Another battle royale contender is stepping into the ever-shrinking arena. The genre is reigned over by Epic Games' Fortnite, while other developers and publishers are still trying to find their footing with varying levels of success. For every Call of Duty: Warzone, there's a Radical Heights. For a genre that's about being the last person standing, everyone seems to think they can take the second or third spot. Now Ubisoft is dropping into the genre with Hyper Scape.
Hyper Scape is a free-to-play battle royale developed by Ubisoft. The setting is almost incidental to gameplay in the genre, but Hyper Scape's mechanics are borne of its setting. It takes place in the year 2054, where the corporation Prisma Dimensions owns and operates the Hyper Scape, a vast virtual world that everyone lives in. Hyper Scape—the game, not the narrative concept—is about the Crown Rush, a competition taking place within the virtual world.
Welcome to the Digital World
The core of Hyper Scape is the same as pretty much any battle royale: up to 100 players, either solo or in squads of three, drop into a map. As your drop pod touches down, you have to scramble for weapons and equipment for a competitive chance. As the match continues, districts of the city disappear into the digital ether, shrinking the overall battlefield. Finally, the last survivors face off in a Showdown, where they either have to kill the other survivors or hold a crown that spawns for 45 seconds.
Development of Hyper Scape was relatively fast, with the team coming together to conceive the battle royale two years ago. According to Hyper Scape creative director Jean-Christophe Guyot, the team at Ubisoft noticed that more players were streaming their games or watching streamers. Hyper Scape was a response to that culture.
"We wanted to create a game that really let us bring streamers, viewers, and players together so that they can interact," says Guyot when asked about the game's genesis. "This is really the notion of a game as a spectacle. We wanted to create a game that was very spectacular and had a lot of intense action. Then we started to go into a battle royale, bringing 100 players together into one battle and making sure that we had all the elements that were the marks of the genre."
Dropping into the map of Neo Arcadia, I'm struck by how it's a mishmash of concepts and ideas. The world is virtual, so Ubisoft is able to make city potpourri. There's an ancient cathedral next to glowing columns of anti-gravity, and shining modern monorails coast over what look like older rowhouses. The variety in architecture does allow you to easily determine where you are through, because not only are all the districts visibly named on the map, they're also vastly different in look and composition.
Some of the architecture actually feels very familiar to me, as a player of Assassin's Creed. They're not one-to-one creations, but they definitely feel like massaged versions of assets from other titles. For example, the aforementioned cathedral feels like it's Notre Dame from Assassin's Creed Unity, while some of the rowhouses with their stovepipe chimneys directly recall Assassin's Creed Syndicate. Guyot doesn't entirely confirm or deny the charge that part of the map are reused assets.
"For sure, people will feel similarities, but for us what was important in Neo Arcadia was to bring a lot of diversity," he explained. "We wanted on one hand to have things that you recognize from today. So there's a lot of buildings that feel Parisian in a way, but we also wanted to introduce a lot of elements that were more technological; things like the factory district, for example. We have a museum. We have a lot of different settings."
Getting around the city is also a bit different compared to other battle royale titles. Hyper Scape is more upwardly mobile. You start with a double jump and the ability to run vertically up a wall for a short distance before mantling on a ledge. The streets and back alleys of Neo Arcadia are a bit tighter, and there are few wide-open spaces. If I wanted a clean sight line, my best bet was to take to the rooftops, though that also meant making myself a target. Attacks came from above or below more often. That's by design.
"At first, it was just grey blocks and us jumping around. The pacing in the city was very different—we started with a slow pace," says Guyot. "Being in the city and having the opportunity to navigate it, it really transformed our perception on the game and we wanted it to become much faster-paced. In the beginning there was fall damage, and very quickly we changed all these elements. We added the double jump. We don't want people to just be shooting. Navigating the map, being really skilled, being able to do complex moves going from rooftop to rooftop was important."
The virtual nature of the world also allows Ubisoft to play around with visual tells for gameplay mechanics. When a district is going to be removed from the map, you'll not only get a timer, you'll see the district itself begin to derez and start to break down into digital triangles. The effect ramps up as the timer counts down and adds tension to your actions: you need to move or risk falling into the void.
Once you've landed, you begin a match with a simple truncheon, which only allows you to bludgeon an opponent to death in melee range. Everything else is picked up on the battlefield. There are a host of standard weapons with setting-specific names—the Ripper is the standard assault rifle, Hesfire is a mini-gun, the Protocol is a single-shot sniper rifle. There are also more esoteric weapons like the Skybreaker, a cannon that shoots a single shell that explodes in a wide-range blast of electrical energy, and the D-Tap, an automatic targeting pistol.
Here again, Ubisoft twists the formula a bit. If you find and pick up another copy of a weapon you already have equipped, that weapon is upgraded in damage and magazine size. There are four levels of fusion for every weapon. As an example, the Protocol sniper rifle does 75 damage per shot on its initial pick-up, but that scales to 120 damage at max level. This means that even after you've picked up your favorite weapon, you'll still find yourself looking through weapon crates for fusion fodder.
