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What will be the next battle royale hit?

PlanetSide Arena
Image credit: Daybreak

Battle royale has quickly gained momentum to become a huge phenomenon in contemporary PC (and console) gaming, as we recently discussed in-depth. Those more unfamiliar with the genre and its history should check out that discussion, but the basic gist of battle royale (BR) is that it’s a combination of survival and combat.

A pile of players are dropped into a sprawling level, and you’ve got to be the last person (or team) standing. So the basic concept is simple, but mastering these games is another matter altogether.

In some ways, the explosive popularity of battle royale represents a unique opportunity for game publishers. Because while BR has undoubtedly had a meteoric rise, it’s still relatively young in terms of its mainstream impact, and there’s theoretically still room for big-name (or indeed smaller) developers to make their mark.

We saw this earlier in 2019 with the surprise launch of Apex Legends from EA, which cooked up a real hype storm with how it attracted a ton of gamers so swiftly. That said, things haven’t looked quite so peachy for EA’s free-to-play shooter since, and this is the flipside of the BR coin: competing with the already existing behemoths of Fortnite and PUBG is tough. Very tough. And it involves a hell of a lot of work keeping a game constantly fresh and up-to-date.

Still, in recent times, even Fortnite has shown some weakness, and there’s clearly no shortage of developers looking for the chance to grab some turf in lucrative battle royale territory. However, the problem is a lot of devs jumping on the BR bandwagon – often with ‘early access’ (read: beta) games on Steam for the PC – are falling by the wayside and perishing.

The problem with many of those offerings – which may well have some innovative and smart ideas – is that after an initial spike of interest, the player base dwindles away to next to nothing, and any limited funding issues can then be compounded, with the game slowly ebbing away.

But there have got to be some real contenders for the royale throne out there, right? There are indeed, so let’s take a look, as we round up the current prospects – whether standalone titles, or modes of play within a game – most likely to become a hit in our opinion, and discuss their relative merits and chances of making it big in BR.

PlanetSide Arena

Could PlanetSide Arena outdo Apex Legends? (Image credit: Daybreak)

PlanetSide Arena

PlanetSide is a franchise you may well be familiar with – the original game was a massively multiplayer online shooter released over 15 years ago now – but this fresh take aims to bundle up a load of match-based multiplayer game modes, including battle royale.

It features a sci-fi setting, and the broad idea involves a choice of three character classes – assault, medic, engineer – lots of vehicles, as well as the players having jetpacks to make for some very nimble and mobile combat. Battle royale will be payable solo or in squads of three.

From what we’ve seen thus far – which is admittedly pretty limited – it looks pretty cool, and we’re hoping for good things from developer Daybreak here. However, part of PlanetSide’s big pitch is vast large-scale battles, and the battle royale will limit things to the usual hundred players (the ‘massive clash’ mode will be the sprawling 250 versus 250 player scraps).

So we won’t have the same sort of scale or chaos with the BR mode, but that said, the relatively tighter player numbers, when combined with improvements to the engine, with the devs concentrating on making the game run well on lesser spec PCs, should make for a very smooth BR experience. And that will definitely add to the appeal.

PlanetSide Arena should have already been out, but a delay was announced back in February, with a new target release date of summer 2019. A worrying sign? Well, we’d rather the devs get things right, and also there’s every chance this was a canny move to put some distance between this game and the release of Apex Legends. The latter’s a similar sci-fi title with a focus on mobility which was going ballistic back in March, when PlanetSide Arena was originally intended to launch.

Fallout 76 Nuclear Winter

Fallout 76’s take on battle royale brings in some novel concepts including nuke briefcases (Image credit: Bethesda)

Fallout 76: Nuclear Winter

Bethesda sprang a big surprise on us at the recent E3 show with the revelation of a new squad-based battle royale mode for Fallout 76, which was immediately launched into ‘pre-beta’ testing at the time.

What’s interesting about this particular BR spin is that it makes sense for the Fallout universe in terms of the setting, and Bethesda has neatly woven many of the trappings of its post-apocalyptic franchise into the battle royale. In other words, despite being adapted to a BR, it doesn’t lose itself, and still very much feels like a Fallout outing – and it’s all the richer for this.

That means touches like having Fallout beasts incorporated (which can drop tasty loot) for some extra dangers aside from human opponents, as well as locked safes you can pick, plus it’s even possible to build a camp (which are pre-constructed in the main game), and deploy briefcase nukes (that actually flatten areas of the map).

Not only this, but as the encroaching ring of fire closes in, if it touches things like car wrecks, they (or rather their engines) explode, adding further hazards (plus if you listen carefully, you can hear the screams of poor souls perishing out there in the flames somewhere). Even the player lobby, Vault 51, is fleshed out so you can explore the place, discover interesting bits of game lore, and interact with stuff.

Nuclear Winter’s shooter mechanics may not feel as spot-on as a dedicated battle royale effort (such as Apex Legends), but overall, there’s been a pretty positive reception from testers who are having a lot of fun giving the game mode a shot.

