Long ago, in a game publication far, far away, I wrote a preview of a game called The Forest. I had vivid flashbacks to aspects of that particular experience while playing The Culling. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; there are, however, a lot of similarities between the two, ignoring, of course, the battle royale survival vs. the defensive survival. As with the former, I am taking this game with a grain of salt, knowing that it’s still in production.
It all starts with the menu. I pride myself on being able to figure out loadouts and creation screens quickly. While I applaud Xaviant on the few options available (and thus a lack of complication in the actual choices), I am not very impressed by the unnecessary complexity of the selection screen itself. It’s difficult to explain unless you’ve played the game, but it feels like the outline for an assigned paper where the student panicked and made too many bullet points. There’s no denying that the required content is there, but the organization leaves something to be desired. I won’t touch on the character creation, because I literally have no idea how to describe what bothered me about it, aside from both of the body type selections focusing on skin color, and hats causing hair to disappear. It was just bizarre.
At the “auto detect” graphics setting, The Culling looked beautiful on my computer (well, once you got past the main menu). However, despite my current-video-card-having, six-core-processer-rocking, high-res-dual-monitor-sporting rig, and my habit of shutting down nearly every other program when I play a game, the lag was awful when the graphics were set that high. In order to actually experience the game properly, I had to turn down the graphics, and I don’t know how it affected the experience, as I don’t have a personal comparison, but I was disappointed. (My ping was very low – my internet wasn’t the issue, either.) There are glitches, obviously – I’ve seen finished games where clipping is still an issue, and where character movement is more puppet than human – but there is enough detail and decoration in the objects and locations of The Culling to suffice for its purpose, which is to guide and assist players while they systematically kill each other. It’s passable, in other words. I’m not a programmer, but I’d be interested to see how the graphics-glut issue would be addressed in the final version.
I am impressed by those who have the setup to actually stream this game. I could barely take screenshots, due to the transitions taking up so much processing power that Steam’s screenshot ability couldn’t keep up. Again, I have an amazing rig that makes Fallout 4 look like an action movie. To use a very outdated, but very appropriate word, I am befuddled.
The controls in The Culling are so familiar that I could practically control the character in my sleep (if I didn’t need to see my surroundings). WASD to move, F to interact, left mouse to use items, etc. The inventory system is the one thing that took some getting used to, but it’s not like it’s terribly different from any other FPS I’ve played – it was more the method of picking up and creating items vs. the amount of available space. The carrying load is actually realistic – the most you can carry is five items, and that’s with a backpack. Otherwise, you can only carry three. For the purposes of this game, if you don’t yet have a backpack (which requires an open inventory slot to activate, but frees up the spaces when activated), the three items I’d recommend are a ranged weapon (bows are very easy to make, as are arrows), a melee weapon (you can make a stone axe or a knife, or you can find melee weapons fairly easily in buildings), and a healing item (bandages are the easiest).
The crafting system is a bit of a head-scratcher, but thankfully there’s a menu option in-game that tells you what to do (be careful when referring to it – the game doesn’t pause just so you can figure out how to turn your spear into a bow). Two rocks rubbed together equals a knife. Okay, that’s fair. Add a branch, and you get a spear. Okie dokey. Add another stick and you get…a bow? Huh, alright. The transitions aren’t difficult to memorize, and there’s a certain logic to them (maybe?), but they do take a bit to get used to before the player can utilize quick thinking to save their butts from opponents. As mentioned above, looting is a great way to find better weapons, and calling in drops (using a kind of currency called “F.U.N.C.”) can give you advanced items such as grenades and more refined versions of craftable weapons. I encourage players to check out the wiki page before playing, since this information can be a bit overwhelming when you’re also trying to survive.
I am less impressed with the combat aspect of gameplay. Long-range attacks are fine – arrows, in particular, are a lot of fun when you get used to the aiming, which isn’t parabolic (i.e. you aim with the crosshairs, you hit the enemy, rather than having to account for the speed and weight of the arrow, as you normally do in other games – it takes more time to get used to than you’d think). I never got a gun, so I can’t tell you how it worked, personally, but it seems as though they’re very much the same. Close combat is basically a slap-fight, though. I want to see a montage of players in melee combat with a soundtrack of “Yakety Sax” playing over it. Poking another player in the stomach with a spear is about the only melee I did that wasn’t a blur of arms and mis-timed attacks on the part of both parties. If you’re both fighting for your lives in melee, you’re going to wish they were over because your last moments are so awkward. “Oh, god, did they see me get slapped to death? Ugh, now they’ll never let me sit at the cool table.”
The perks are so similar for each type of play style (ranged, melee, etc.) that it’s almost not worth choosing. I chose ranged because if I called in a drop, I damned sure wanted to be able to continue to attack at a distance, but any bonuses I got from it weren’t really noticeable.
There was nothing that stood out about the sound design, to me, good or bad. The announcer’s voice was penetrating and repetitive (I actually yelled at him to shut up more than once), though the information given was helpful, occasionally. I feel like the goal was a Deadpool-esque voice-over, but they went a bit overboard, in places. The movement noises were appropriately reactive, and the sounds of scuffles were well-targeted to the areas in which they were happening. If an enemy was skulking to my left, I heard the leaves rustle on that side, and when an opponent died, they made a certain grunt that indicated that it was safe to either loot them or move on. I had to turn the music down, because it made it harder to hear everything else, but I guess that’s probably the point. Thus, the sound design is fine as-is; some may disagree, but I’m not particularly fussed about it.
To give players a bit of an idea of what to expect if they’re not accustomed to arena-style games, this is a lot like putting Far Cry 3 into a smaller area and making every player Jason Brody. There is a timer, and if all of the players aren’t dead by a certain point, the map begins to close in using poison gas. In this way, yes, it’s very much like The Hunger Games. No alliances, however, can be formed in-game and be kept, unless you start out as an official team on the appropriate server. (There are actually guidelines against people entering single-player games as unofficial team members and ganging up on others – it’s frowned upon, to say the least). Finding a building and camping out is how I spent my first match, as I got used to how the game actually worked, but be warned: unless you’re a good sniper, this tactic will get you killed. Be on the move, craft weapons, and use trackers, if possible, to locate enemies.
I didn’t particularly have a lot of fun playing this game. With some practice, I actually got pretty good at it, though I never won a round. That didn’t bother me, as I’m used to not being the best player when pitted against others who are more experienced. I get stressed out by timers, and it’s hard to ignore, as timed events (such as the map being reduced) are displayed on the screen. I also don’t do well at small-group combat. Give me me a mob, and I can charge through like nobody’s business. Give me a single player with equal or better weapons, and even the same ability level as me, and I’ll usually flounder a bit before getting into the proper killing rhythm, and that can get someone killed in short order (although, as mentioned, melee might as well be a shoving match). This whole enjoyment thing is subjective, so if you thrive under pressure, and also have some patience, you’ll be just fine. If your style is more FPS or straight-up survival, give The Culling a pass; you won’t have a lot of fun if you don’t want to focus on both at once.
Steam users complain that with every update, the game gets a little worse for wear. I hope those updates are building up to something more workable, because I see a lot of potential in The Culling. I’m not just spouting – the final version for this had better be as epic as I imagine it could be.
Pick up The Culling on their website, or on Steam, for $14.99. Follow Xaviant on Twitter, or “like” them on Facebook to keep up with news about the game (and find out when Trial Matches occur). An official release date has not yet been announced.