PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has created nothing short of a shock wave in the modern gaming scene. It’s the new zombies, or military shooters, or WW2 shooters for that matter, it’s the new hot thing that everyone and their publisher wants a piece of. As always that means imitations, and while Epic Games’ Fornite has done a bang-up job of dethroning the original, there are countless other, lesser (and much lesser) polished attempts at the relatively simple formula. A quick glance at either the App store or Google Play store, never mind Steam’s Early Access and Greenlight pages will show countless clones of incredibly poor quality, all vying to be the next PUBG or Fortnite, or at the very least enticing you to install them so they can bombard you with adware.
It is into this already over-saturated market that Boss Key Productions, headed by former Epic Games director Cliff Bleszinski and previously known for Law Breakers, announced their surprise release of Radical Heights. Taking an unfortunate, but all too serious page out of Devolver Digital’s E3 presentation from last year (yes, THAT one) Radical Heights has launched into “extreme early access” inviting players to take part in the game’s development as it happens in real time.
Early Access isn’t necessarily a bad thing, many great games have come out of it and good developers have used feedback from the community to make their games better as a result. But it is an overwhelmingly easy to exploit system, and for every Long Dark, RimWorld, or Divinity: Original Sin there’s 10x as many games looking to cash in and cash out quickly. It’s too early to tell if that’s the case with Radical Heights, but some of the signs are already blaring too loud to ignore.
First a little about the game itself. As you’d expect it’s a Battle Royal-style third person shooter. Players are dropped into the map, scavenge for weapons and supplies, and fight to be the last one standing. As the game progresses the map is supposed to get smaller and smaller, forcing the few remaining players into close confrontations where they’ll use whatever is left until a winner is decided.
There are a few changes here to try and differentiate this from the mass of other titles doing the same thing. First, the style of the game borrows heavily from 80’s game shows, complete with overly annoying announcers and crazy, whacky effects. Prizes found around the map include VHS players, Walkmen, that sort of thing, reminiscent of the prizes from Smash TV. These prizes grant you bonus cash, which leads to the second major change. Cash is king in Radical Heights, and rather than finding weapons and health kits around the map most of your pickups will be wads of moolah. Cash is used to buy weapons and power-ups, or can be sent away to an offshore account to give you a boost for next mission.
If that sounds easy to exploit then you’re right, it is, and it’s pretty easy to be caught in a loop of players hoarding cash, immediately buying weapons, and culling half the player list in a manner of seconds. Balance goes right out the window, and really well stocked players can be hard to take down by anyone.
That’s not even going into the myriad of other issues with the game right now. That the team decided this was what they wanted the public’s first look at their product to be is baffling. Female character models aren’t available whatsoever, and the male model only has a few options for customization. Animations all look incredibly stock, many of which you might’ve seen in the cheap, cash-grab rip-off games also pumped out on the Unreal engine. Most of the weapons didn’t have audio for their reloads, and the ones that did were stock sound effects heard dozens of times before. Speaking of sound, this is one of the most sparse soundscapes in any game, and it made me uncomfortable, like the Orfield Labs Silent Room. Most buildings aren’t textured at all and the objects that are textured changed their textures based on my camera angle.
The gameplay itself is rudimentary and does absolutely nothing to push the boundary on what PUBG and Fortnite have already mastered. Supposedly instead of the playable zone shrinking inwards, parts of the map would become unplayable, but in several matches that never seemed to matter. The time limit on this also seemed far too long, and after the player count hit about half, the time between kills increased exponentially because players simply didn’t find each other. The player is bizarrely limited to only one weapon at the beginning of the match, then forced to find upgrades which again favors anyone that hordes money between matches. Finally the shooting just isn’t all that fun, lacking any weight whatsoever, and the choice to lock the game to third person means that corner-looking is the name of the game, doing away with most of the tension of gunfights.
The only thing that did seem polished about Radical Heights was its in-game shop. Money carries over between matches, but there was no way to purchase cosmetic items without ponying up real-world dollars for gem-packs. The loading screens are all advertisements for the shop and the main menu is littered with links as well. The whole thing reeks of the worst parts of early access, and feels very slimy as a result.
For what it’s worth, the game is stable. It’s ugly as all get out, but it didn’t crash. But a cart full of manure that stays on the road is still a cart full of manure, and that’s what Radical Heights feels like. Indie studios are supposed to be the ones that break away from the mainstream, and Boss Key was founded by Bleszinski’s desire to make games his old publisher didn’t want to make. If the best idea he and the team can come up with is to make a second-rate rip-off off his former company’s product, already a rip-off of an existing game, then maybe retirement wasn’t such a bad idea. Regardless, if Fortnite and PUBG haven’t pulled you into the world of Battle Royal shooters, this is certainly not the game that will.