The Culling – Closed Alpha Initial Impressions

In hindsight, the adrenaline rush of excitement I received when I got to take part in an organised fight to the death doesn’t seem at all out of place.

We’ve got an absolute horde of incredible looking games coming out this year. Personally, I’ve been dodging Dark Souls 3 spoilers like Neo from The Matrix, arching my back as far from the screen as possible when I lay eyes on yet another “We’ve played Dark Souls 3 and we’re going to spoil the surprises for you!” article. My arms also flail wildly as I click anywhere on screen just to avoid traps laid to tarnish my most hyped game of the year. It’s clear that I’m absolutely besotted with the idea that the game exists and should be sitting in my library in around a month’s time. However something unexpected happened. Having participated in The Culling closed alpha, I’ve begun to think that my love for Souls can be extended to a game that no-one even knew about until last month. It’s had such a profound effect on me that I’ve snapped out of my hazy love-affair with Dark Souls 3 and come to realise that I’ve got another videogame offering that has the potential to compete with the big-boy for my undivided attention. Why? Because quite simply; it’s a thrill that keeps on giving.

If you’re not familiar with The Culling, it’s effectively a game that throws sixteen people onto an island and orders them to fight to the death. The purpose of all this is for entertainment as the island sports a number of cosmetic changes that lumps it into the “lush tropical paradise but also functions as a death-arena” category. For more info, have a quick look at my first announcement article as it’ll give you a better sense of what the game’s all about.

From the outset, it’s made very clear to me that it’s most certainly a closed alpha I’m participating in. A message in my email tells me that I shouldn’t judge The Culling solely on its performance at this stage in time, whilst a big pop-up on the main menu screen reiterates this point. Even if it’s in closed alpha stages, this doesn’t necessarily mean I’m now obliged to take off my detective hat and wistfully Frisbee it into the glistening clear waters of the barbaric island I’m now stranded on. To be honest I was almost hyper-aware of the state it was in, to the point where being able to play the game in its earliest stages made me scrutinise even more. If it didn’t capture my imagination or affect me in anyway now, then it was highly unlikely to make an impression later on. I wasn’t going to brutally attempt murder without giving the game a fair, flat-out judgement.

It’s clunky as hell, almost devastatingly so, but something about The Culling butters me up to the point where I’m blushing profusely and forgetting exactly what I’m here to do. Usually when writing reviews or previews I’ll always maintain my focus, but it’s rare when a game so utterly incomplete still absorbs you and swallows you up into a bubble of anarchic joy. I completely forgot my personal mission and became totally embroiled in its captivating premise and nail-biting gameplay.

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The menu system is heavily reminiscent of Rainbow Six: Vegas and mightily comparable to the more recent Killing Floor 2 in terms of its content and layout. You have your “athletic sk8erboy” avatar placed centrally so you can observe his bright garb and angry demeanour however much you want. More importantly, you can track any changes to your character with a fairly extensive list of options which I couldn’t seem to access at the time. You’ve got clothing and accessories to mess around with, alongside the ability to change the build of your character and all the usual trimmings you’re probably used to by now. Nearby on a couple of separate tabs I was able to select three perks that would aid me in my struggle for survival. Again, a fairly extensive amount, however this time they were all unlocked from the get-go. I can’t quite recall what I’d equipped but they resembled bonuses such as: “Run 10% faster with a spear in hand” and “Lay traps 15% faster when you’ve taken over 50% damage”. I’ve got to be honest and say that I didn’t pay this system much thought as I was itching to play rather than dwell on a bunch of perks which lacked any form of context at the time. Just assume that there’s a bunch of them and they’ll prove to be invaluable when the final product drops. But for now, let’s get to the main event; quite literally.

I had two game modes to choose from: “Free for All” and “Team play”. The first being a sixteen-man survival of the fittest where every encounter is pretty nerve-wracking and potentially the end of the road. The latter matches you with a teammate, so you can talk tactics and co-ordinate. If you’ve ever played Gears of War online then you would’ve experienced the magic of “Wingman” which is essentially the same thing. It’s a truly joyous experience when you team up with a buddy and I’m absolutely certain the same applies to The Culling. I was under some severe time constraints so I only had a chance to play the classic “Free for All” mode a couple of times and got stuck in straight away.

Matchmaking was swift and it was only a minute or two before I emerged panting, sweaty and bewildered from a steel container onto a lush tropical island. The screen blacks out, making you instantly focus on your character’s audible fright, only for the screen to suddenly flash white as your eyes adjust to the sun’s rays and you get to witness the heavy steel frames of the box you’ve been shipped in falling limply as they crash to your side. It was at this point when I felt a jolt of adrenaline rush through my comfortable, relaxed, and just had spag-bol body. At first I couldn’t have been further away from the reality that my character was facing, however as soon as I was left defenceless and out in the open facing fifteen other merciless people looking to cut my throat and beat me senseless; I was transported to my character’s realm. I felt remarkably vulnerable. Shit.

