Despite this being boomtime for the battle royale genre, with Fortnite and PUBG headlining an increasingly vibrant scene, game development remains a precarious business. The struggles of both The Culling (and its ill-fated sequel) and Radical Heights have proven just how tough a nut the genre is to crack, illustrating what a daunting task it is to take on the big guns and survive, let alone thrive. It's a challenge, then, but it's not impossible, and while we've had a couple of high profile failures, other games like Crytek's Hunt: Showdown have shown that there's room within the relatively tight confines of the genre to innovate. The trick is having a good hook, and throwing that into the mix with an enjoyable and solid version of the game.
Define Human Studios has done just that, and Islands of Nyne: Battle Royale (or ION as we'll call it from now on) is the developer's answer to PUBG and all the rest. Like a soldier thrown from the sky in search of death and glory, it landed last week on Steam Early Access, and more to the point, it landed in good shape.
ION is a first-person-only shooter (unlike PUBG which has first- and third-person modes), which sets it apart from the big hitters somewhat, as you're confined to viewing the action from behind the eyes of a soldier dropped into harm's way by aliens looking to enjoy some last-human-standing entertainment. Straight away this decision will speak to gamers who've been looking for more FPS options in the battle royale space, and forgetting about the trappings of the genre for a moment and considering it on its merits as a shooter alone, Define Human has done a good job. The weapons have decent heft, the netcode seems solid, the gunplay feels responsive, and the action is intense.
In terms of the vibe we got from the sci-fi setting, we noted a couple of similarities to games we're rather fond of, such as the style of the weapons and the profile of the player-avatars which made us recall Planetside 2, although perhaps that was also due to the scale of the action on offer. Even with servers currently hosting 50-player matches as opposed to some of the larger player counts we've seen elsewhere, it still feels suitably epic, with the roof of the alien dome above constantly reminding you that you're a pawn in somebody else's game of chess.
The action starts as the player hurtles down to earth, with no parachute in this instance. There's no fall damage in ION (even when jumping around mid-game, a decision we like), and once you've slammed into the ground it's time to arm up as quickly as possible. While the weapons made us recall Planetside 2, the armour you pick up alongside the guns reminded us a little of the Crysis series. As per the norm, it's important to get good gear straight away, whether that be a fully-featured rifle or a suit of armour, because trouble is never usually that far away.
The gunplay is twitchy and responsive and you've got to be switched on to survive your duels. Having a good weapon certainly helps in this endeavour, and while there isn't a huge range, the selection is solid enough. To help things there are weapon mods that you can bolt onto your gun of choice using a very slick system whereby you either automatically enhance your selected weapon when picking up a new mod, or if you get the part before the gun you can pull up a menu and simply drag and drop compatible parts to the slot as required once your rifle is selected. It's simple and intuitive to switch things up, recycle weapons, and suit up with life-saving armour.
The world itself is interesting in the sense that it's clearly alien, but at the same time, it's also sprinkled with ancient human ruins and recreations of historical structures (there's a Colosseum in there, for example). There's an interesting juxtaposition between high tech weaponry and mediaeval architecture but we thought the clash of styles worked well. Certain buildings also come with jump pads that allow you to traverse walls in double-quick time, although cleverly there's no predefined flight path and your trajectory off the pad is entirely dependent on the direction you jump on it from.
Most of the time you'll be playing by yourself - that's the main point of these games after all - but there are team and duo options open to players looking to mix things up and change the gameplay dynamic. Friends can't be instantly revived once downed, but there are health stimpacks hidden around the place that can be used to bring your co-op buddies back. As matches are currently capped at 50 players regardless of mode, the increased size of your team means you'll cover more ground and spot enemies sooner, and we found that the action came thick and fast even when teaming up with strangers.
There aren't currently any vehicles in the game and all of the action takes place on foot, which means the pace between encounters can be a little slow at times, especially towards the middle of the game when numbers have thinned but the playspace is still quite substantial. That said, once you've jumped over that occasional mid-game hurdle and you're heading towards the endgame, the safe zone moves about a bit, dragging players out of their safe spots and forcing them to move. It's an effective way of minimising camping towards the end as the final safe zone is actually teeny tiny, and each match ends with a suitably action-packed crescendo.
We should probably add that we weren't too enamoured with the in-game microtransactions (luckily they're cosmetic only, but still), but at least you can unlock crates with in-game credits. Otherwise, we died a lot, but we think that was more to do with us than the game. We don't mind admitting that our increasingly sluggish reaction times meant that we were sometimes easy pickings for quicker opponents, but then again getting back into a new match wasn't too laborious and we happily spent several hours dropping in and out of games, exploring the map, and trying to work out which of the weapons was our favourite. We kept coming back for another bite of the apple, and that's always a good sign.
Whether it was the snappy gunplay or the well-executed theme that appealed most we can't be sure, but either way our first impression of Islands of Nyne: Battle Royale is almost entirely positive. The studio envisages the game spending a year in open development, which should give them ample time to turn the player-count up to 100, add a couple more maps, and tweak things here and there as the full release draws near. The foundations are already solid and the future looks bright, and we'll be keeping a close eye on this battle royale shooter in the months ahead.