After the success of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) last year, game developers are thirsting after the battle royale genre's success. Epic's Fortnite Battle Royale is the game's biggest competitor, boasting its free-to-play perk and availability across all consoles. PUBG, by comparison, finds itself to be a purer experience: not distracted by the building focus of Fortnite, nor the effervescent arcade style of one of its predecessors, H1Z1. PUBG is just PUBG, warts, ugly graffiti, and all.
For a battle royale game to stick out in the crowd, it must offer something new. Fortnite Battle Royale, as I noted above, ushers in Fortnite proper's building focus, where players can construct walls, stairs, and anything their heart desires to evade being killed. Matches are faster. The world is more colorful. H1Z1 has the lattermost in common—zany outfits and an arcade-like finesse for naturally quicker matches is part of why it was such an early hit for the battle royale genre. Once known just as H1Z1: King of the Kill, and once consulted on by PUBG's creative director Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene, Greene notes that PUBG's the middleground for both H1Z1 and ARMA's own battle royale modes. It's not a full-on military sim like ARMA, and it retains H1Z1's accessibility. But H1Z1 just got more leverage against its competition.
Cars, baby! That's right, cars. Vehicles that are impossible to escape as you hurdle towards your own death, powering towards a central area with a circle and bullets of death raining down upon you. Auto Royale is perhaps best likened to the car combat games of decades ago. The ones where a stupid clown cackled edgelordy tales at you from afar. The ones where you veered around corners with an item at your disposal, like in Mario Kart. But Auto Royale is still, even being compared alongside other violent-minded car games, in a league of its own, because it's unabashedly a battle royale game.
It meets this criteria in the fact that not it's not just a dozen players that cannot leave their cars in a small arena—it's usually around a hundred. It's all teams of four, with players poking their heads out windows to shoot guns or throw molotov cocktails at other cars that ride their ass. There is no open world element in the traditional sense, but more so in the open world racing game sense. You have the freedom to drive anywhere, only the the omnipresent circle is always closing in—battle royale style—you must head to the actual circled center. Where Auto Royale grandly diverges from its competitors is in its mode of play. There is no parachuting onto an island and strategizing where to drop. Instead, you find yourself barreling out of a shipping container with no time to plan. The map in front of you is littered with green fuel cans, as well as giant crates. This is where your team comes in: they can lean out of the windows and shoot at the boxes, netting your team repair kits, special ammo and guns, or other goodies, like a mine.
Your three comrades also come in handy in another way: they shoot at other teams of four that drive alongside you. And it's rare that you'll last more than a couple minutes without running into some stranger danger. What makes you come out of encounters alive is a dual effort; the pals poking their head out of the car have to be a good shot, and the driver has to not drive so recklessly as to lend them that advantage, while avoiding the other car in the process.
It's a battle royale game in that despite there being dozens of teams on a similar playing field, there are still somehow, against the odds, long stretches of quiet. During one early match where I kept my microphone on (naturally, I usually only keep it on when I play with friends, not randos), a person on my team asked if I was really "an Academy Award winner," gesturing towards my last-minute username academy_award_winner. I laughed and said "Nah." After some small talk about the Oscars from Sunday night, as if our small talk as we collected green glowing cans of fuel and shot at the occasional crate to get rarer goodies was wearing a tad too thin, we happened upon some action. Two cars in the distance were shooting at each other—we could hear it—so we rolled into the midst of the rampage, leaving behind a mine to blow one vehicle up, while emitting a thick fog to damage any who dared to tail us.
I felt alive. And the scenario looked extremely dumb in action as a Sedan shot up into the sky and my comrades leaned out of our windows in unison to fire upon it. Like fireworks, the car exploded, and we got what was left of the car and its inhabitants as a reward. As the circle got increasingly smaller, I felt like I was in a monster truck rally. Only there was no Grave Digger in sight; nor towers of destroyed cars to propel off of. It was just a bunch of normal sized cars circling each other, using all the weapons at their disposal to come out on top.
The end result is something that feels like the future of battle royale types if they want to succeed in a soon-to-be crowded space. As it stands, it's only a slight twist of the formula, imagining, "What if everyone was in cars and couldn't escape?" Fortnite Battle Royale retrofits the PUBG formula on top of its already existing game, which posits, "What if you can build your own hide-out or vantage point for sniping?" The future of the genre lies in these slight tweaks, because it's all it can offer to stand apart from what will widely become known as its popularized birthplace: PUBG.
After a few rounds of Auto Royale's current beta, which launched alongside H1Z1's 1.0 release last week, the fun wore a little thin. I knew what weapons were awaiting me as my squadmates and I leaned out of windows to shoot at crates. I knew I would always be too slow to grab it from the trunk and drag to my own inventory. I knew if I were the driver, I'd be shouted at on voice chat for my poor driving, leading me to switch seats with a person who would also be a bad driver. But when the action is good in Auto Royale, it's good.
PUBG's been facing a host of problems recently in maintaining its post as the king of battle royale games. Fortnite Battle Royale has doubled PUBG's viewers on Twitch in the last month, with its free-to-play aspect likely to account for its popularity. (PUBG, by contrast, has an entrance fee of $29.99.) Other battle royale games, like The Darwin Project, are quickly approaching, though their impact remains to be seen. It's inevitable that battle royale was the next genre that everyone was going to cling to, but the next year will have to prove something else: how does the battle royale genre evolve? The answer, it turns out, is in many, many ways.