I admit that part of Hyper Scape's problem in its current form is the weapons lack impact. Movement is an absolute winner and it feels great to jump around the city and get into engagements, but once you're in those fights, the weapons themselves do damage, but they don't feel strong. Gunfeel is the art of a shooter, while Fortnite might not win in this respect, recent contenders like Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone do much better in this respect.
Hyper Scape doesn't take Apex Legend's model of heroic characters. There are special powers, but they're found on the battlefield, just like weapons. In Hyper Scape's terminology, these are called Hacks. Every player can have two weapons and two hacks equipped. There are standard, easy-to-understand hacks, like Armor and Heal, but it also gets more playful. Teleport, for instance, is a short-range blink and Slam allows you to jump from a height and come down with a crowd-clearing shockwave. The extent of hack potential is shown in Ball, which turns you into a bouncing sphere that absorbs damage; it can get you out of a firefight while sacrificing any sort of dignity.
"It's a spectacle," says Guyot. "[Hacks are] toys that you can play with. These enable you to have either more mobility options, or you can outsmart opponents by planting traps on them, or you can try to be more survivable by becoming invisible. There's really a lot of different ways you can play the game and be creative with it."
Hacks can be fused just like weapons, and doing so increases damage or healing, and lowers cooldown. It captures the feeling of heroes in a game like Apex Legends, while being a bit more ever-present compared to Call of Duty: Warzone's Perks. Together, weapons and hacks allow you to create an evolving loadout: maybe you'll take Armor and Heal with a mini-gun to be a background support heavy, or change to Teleport, Slam, and a Mammoth shotgun to mess folks up up-close.
There will be nine weapons and nine hacks at launch, but Ubisoft will be adding more to the game to keep things interesting. "Sometimes you can balance the game just by tweaking them, sometimes you want to add a new ability because it's a way to counter an ability that's existing," says Guyot. "Instead of just nerfing and buffing stuff, you give players the tools to actually address the problem they have. An example is if the Invisibility hack becomes super powerful, players can easily pick up the Reveal hack. So there's an auto-balancing mechanic there. We want to introduce mechanics also over time, in order to make sure that [players] have a toolbox or toy box that is rich enough for them to play with."
Another interesting shift in Hyper Scape is the Echo system. When you die, you become an echo, sort of a digital ghost. You can't attack anyone, but you can still move around the map, and even scout ahead for your surviving team members. When someone dies in Hyper Scape, they leave a Restore Point. If your echo and one of your team members can reach a Restore Point, they can bring you back to life. (You have to find new weapons though.) It's probably my favorite death/revive system in a battle royale yet.
Guyot says ideas like the Echo system and Restore Point came naturally out of the virtual world setting. He calls that the strength of Hyper Scape being all-new IP instead of being based on one of Ubisoft's other properties. "Obviously, we are new IP, but this gives us a lot of freedom in how we approach the rules and the abilities that players can have," he says. "This is all tied to the fact that it takes place in the virtual world. As you play the game, you will also notice the decay; over time the districts in the city are collapsing back into the Hyper Scape and this will give us a lot of opportunity to develop the lore of the universe."
Make Your Mark
Those additional weapons and hacks will come with the now-standard battle pass, which is there to offer cosmetic items only. There are a host of characters to choose from that are wholly cosmetic, though they come with their own names, backstory, and voice acting. The battle pass gives more skins to choose from, whether that's new characters or new looks for existing characters. (I chose Laz Burner, an Afro-Latino dude who was probably the closest to my real-life self.)
During the Technical Test (which starts today!), there will be a short 10 tier battle pass with unique items, but Ubisoft is hinting at more tiers within the battle pass for the launch version. Guyot also explains that Hyper Scape's map will evolve as well, similar to Fortnite. "It's a virtual world, so it's easy to change things in it. We want to have the notion of mystery in the Hyper Scape; that is going to drive story elements and drive changes in the world," he tells me. "So we will have one map and it will evolve our time."
When I ask about hacks that the team played with early on in the process that might return post-launch, Guyot says that is a possibility. "For sure we explored many mechanics; some of them might return. Actually, the cool thing with Hacks is they're creative tools and seeing how players use them is also going to help us decide which ones we want to add in the future," he says.
Given that Hyper Scape is a virtual world and the characters can technically be drawn from anywhere, I wonder if characters from Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, or other Ubisoft properties might find their way in as skin for the battle pass or online store. Guyot says the team is able to do so, but they'd rather focus on their original cast of characters first before opening things up.
"That's the beauty of the virtual world, anything can exist in it. That's something we might look into the future. For now, we really want to develop our own lore, our own characters that will come with their backstory, their voice, their ongoing story that we tell across the season. I think we want to focus on that, but we also want to be able to grow the roster of characters," he says.
Following my time with Hyper Scape, I walked away intrigued with it. Assuming Ubisoft can add more impact and strength to the weapons, there are some excellent design choices in the game itself. The battle royale genre is crowded and it's going to be hard for Hyper Scape to make its mark though. The free-to-play nature of the game may help draw people in, but I'm not sure what I played will convince those seasons-deep in Fortnite, Apex Legends, or Call of Duty: Warzone to make the transition.
Still, a high-flying, very agile battle royale definitely feels more enticing to me compared to the competition. We'll see if the rest of the audience sees the digital magic in Hyper Scape as it heads into its technical test today.