My introduction to the Battle Royale genre was through the most well-known Battle Royale game out there: Minecraft. Back before the days of Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone, there was a mod for Minecraft that imitated the island arena of The Hunger Games films. The game mode pitted 24 players against each other, either on teams or as individuals, having them find food and weapons dotted around the map and battle it out to be the last one standing.
Since then, the Battle Royale genre has exploded, with games like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite ascending it to stratospheric heights. Curiously though, with the advent of Call of Duty’s free-to-play Warzone mode, the genre is starting to feel like a different sort of thing altogether.
Evolution of the Battle Royale
Now, this isn’t to say that Warzone and Fortnite are dead games, or even that we won’t be seeing Battle Royale titles being released. Instead, it seems that the genre is evolving into something else entirely.
When Bluehole Studio's (now Krafton's) PUBG first careened into the gaming world back in December of 2017, there was a real sense that a game like this hadn’t existed before. At this point in Battle Royale history, H1Z1 had set the standard for the genre, with an arcadey style of gameplay and a focus on fast-paced combat and movement. PUBG, however, was rooted in the core mechanics of Arma 3, a game that prides itself on its realism, and it came onto the scene with a heavy emphasis on survival. PUBG made everything more challenging: healing took longer, reviving your teammates took an age, weapons had heavy recoil, and there were around 2000 hotkeys to learn and bind to your keyboard. Slow movement and cumbersome controls often made traversing terrain a struggle, and death was around every corner —usually crouched in a toilet somewhere, holding a shotgun.
PUBG began its life as a third person shooter, but a year after its initial release, a first-person mode was added. This was when the game really exploded, with many top FPS players, such as Counter Strike pro, Shroud, streaming the game on Twitch for tens of thousands of viewers. With PUBG now in an immersive first-person perspective and striving to keep players grounded (somewhat) in reality with its core mechanics, there was a sense that this was what Battle Royale would look like for the foreseeable future.
However, a little game called Fortnite had been building up an audience for about a month before PUBG’s first-person game mode was released, and it would quickly become the Battle Royale game. Its colourful palette, return to third-person perspective, and focus on its base-building mechanics put it completely at odds with PUBG’s dingy post-apocalyptic vibe. It was fast-paced, flicky, and polished, and the fact that it was free-to-play and had cross-platform functionality meant that it was a much more accessible game for many players.
Fortnite’s release led to a huge ballooning of the Battle Royale genre, and where Shroud had shown the average Joe that you could put up 20 kill games in PUBG, Ninja, Myth and co. were showing you could do the very same thing in Fortnite. By this stage, Streamers were intrinsically entwined with the Battle Royale genre, with many in-game cosmetics being added bearing their names and Twitch Rivals tournaments helping to propel PUBG and Fortnite to new heights.
The New Wave
PUBG and Fortnite had paved the way for Battle Royale games, and it felt like every new game was adding their own spin on the game mode in order to cash in. Aside from a few contenders cropping up, such as Ring of Elysium and Realm Royale, it wasn’t until Activision stepped in with Call of Duty Black Ops 4 that the genre saw a new shift in direction.
Where Fortnite was fast-paced, Blackout was faster still, and with a huge arsenal of Call of Duty weapons at your disposal, a skilled player could rack up kills incredibly quickly. It was also first-person, pitting it more directly against PUBG. In 2019, Respawn Entertainment, the creators of Titanfall and Titanfall 2, released their own first-person BR, Apex Legends. This saw the pace of Battle Royale gameplay increase even further.
While in PUBG you often had to plan a safe route around an open field to ensure there was a cover, Apex saw players sliding down hillsides at break-neck speed and using their character’s abilities to fly on ziplines into the fray of a blazing battle. What Apex also brought to the genre was the ability to resurrect a teammate who had fallen by bringing an item they dropped to a specific point on the map. This helped to assuage many people who found permanent death in a game like PUBG a frustrating feature —it’s hard to blame them when many deaths in Battle Royales can occur early in the game or seemingly at random.
The Battle Royale genre had changed irrevocably. What was once a game mode built around the concept of survival, had now evolved into a quest to kill as many opponents as possible; a quest to be Shroud, Ninja, Myth et al.