First thought, “Need weapon”. Second thought, “This Island actually looks rather pretty”. Looking past a handful of dire textures and marginally off-putting graphics here and there, it resembled an idyllic paradise with a brilliant blue sky overlooking swaying palm trees, glistening sandy beaches and shimmering waters. The more I explored, the more I came to realise the alterations the island had undergone thanks to the gameshow aficionados. Grey, industrial complexes are littered around the landscape whilst everything revolves around the enormous central arena that proudly sports The Culling logo. Dark caves and disconcerting tunnels offer interesting and treacherous diversions as you hope to seek out some treasure. It also happens that I spawned right next to a cave entrance, so I decided to scout it out, praying that I wasn’t going to fall victim to some sneaky bastard hiding in the shadows.

I tentatively ventured into the darkness only to hit the jackpot straight away. Generously spread out before me like an all you can eat buffet; three crates with glowing lights. This could only mean one thing, sweet, sweet loot. I pressed E to interact and the first crate’s lid clicked and popped open. A stick of dynamite, “I’ll be having that,” I muttered to myself, careful not to make too much noise just in case my words somehow managed to penetrate the screen and feed directly into the game. Without further ado I popped open the other two crates and came away with a fancy combat knife along with an HE grenade. For a first time affair, I’d cashed in and now felt pretty darn good about my chances.

I smugly emerged from my cave, glancing to the bottom right of my screen to see the stats for each of my new toys. With zero experience, it lacked any real meaning so I just assured myself that the numbers were good. Now I felt the urge to check on my opponents; were they all alive? I pressed tab to no avail and then proceeded to smash practically every key on my poor keyboard. I was out in the open and the feeling of paranoia certainly started to creep into my mind. As I had no knowledge of everyone’s location I couldn’t be certain that no-one was watching me; for all I knew, someone could’ve been lining up a long-range arrow to pierce straight through my amateur skull. With this overwhelming fear I decided to play it sneaky and sidle along in some long grassy overgrowth. Suddenly the sound of rustling, then the unmistakeable patter of footsteps growing closer and closer. My heart was fighting its way out of my  chest as I hurriedly scampered out of my hiding spot, poking my head around to see where this poor fella had just trudged off to. I quickly snuck back in and spotted a few long sticks lying next to my feet. Fate had once again dealt me a good hand and with a few deft presses of E, I’d somehow crafted a blowpipe. It was so effortless and intuitive, doing away with awkward complexity and needless depth. I appreciated the spontaneity and ease of access that the crafting system provided, it was no frills and extremely practical. When I’m hunting my prey I don’t want to worry about filling in an obnoxious grid or unwillingly tearing open Bear Gryll’s survival guide. I just want to make a f*cking blowpipe to destroy my unsuspecting enemies, and The Culling had outdone itself in this regard.

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Surveying my target from a distance, I noticed that he was occupied with something, but I couldn’t quite tell what it was. He was forever circling a big rock formation that jutted out into the shallow waters that filled the centre of the island. The sensation of spying on an unsuspecting person created an unparalleled amount of tension. It was akin to surviving a hard-fought boss battle with just a sliver of health, however all I was really doing was watching someone calmly go about their business. I truly felt like I was participating in a battle royale at this point, waiting to see if I could find a suitable opening to strike, but at the same time I also felt like I was being watched. In a “battle royale-ception” sort of way, I was acutely aware that I could’ve been watching someone, whilst someone watched me watching someone in a seemingly never-ending cycle of dastardly scheming.

I noticed that he’d stopped for a bit, crouching down every once in a while – a strange move. Pulling out my grenade I tossed it in his direction but I drastically misjudged the angle of trajectory and it ended up alerting him to my presence in the loudest way possible; what’s more, I think every other person on the island probably heard the explosion too. Shit. I whipped out my blowpipe and urgently took aim at his washboard abs and gave an almighty puff. Obviously reeling from the explosion and having likely poo’ed his pants ever so slightly, he wasn’t expecting the dart to slam him directly in the chest. My initial tension had transformed into pure unadulterated focus as my ears pricked up to the satisfying grunt of pain that had been produced by my ninja-attack. If you’ve ever read William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, you’ll know the character Jack who’s turns into a true masochistic savage. I wasn’t an innocent young man in my student accommodation any longer, I had become a red-eyed, frothing at the mouth mentalist with a will to butcher absolutely everyone.

