract early. Even if you don’t get anywhere near the boss monsters, you can take the experience and gold you earned killing zombies, and use it to become more powerful in the next round.

The decision to bail with very little or stick around for bigger rewards is one of the biggest draws of Hunt. Those tokens are awfully tempting, but so is holding onto all my gear. The Butcher has killed me multiple times; I’m so sick of starting all over. Maybe next time I’ll play it safe, but doing so means I’ll never get the thrill of finally winning.

Much of Hunt’s tension comes from that push and pull of your greed versus the desire to survive. Sure, farming a bunch of the standard roaming zombies for quick experience and money may seem easy at first, but you’re toast if you get surrounded by more than a few of them. The Gilded Age rifles and revolvers in the game can only hold a handful of bullets, and reloading takes forever, so there is no such thing as a safe engagement. And if your buddy dies? Good luck. Going it solo is a recipe for disaster.

Death has stakes. Real stakes. You don’t just start over in a new round; you lose an entire character and everything you had achieved with them. And staying alive longer only ratchets up the tension. With each escape, regardless of whether you brought down the target, your character becomes that much more valuable — and it becomes that much more painful to lose them. PUBG doesn’t have that. Fortnite doesn’t have that. The only penalty in those games is lost time. Hunt takes things away from you.

So you have to choose. Are the rewards worth it? Or is it time to bail with what you’ve got, and hope for better luck next time?

The end result is remarkably stressful. It’s an achievement in making a horror game competitive, which is something that PUBG came so close to achieving, albeit perhaps unintentionally.

This IS early access, though

Yes, Hunt: Showdown has significant performance issues. Technically, it’s a mess. I’ve got a GeForce GTX 1070 in my rig and the game frequently chugs, even with no enemies on screen. It crashes just regularly enough to be frustrating, particularly when it results in the loss of a hunter. It takes several minutes to find a match, then several more to even load into the game. Starting a match is a long process, often taking several minutes for matchmaking, not to mention the extended loading times.

Hunt: Showdown - using a wooden-handled weapon against zombies Crytek

At the moment, balance in Hunt is also a mess. The boss monsters are incredibly difficult, which could be considered either a feature or a bug. Collision detection is sometimes glitchy. This is a game where each death has to feel like it is fair, and results from your own mistakes or another player’s actions. Getting killed by the damn bee lady (play Hunt and you’ll know the one) is immensely aggravating. I often felt like I was fighting the game, and not the AI or other players.

Of course, Hunt is still in early access, so Crytek will presumably solve a lot of these issues over time. But right now, they make it a hard sell for someone accustomed to the relatively stable Fortnite or PUBG. Be aware of these issues before you decide to buy the game.

A new way forward

Hunt: Showdown’s spin on the battle royale genre, or at least on games that are adjacent to battle royale titles, represents a commitment to something that the other major games in the genre have been running away from. Crytek’s entry entirely eschews arcadey action for unforgiving, strategic gunplay.

Fortnite’s success arose in no small part from its accessibility. It’s essentially the League of Legends to PUBG’s Dota 2 (or the Heroes of the Storm to PUBG’s League of Legends, if you consider the original Arma battle royale mod to be Dota 2 in this metaphor ... but we’re also mixing genres and arguments in a borderline irresponsible fashion at this point). Fortnite is faster, more cartoony and — perhaps most importantly — free-to-play. Its now-massive fanbase means that you’ll never wait more than a few seconds for a match. The lack of meaningful progression means that no one ever has to get too angry about losing a match, which is part of the reason the overall fanbase can often seem so cheerful and wholesome.

PUBG developer PUBG Corp. is taking note of the successes of Fortnite’s model. Recently, the studio announced a new, smaller map, designed to encourage faster games. Where PUBG previously reveled in the slow, quiet moments of running across vast stretches of unpopulated land, gunfire will be new name of the game on the smaller map. Again, a major player in the space is moving toward disposable matches.

It’s indicative of the way the genre is moving.

Players in Hunt: Showdown move carefully and quietly through a dimly lit interior space Crytek

Meanwhile, Crytek is going in the other direction with Hunt. I recently played five matches in a row without ever seeing another player, choosing to extract before facing off against the boss monster rather than risk my newly leveled character. It feels like Crytek is giving up the action-focused side of the battle royale genre to its two biggest games, and is instead carving out its own way. Each match means something, and there’s always a reason to be afraid. The better you do, the more you have to lose.

While some players may have an advantage due to entering a round with powerful characters, that fact also gives you more incentive to take them down. Killing a player who obviously has a few wins and a lot of time invested into that particular character is a rush, and almost feels like game-sanctioned trolling. If you lose one of those engagements, who cares? The odds were stacked against you. But if you win? You just ruined someone’s day, and that can be delicious.

It’s the only game that’s embracing the horror potential of the battle royale genre. Remember, this was a genre born out of the novel of the same name (and its film adaptation). And that movie is horrifying.

Hunt: Showdown may not succeed. It might never get the player base necessary to keep up its multiplayer-only design. But it is a fascinating experiment in competitive horror, and it’s a strong bet against the tide of the current online champs. It’s a risky move, but these design decisions also work to keep the player scared of everything, all the time. And that’s something that’s often missing in other online games.

Long live horror.