Call of Duty: Warzone
Call of Duty’s Warzone mode is perhaps the pinnacle of this concept. With 150 players in a match (200 in certain game modes), Warzone has the highest player count of any of the big Battle Royales, with most aiming for the nicely rounded 100. This massive player count, coupled with the quintessential Call of Duty gameplay (jump shots, low recoil, high bullet velocity) and the ability to find and use your own tailored loadouts in-game has made for the fastest, highest kill count Battle Royale to date.
Another huge aspect of this is the way resurrections work in the game. Players all enter The Gulag upon death, where they fight a 1v1 battle against a randomly chosen opponent, if they win, they can drop back onto the map. On top of this, players can be resurrected by teammates who buy them back using money they have earned from killing other players, completing bounties, or finding bundles of cash lying around the map. You can also purchase a self-revive that will allow you to get up off the ground when you have been downed. All of these mechanics build on Apex Legends’ attempts to keep players in the fight and to reduce player discouragement —a huge part of this is likely to make players less likely to abandon randomly matchmade teams as soon as they die.
All of these features are nice quality of life improvements in many ways. Dying early in a game that can run for over half an hour can be incredibly dull. It can also be incredibly frustrating due to the necessarily random nature of all games in the genre —randomised loot can mean that you and an opponent landing in the same spot at the same time can get weapons and armour of entirely different calibres, giving one player a massive advantage over the other.
Having said that though, the point of this article should rear its ugly head at some point.
Are Battle Royale Games Still Battle Royale Games?
The answer is, of course, yes…sort of. However, it does seem that much of the trend in recent years is to pull away from the slower-paced, strategic gameplay of PUBG in favour of the high-octane slaughter fest that is Call of Duty: Warzone, for instance. This isn’t a slight of any kind against these faster BRs, they are all incredibly fun in their own way, and many of the quality-of-life improvements and extra sheens of polish are welcome to a genre that started out as something quasi-experimental and somewhat janky. In saying that, as somebody who certainly spent more time with PUBG than with any of the subsequent games, it does feel like the genre is missing a game that harkens back to its roots.
The Original Battle Royale
At the beginning of this article, I pointed to Minecraft as my first introduction to Battle Royale games, but in truth, my first real initiation into the concept was Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film, Battle Royale—based on Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel of the same name. The film centres on a world in which a fascist Japanese government kidnaps teenagers and places them on a remote island to compete in a Battle Royale tournament. The government is using this to experiment with military survival tactics, but also to keep its public terrorised and quash the notion of any sort of rebellion.
The film is stark, and uses actual teenage actors to really impress upon you the nature of the violence you are witnessing. Importantly, the goal for the young students is to survive, and while many of them refuse to kill their classmates –the first four deaths are by suicide–others soon start to use what little resources they have to take out their opposition. Battle Royale in this context is primarily based on survival. Killing is an entirely secondary, and often unwanted, part of the process. Killing is also slow and difficult, the kid in the above image is given a pan-lid as his weapon when they are handed out at the beginning of the tournament, and that is something that PUBG players can surely relate to.
Obviously, I enjoy getting kills in video games as much as the next person, and high-kill games are often the most memorable, but I also remember the games in which I had to scrape by with nothing to survive. Where I was incredibly far away from the safe zone and had to drive for miles to make it to the final circle, only to crawl my way to victory. I enjoy strategizing and teamplay, communicating which exact tree the enemy is located behind so my teammate has some clue as to where we are being shot from.
Make no mistake, the fact that there are so many BRs to choose from is a great thing, and playing with a full squad in Warzone or Apex Legends is still a heart-pounding sprint to the final circle. But for those of us who want the Fukasaku treatment, we might have to wait until PUBG 2 releases in 2022.
Which Battle Royale titles are your favourites? Has the shift in the genre been a positive one for you, or has it left you wanting? Let us know in the comments below or over at the Games Atlas Twitter. If you are after Fortnite, Apex Legends, or Call of Duty: Warzone content then be sure to check out the games section to get news on all the latest updates!