The Culling – Early Access Preview

Culling all survivors the ultimate game show is about to begin!
Culling all survivors the ultimate game show is about to begin!

Fans of Japanese cult horror favorite Battle Royale (and I am one of those), might want to take note of The Culling, released this week on Steam’s Early Access Program. A multiplayer survival action game, played from a first person perspective, where players maim each other until only one survives. While drawing loose similarities to other genre games like DayZ and H1Z1, it differs in it’s required time investment. As opposed to spending hours and days without seeing other players, The Culling is more intent on delivering condensed survival mayhem in 20 minute matches. You won’t have time to relax on a hammock on this tropical island, you may not even have time to craft your first knife.

Twenty minutes can feel like twenty hours when fifteen are gunning for you. You play the role of a contestant in a fatal game show. Players are randomly scattered across the landscape dotted with abandoned buildings. Cameras mounted around every corner track your position. A smarmy game show announcer blasts his cheerful voice, announcing player deaths and kill switch sightings with the same casual lunacy of Borderland’s Handsome Jack.

It may take a few matches, and a tutorial run or two, but in no time you will develop a sense for the fast paced survival this game hangs its hat on. In the film Battle Royale, when the teens were released on the island, some received random pot lids and flashlights, while another kid had a rugged high-end crossbow. The same can happen with The Culling. One match you may find yourself before a crate of manufactured steel spears. In another, you may find two rocks and make a stone knife. It’s random, but not to the point where you aren’t given a fighting chance to survive.

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Like the film, the player with the fancy guns and explosives will not necessarily be the winner of the match. Crafty players win. Players who lay traps, ambush those while crafting, or weak from fighting, win.

Much of the game revolves around crafting weapons and ammo. Crafting is not an unlimited action. The game throws at a convoluted explanation revolving around nanites and techno-babble for crafting. In essence, it’s a controlled economy system called FUNC. FUNC can be attained in certain tanks or human remains. It can also be earned by traveling across distances, exploring, and of course hunting other players. This currency is then used to mash rocks into a knife, or a knife into a branch for a spear. Bringing up a list of craftables is quick and easy, but also bringing up two objects together may display crafting possibilities.

promisingEA

It is important to note, that crafting or opening a crate locks you into an animation for a few seconds. This animation can be stopped. However someone observing you will note the blue crafting lights, or the crouched stance before a crate and attempt to land a few lethal blows with your back turned.

There’s also more to The Culling more than bashing other players in the ear with a stone hatchet. I realized this when playing the game’s two man team mode. While still getting the hang of this game, I ended up on a team with someone named Rewop. This guy is the second coming of King Leonidas, or Maximus Decimus Meridius. I’m just not sure which, but he was a one-man army. At the start of the match he stabbed a poor sap in the back. A minute later he speared two guys before I caught up to him by an antenna tower. From there he dropped a nice new spear and something called “orange juice.” Orange juice in The Culling is better than juice bottle full of crack, crystal meth, and Gatorade — actually it is crack, meth, and Gatorade. My vision lit up with bonus damage potential.

The map's central Arena. Where the last survivors will congregate for one final showdown.
The map’s central Arena. Where the last survivors will congregate for one final showdown.

Rewop also had a man tracker, a device that can detect one enemy player at a time. It appeared we were being followed. We went to the roof, where I laid snares down. Snare traps trip and momentarily stun a player allowing you to get the upper hand. Very useful to cordon off entrances, item crates, and lockers while you lie in wait. I fired some arrows, the enemy players charged into the trap. Within seconds they were piles of loot-able goop on the ground. I was injured. I needed bandages (that’s two branches and some FUNC). I needed to scavenge for branches.

Unfortunately for me, two other teams had come towards our location, attracted by the battle sounds. My companion said “stay here”, then leaped off the roof onto someone’s head, then that head wasn’t there anymore. I fired off some arrows, missing with most. I wasn’t sure if Rewop needed my help but he hacked that contestant in half. Then into the trees for two more quick kills. At one point I had enough FUNC to call down my own stash of weapons. This triggered a drone to come flying into the jungle platform I was near, leaving a trail of smoke and whirling noises. While these weapons are very powerful and expensive, waiting for them while alerting every player on the map, can be risky.

Rewop can kill Achilles, I'm sure of it.
Rewop can kill Achilles, I’m sure of it.

Rewop was the living embodiment of a sword. He cut through players like envelopes on coupon day. In the distance I caught sight of something: it was a wall of noxious green gas heading our way. The map has built in gas containers that when activated will fill an area with poisonous gases. Exposure to the gases can be fatal if you linger in them too long, but even just a short moment will leave you vomiting, hindering your combat abilities. Another team had watched us fight, and decided to gas us instead of taking us on straight away. Each match is timed and eventually the whole island will become consumed in gas, except the central arena. This arena is usually where the final survivors are forced out into the open for one final duel. It was here we all met our match to some red mohawked lunatic named OdinsAnalspear. Even though we lost, and that can be a bummer after a tense match of jungle cat and mouse and guerrilla hatchet jobs, it was still an amazing twenty minutes of gaming.

FixThisEA

The Culling isn’t a smooth, fully polished gaming experience yet. The game is, afterall, in Early Access. One of the biggest let downs at the moment is not being able to converse with contestants when the match is over. In fact, it’s a sudden shock when the match abruptly ends when the second to the last man is killed. I would have loved to call OdinsAnalspear some kind of enema related product, alas that’s not an option.

Aiming can be clunky. However, even after practicing in tutorials there were odd combat moments that I felt could be attributed to quirky network coding. Sometimes clear strikes with melee weapons result in nothing happening to an enemy player. While other strikes I felt were misses left them bloodied and groaning in pain. This was a little jarring when striking with a spear at someone I was stalking only to not have it registered and then I was chopped to pieces by two angry hatchets. Blocking a shot is supposed to give you time to counter strike, but at times a player appear to instantly shift over a few feet ready to strike me instead.

Some of the best gameplay in The Culling is luring players into traps, it can at times be the only deciding factor between two equal opponents. At the moment the options are limited. Caltrops and snares help trip or slow down opponents but their range limits their effectiveness. Remote explosives are extremely rare. That left me constantly hoping for more variety and trap options.

The Culling. however, has just hit easy access, so quirks, clunky combat, and lack of content is to be expected. Yet, it’s already leaped to Steam’s best seller listings, and rightfully so. The fast paced survival is already  good. The droning game show style presentation, while it can get irritating with its limited phrases, leads players to a morbid but tantalizing finale. There is plenty of thrilling matches already underway, and with feedback and refinement I only see this title’s popularity and appeal mounting over the next coming months.