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A character wearing a mask poses in front of a wall that reads THE FINALS Image: Embark Studios/Nexon

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Ex-DICE developers have made a very un-Battlefield shooter

A fully destructible environment requires constant outside-the-box thinking

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Death came from above the first time I was killed — sorry, “wiped” — in The Finals. I was standing in the hallway of office building in Seoul. Someone blasted through their floor/my ceiling with a rocket launcher, and their two teammates poured on the lead. I was smoked before I could aim down sights.

It’s the most fitting allegory for three hours of hands-on time in The Finals, a squad shooter coming soon from Embark Studios, the Nexon-backed operation started by alumni of EA DICE’s Battlefield franchise. The Finals is not a battle royale, nor an extraction shooter, nor does it resemble any buzzy sub-genre du jour among first-person shooters. But if you play it like a conventional FPS, you — if not your whole team — will get your ass wiped. Fast.

This is partly because of The Finals’ most distinctive trait: Most everything is destructible. You can see it for yourself if you get into the game’s next closed beta, which begins March 7 and runs through March 21 on Windows PC via Steam. Walls, floors, and entire buildings if you take out the right supports (though I didn’t see this happen) can all be pulverized. It’s not destruction in a set-piece way, either, where hitting the right node triggers a map change. It’s entirely in the moment, reflecting either the collateral damage of a landmine set in a parking garage stairwell, or the deliberate choice to blow out a wall instead of looking for the door.

All of this demolition is handled by Embark’s servers, and I can attest that it ran as advertised when the studio announced its new title last fall. I played on an Alienware Area 51m, with its GeForce RTX 2060 — not a bad setup, sure, but one that’s also four years old — and I never saw a framerate drop the entire time. My deaths were authentic; they didn’t happen because someone overloaded my position with violence and finished me off as my GPU coped with rendering it.

It’s the effective use of that destruction that will separate the winners from the meat in The Finals. This comes down to unconventional thinking, like the first attack that aced me, or a nearly innate knowledge of all the gadgets that one of three classes (so far) may access. I don’t know how they knew we were down there. There’s no minimap in The Finals (objectives are highlighted on-screen), much less any ping that visually alerts you to an enemy when they open fire nearby. It’s possible they had a Light-class teammate down there using her cloaking device, and she informed on us over their chat. It’s also possible it was just a lucky guess.

There’s more meta than lore in The Finals at this point, in other words. The game is positioned in the shooter-as-competition style embraced by Apex Legends, except this seems to be set in present day (at least the near future) and the locations are real-life. Though Embark’s designers have taken inspiration from films like The Running Man and franchises like The Hunger Games, I didn’t catch a dystopic whiff to my circumstances. Perhaps this has to do with the conceit of being “wiped” instead of killed; when you’re eliminated, you turn into a pile of coins, with a little board game figurine noting where you died. Then you wait through a long respawn countdown. But the rest of the photorealistic maps are colorful, brightly lit during the day, and lively at night. (The Finals dice-rolls your weather and time of day before each match.)

The goal of a match in The Finals is to win the most money, which is earned from eliminations, assisted kills, and other combat acts. But the most cash is picked up for completing the objective of “Cashout,” the capture-the-flag variant we played. Players rally to one of three vaults, grab its box, and hustle that to a cash-out station, which they must defend through a countdown. Obviously, this process may be interrupted at any time by the other two teams, who can either steal the box or overtake control of the cashout station.

An announcer lets everyone know when one team has picked up a cash box. Here again, you have to be situationally aware and perhaps unorthodox in your thinking. Amateurs (raises hand) usually break off for the nearest cash-out station in hopes of finding combat there. But if two teams are headed for the same objective, it might be better to continue to another undefended vault and haul it away; the money you get for cashing out is going to be well more than you get even for wiping out a whole fireteam.

There’s a wrinkle to Cashout which lets bottom-feeders (raises hand again) hang around and steal victory. If a cash-out station is still chugging when the horn goes off at round’s end, whoever controls its area gets that money. So again, you have to be thinking ahead for the inevitable defense, which is where gadgets like the C4 detonator and the “Goo Gun” are most useful. Once used, they have lengthy cool-downs.

The Goo Gun squirts an expanding foam that hardens into a barrier that’s tough to break down. My team was fortunate to defend a station that was located in an elevator, and one of our guys used the Goo Gun to wall off the open door; then they got on top of the elevator car, blasted through the shaft wall, and opened fire from there. We were still overcome by superior gunplay, plus explosives. All three of us were playing on gamepads, and The Finals does not have complete gamepad support yet, adding to the advantage keyboard-and-mouse pros had over us.

The C4 is useful for demolishing large structures to deny access. For example, there’s a long pedestrian bridge connecting two high-rises on the Seoul map. It’s there to be blown up, and not necessarily while people are on it. We were at a cash-out station at one end of it, and blowing up the bridge helped preserve our $6,000 gain, good for third place that round.

C4 is available only to the Heavy class, though I suppose the Explosive Mine that the Medium carries would have done the job. In any case, it’s good to coordinate with your team what roles everyone should take, because a straight-up damage-dealing approach isn’t going to cut it. The Finals’ classes are somewhat bog-standard but for the gadgets they can swap into and out of their loadouts. The Light is all about traversal, moving the fastest of the three and having access to a Grappling Hook perk that is at least as useful as the Cloaking Device (you can’t equip both). A lot of action goes down on rooftops and it’s helpful to get there faster than going up the inside of a building.

Image: Embark Studios/Nexon

But the Light’s firepower is close to nothing unless they’re going all in for sniping at a distance. The Medium can carry an assault rifle and a .357; the rest of their loadout is gadgets and explosives. The Heavy has the most firearm options, as one would assume, and moves the slowest. They can also equip a sledgehammer to bash through walls or melee an opponent.

Lacking a minimap, or anything other than directional audio to alert me to the enemy’s presence, there’s a real premium on knowing where the other team is. This is where seemingly less useful tools, like the Tracking Dart gun (carried by the Medium) or the Proximity Sensor (a Light tool) can help. But in any event, voice communication is absolutely critical. We were chatting over Discord during the hands-on; I understand that The Finals’ built-in VOIP will be ready for the next playtest.

So far, Cashout looks like the only game type, playable either in one-off matches, or a three-round Tournament mode. In the Tournament I played with two Embark developers, we managed to sneak into the second round by stealing a cash-out station right before the horn. If you make it into the beta beginning, it pays to have keyboard-and-mouse skills and strong CTF fundamentals. Go to the practice range and get a feel for all of the gadgets and how they deploy, too.

The Finals doesn’t have a launch date or window yet. When it does arrive, it will be a free-to-play game whose progression follows a familiar battle pass model, with an in-game store selling customizations. So far the beta is only on PC; PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will be included in the full release.