I was planning to have this done for when the game came out onto Early Access after my time with the Beta. It was supposed to enter Early Access on March 8 and they asked us to save some stuff beyond just general previews to then if we came to any sort of conclusion. Then they decided to release on March 4 with no notice so... here we are.
I want to note this is a First Impressions piece on The Culling and not a full review or preview. It is based on what I played in the closed alpha test they did before the Early Access release. I logged about 4 hours in the game during that time between playing the tutorials, a bot match, and a lot of online play. I have a feel for where the game is but this isn't a game I can talk about deeper strategies or say I've experimented with most of the different things. It also doesn't help that I couldn't help but come to the conclusion that I suck at the game overall after a period of dying a lot.
So what is The Culling? It's a battle royale style game that draws inspiration from that film and The Hunger Games to create a sixteen man arena match contested either solo or on two-man teams. Playing either online or in a botmatch, you have a round of around twenty five minutes in length to kill all your opponents in the arena however you can. Starting with nothing, it's up to you to find and create the tools you need either by crafting weapons with nanites and the materials you scavenge, or by opening the item crates and abandoned buildings around the area. These serve as points to draw people to and come in several tiers of how easy/hard they are to unlock, with the base being unlocked, the second level costing 50 F.U.N.C (the in-game nanite currency), and the third requiring an explosive to open up. Grabbing the items there leave you with better equipment than the bows, spears, axes, or other weapons you can craft but the trade-off there is you have likely exposed yourself to battle far more.
So if that's the basic idea of the game, let's go through briefly what worked and what didn't!
- Core Gameplay Loop
I found the core gameplay loop of The Culling to be rewarding very quickly. You are tossed into the arena with a handful of perks that you chose, with the avatar you build and a handful of F.U.N.C. nanocurrency. When it opens, you are in a forest area and you have to decide quickly where you want to go and what your plan to get yourself armed will be. Sometimes you get dropped right in front of an unlocked chest, but typically your decision boils down to one of two things. Do I try to craft something? Or should I make a beeline for the nearby building? Crafting will eat up some of your F.U.N.C. , but it will give you a knife, spear, or hatchet pretty quickly, and can also work to get other things like traps as well. However these items are ultimately lower tiered then what one can find in the buildings if you get lucky. On the other hand while the buildings can potentially load a player up, they is also no guarantee of that, and generally speaking there tends to be a lot of competition over the various building locations.
The buildings are a core feature to the game, and the three levels of chests keep people coming back to them later on throughout the match, as does their healing devices. That creates a hotspot for combat and even if it's relatively safe to be there most of the time, you never quite know, and these are among the places a three or four way skirmish is likely to break out as people try to get loot.
One bit that is easy to miss with some of the other things is that the game offers a decent amount of opportunities to be creative with the combat and tilting it in your favor. You have a variety of traps, blowgun darts that you can poison, poison sticks that you can make, explosives, and other tools that reward lateral thinking as much as vertical power up thinking.
After the early rush, you continue to try to improve your skill while stealthily walking through wooded areas. Everyone is out to kill you, so you need to be careful. You want to keep low, go place to place quietly and rely on your senses to tell if anyone else is in the region while listening to the announcer who gives you some pertinent information like when someone has been killed. We'll talk a bit more about him later, but overall this core loop works really well, especially with the variety that comes from your starting location and the perks you choose.
- Aesthetics and Theme
As soon as a player loads up The Culling, they'll notice some very strong visual design, with the dev team making use of the powerful Unreal Engine 4. The style gives a feel of a forest, with buildings that have a worn down look. It feels a bit odd given how overgrown it is, but it doesn't really clash too much. What really succeeds here and helps with the next point is the way the cameras are stationed around and keep looking at things going on. It helps really set the aesthetic and theme there and mixing that with the very raw wilderness successfully underlies something of a clash these types of things always have - why is a society so advanced doing something so uncivilized as having blood sports?
The nanite angle with the F.U.N.C. in general was a really smart decision. It's mostly just glossed over, but it makes it much easier to ignore when two rocks make a knife in ten seconds flat. You're using that technology that they are providing for killing, hunting and gathering, and in some cases it underlies the discomfort of a highly advanced uncivilized world while also letting the suspension of disbelief acknowledge that no, your three rocks can't make a hatchet, but that's what the nanites recognize as a hatchet recipe.