Indeed, the initial intention was that the E3 ‘pre-beta’ was only supposed to be active for a limited time, but soon after E3, Bethesda made the decision to keep the testing party going “indefinitely”, with the mode officially transitioning to ‘beta’ status – all because of the enthusiastic early feedback.

So, this is a promising start, then, and with further work and polishing – various ‘quality-of-life’ improvements and a new (second) map are coming to the beta in September – Nuclear Winter certainly has the potential to make its mark and stand out as something very different than just a straight BR, oozing post-apocalyptic character and Fallout appeal.

Spellbreak

Spellbreak offers some seriously fast-paced fireball-flinging action (Image credit: Proletariat)

Spellbreak

Battle royale with mages zooming around flinging fireballs and lightning bolts at each other is the basic pitch for Spellbreak, and that’ll doubtless be a tempting proposition for RPG fans.

The game has plenty of depth on the customization front, in terms of character classes, and also loot, all of which gives you access to a ton of spells and tricks including the ability to conjure up a lightning storm, tornado, or turn yourself invisible.

The action moves very swiftly, and involves a lot of being airborne via double jumps and other techniques to blast you into the air, with height being an advantage in terms of raining down fireballs on your opponent. Combat is therefore fast and furious, and you can combine spells in interesting ways – like freezing the ground, and then electrifying that frosty patch.

Spellbreak is in closed alpha and you can apply to join testing here. Currently, the game looks pretty smart and certainly fun, though it could perhaps use some more fleshing out – but then, remember, this isn’t even a beta yet, and as such it has a good deal of potential.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

Leave your dignity at the door, customize your very own daft giant inflatable costume, and try to make your way through a totally off-the-wall series of obstacle courses (essentially mini-games) along with 99 other competitors, only one of whom will take the crown at the end.

Devolver Digital showed off its unique comic take on battle royale at E3 recently, and plans to get the game out at some point in 2020. It’s essentially BR meets Takeshi’s Castle and indeed the trailer shows off some very similar elements to that TV programme (like having to choose between doors to run through, some of which open, and some of which are blocked shut, so you hurtle smack-bang into them).

Of course, Fall Guys isn’t strictly battle royale as we know it, but the one-winner-out-of-a-hundred principle is the same, and there will presumably be suitably evil ways to put your opponents out of the race in the various mini-games on offer.

Will this game dethrone Fortnite? Well, obviously not – but could it come out of leftfield to be something of a surprise hit? There’s an outside chance of that, given some potential wide-ranging casual and comic appeal, although even if that is the case, whether the novelty will last is another matter entirely.

Mavericks: Proving Grounds

Mavericks: Proving Grounds promises a sprawling 400-player battle royale (Image credit: Automaton)

Anything else to keep an eye on?

We also want to mention Mavericks: Proving Grounds, which has been on our radar due to its lofty aim of making a sprawling 400-player battle royale – which would be quite something to see – with interesting touches of realism like being able to track opponents via their footsteps in the mud, or the disturbance they’ve made running through foliage.

However, not much has been heard about the game of late, and looking at the official forums at the time of writing there appear to be some problems with the implementation of this ambitious offering.

A recent report indicates that Mavericks has reversed course back to a pre-alpha stage, which isn’t a great sign. In short, this definitely sounded like it had the potential to make an impact in the BR arena, but the current picture is a bit too shaky to really recommend it.

That’s not to say that the developer won’t still manage to hammer things into shape eventually, though; so this could yet be one to watch. The ambition of the game’s makers certainly can’t be faulted, that’s for sure.

Other than that, perhaps the trouble with trying to gauge the next major hit in battle royale is that it could be kept tightly under wraps, and sprung as a surprise launch. See Apex Legends and the huge impact that game made using this tactic. Of course, Fallout 76’s battle royale being announced at E3 recently also took everyone by surprise, too.

In other words, there’s a fair chance of the next big thing coming from out of nowhere, and with that in mind, what’s the best potential prospect we can speculate about right now?

As you doubtless know, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has a battle royale component (Blackout), and Activision has recently announced the Modern Warfare reboot for later this year.

Now, it’s not yet clear if the new Call of Duty will have a battle royale mode or not (although we do know it won’t have zombies, and will sport a 2v2 ‘Gunfight’ mode). A full multiplayer reveal is imminent, but we‘ve already seen retail listings that show multiplayer will support 2 to 20 players, so assuming that’s correct, this would seem to indicate no battle royale – or perhaps more to the point, no larger-scale battle royale like Blackout.

It’s entirely possible that Infinity Ward is planning something different in terms of a small-scale battle royale – after all, 20 players is more than standard CoD multiplayer in the past. And that could be an exciting prospect, but obviously this is mere guesswork at this point.

A strong new battle royale concept from CoD – be it small-scale, or a full-on BR mode if the aforementioned retail info turns out to be incorrect – might just seriously blaze a new trail. But for now, in the land of BR offerings that, y’know, actually exist and stuff, PlanetSide Arena and Fallout 76 appear to be our best hopes in the nearer term, with Spellbreak on the fringes and likely much further out.