I charged with my knife out, utilising the handy sprint function to gain some decent ground. As I drew closer I got a closer look at his get-up. He had a backpack strapped on giving him more inventory space and held a crude axe in his right hand. Sure, he might have an axe, but what’s in his backpack? He could’ve baited me into thinking that he wasn’t well equipped, but in reality he could’ve had a machine-gun stashed away to pepper me with bullets and riddle me with damage. We then proceeded to square up and I took my chances with a wild slash to his torso, but he countered with a well-timed parry before scurrying off towards his beloved rock formation. I glanced downwards for a split-second and clocked on to his plan. He’d spent ages crouching and circling this rocky area because he’d been placing hand-crafted wooden traps. This indicated that he knew that I’d been watching, placing himself purposefully in an open area, feigning ignorance; an obvious veteran of the closed-alpha.

We danced around like a bunch of idiots until he got a little tired of our incompetence (my incompetence) and we duelled like true warriors (an overstatement). It wasn’t quite Duel of the Fates from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, but it was just as intense. The Culling offers three different moves to fight with: attack, block/parry and shove. If you’ve thrown out a swing and they block it, you’ll stumble a little and they’ll have a small opening to strike back. The shove is meant to combat overly passive play (I’m being courteous here) and it works a treat, breaking your block and sending you flying backwards. So in effect, our fight was limited to three manoeuvres which had its pros and cons. It was incredibly entertaining to participate in a jolty, unwieldy fight as we hacked at each other like two clumsy Tekken bots. It also felt simplistic enough that essentially anyone could pick it up and at least land a few hits. The struggle lies in when to throw your punches and take the initiative. I found that playing the aggressor, slashing my combat knife to and fro didn’t quite work out the way I’d hoped. All he did was wait to press the block button and counter me, landing a frustrating cheap shot here and there. I did shove him and take him by surprise, pushing him back into the water away from his den of traps and into an area where he didn’t have the upper-hand.

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As we backed into the water with Guile’s Theme echoing in the distance, he suddenly stopped moving and started puking his guts up into the lush waters we’d set foot into. My blowpipe had decidedly taken effect; touché bitch. Certain weapons in The Culling have status effects on enemies such as poisoning or bleeding. My poison darts would take effect every couple of minutes, causing him to become stunned and dazed for a couple of seconds so I could seize an opportunity to strike. I genuinely thought he was done for and that I’d succeeded in our jaunty, elongated battle. Obviously he’d had enough of our fun and decided to rifle through his backpack, whipping out a gigantic machete in the process. I gulped and valiantly fought onwards but within one or two heavy hits I’d hit the floor with a big thud. My little knife and awkward combat skills were no match for his prowess, and it was only at the moment when the camera panned out did I realise that the scoreboard wasn’t tied to a button, but was projected onto the sky in a true gameshow fashion that left me speechless; a very cool concept indeed.

I would go on about my other attempts at the game, but they weren’t particularly extravagant. I ended up being murdered fairly early on. I did however, learn quite a lot from being able to spectate everyone who was playing. After you perish you have the option to both leave the game and find another one, or stay and cycle through all the other participants. I found that observing others go about their business was an insightful learning experience that allows you to take away certain tactics or tricks that you can then impart in your next fight for survival. I learnt that you can chip away at trees with your weapons to gather more resources and to ensure that you’re almost instantly looking to craft and set up a little base somewhere. It’s the sort of game that grows more rewarding as you gain further experience and clock up increasing numbers of hours.

The Culling is a promising surprise that’ll definitely have a strong community behind it. The ability to participate in a virtual Hunger Games or Battle Royale scenario is infectious and you can’t possibly not have fun. It’s hampered with quite a few technical issues and some gameplay mechanics that’ll need some sorting out, but they’re not too much of a problem. In any other game, maybe they’d be enough to put me off, but the awesome premise overpowers any criticism. I’m excited for the final product because it hit me with a wide range of emotions: everything from strong paranoia to heart-stopping fear shot through me in every single game. Above all, I knew that every time I emerged as a vulnerable bloke on the island I’d learn something new, try something new and ultimately have a great laugh doing so. Effectively transforming me from an amateur to a battle-hardened gladiator that’s at home on the island and relishing the “DIY” death challenge. It’s a game that I can see all over YouTube with videos of hilarious encounters and showcases of personal tips and tricks; perhaps there’s even room for some true veterans to take the game into the realm of e-sports. This is because it has the potential for people to invent trends and groove their own playstyles. It lets people loose on an island, providing an arena for players to innovate and come up with all manner of ingenious ways to out-do one another. There’s tons of room for expansion and refinement, but most of all I think The Culling excels and will continue to succeed because it places people in a scenario which is at first startling, and then progressively familiar. It encourages creativity and quick-thinking in a format that never ceases to be fun or accessible.

Do yourselves a favour and get in on the Early Access version that’s available now. A lot of the little unremarkable problems I encountered have probably been fixed and you’ll be able to shape a great surprise of a game. That’s right, I’m willing you to take part in a bloody deathmatch for survival with no regrets at all.

I never did use that dynamite.