- The Atmosphere
This ties highly into the aesthetics and theme work, but I felt that it stood out enough to bring up separately. Beyond the visuals and the ambient effects, the announcer adds to the atmosphere by commentating on things going on. You can then add in things like the cameras, and the list in the sky of who's alive and who's dead. One thing the atmosphere tries very hard at, and succeeds generally speaking, is keeping you from forgetting that this is a blood sport and not just a nice little survival hike looking for materials. The timer and constant pressure to win also add to this by bearing down on players, and all these elements greatly build the tension in the game. The Culling wisely opts to avoid music, because that would likely hurt the effect of listening for sounds of movement around you and trying to keep your eyes open for a hint that an enemy may be near.
What Needs Work
- Combat Variety
In particular, while the game has a solid ranged weapon arsenal and they play somewhat differently, the melee weapons play almost identically in a rather simple manner. You have an attack button that you can hold down for stronger attacks, a block button that can block, and a shove button which breaks blocks. That's it and the weapons all use similar animations with the only differences being in attack speed and damage. A few things are needed here to help the weapons separate, such as different animations for each melee implement. I get the notion of keeping the combat simple and clean, and keeping the visceral feeling of common people tossed into the arena, but right now the combat often just dives into blocking and shoving matches that don't feel great to play.
- Perk Variety
Right now, the perks have a big issue on offense. Namely, almost all the weapons get the same bonuses. Each weapon has a perk like taking 25% less damage while wielding that class of weapon, or dealing 200% stamina damage to your opponent in addition to your base attack. While there are some that are a bit different, generally speaking they are clustered very close together with very little difference in what perks do around weapons in particular. I wouldn't mind having some perks for crafting advanced items or gaining a special move or two in combat.
- Map Hazards
This is listed in the Early Access goals to further expand, but I feel it's still worth mentioning. Right now, the only hazard in play is poison, which is static and triggered by players. I would like to see things more along the lines of The Hunger Games where sometimes it feels like the arena is out to get you. I don't think there should be anything too extreme given the competitive focus, but the odd thing pushing people around or making a part of a map more dangerous to be in can create a lot of tension, adding to the danger while also serving to reward skilled players with excellent places to hide. Additionally, more things the players can interact with or set up would be great as well.
- Voice Acted Lines
While I praised the atmosphere, the announcer added above this is the rub on that, as there are not enough lines recorded. In the four hours I played, I'd heard everything multiple times and it was beginning to get on my nerves at times. There needs to be a wide variety of lines because of the way multiplayer games work with people playing for long periods. One part that also notable here was that the announcer would often end up stopping a phrase to move to another with choppyness as he'd go from his general talk to announcing someone is dead, with it feeling awkward. One key reason the developer needs to get more lines here is that the last thing anyone wants is people turning off the volume for it prematurely given how the announcer feeds the atmosphere.
I had four crashes in the four hours I played, including one blue screen and a few other occasions where the game freezed and caused problems. That's not good for something that was being set to sell to people and the game shouldn't be crashing after an hour when it's being sold for real money. Another issue I ran into was that the game didn't want to be streamed via either OBS or XSplit which was frustrating and shows more issues with the status it was in at that time. There are also some wonky bugs as you might expect for an Early Access title, with this one taking the cake:
So The Culling is an Early Access title that is pretty promising. While there are a lot of things it can improve, it offers a robust core game experience. A few other things it might want to consider tossing in are things like Twitch integration for more casual matches, and programmable bots so that offline matches can be set to have different contestants react differently.
That brings it down to the real question. Would I recommend The Culling in its present state? Well first of all, you have to be living in North America as right now that's where all the servers are and lag kills a game like this. Second, you have to be interested in this type of gameplay loop and in getting Steam items as rewards. Lastly, you need to have a tolerance for Early Access tweaking and bugs. If you hit those three checkmarks, I give it a yes. The core of the game functions well and with some fixes and further updates it is one to watch.