My exposure to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was extremely limited, so the only extended experience I’ve had with the battle royale genre was through Fortnite Battle Royale. Spoiler alert: I hated it, but I always thought my disdain came specifically from the game’s building mechanics. I am all about honor and aggression when it comes to my competitive games, and Fortnite players’ standard practice of immediately turtling up in a box as soon as they’re threatened was very much not for me. Being a long-time Call of Duty player, I anticipated that Black Ops 4‘s Blackout would be the more aggressive, face-to-face battle royale game I was looking for. Rather than turning me onto the genre, however, the mode’s recently concluded beta led me to a depressing realization. Battle royale, as a genre, does not invoke the healthy sense of competition found in other multiplayer shooters.
A trademark system of battle royale games is their lack of respawn, and this—right off the bat—is a demerit in the mode’s potential skillfulness. The problem with no-respawn modes in general is that a simple mistake can stunt your progress for large chunks of time. The obvious counterargument to this is to not make mistakes, but even the best gamers in the world cannot control every turn of events. A sniper shot could nail you from across the map, a Hail Mary grenade could roll at your feet, or an enemy could simply turn a corner and plug you in the back. These are potential roadblocks to success in any multiplayer shooter, but the difference in respawn-based shooters is that the player has the chance to adapt.
If a death came via a mistake unique to that match (e.g. dealing with a particularly bad camper), the player can learn from it, and if the death was simply bad luck, the player can just shake it off and continue racking up kills. A respawn-free game mode doesn’t provide this option. After an illegitimate death, the player is forced to sit back and let relatively large amounts of the time pass without any opportunity to prove themselves. This is why the scoreboards of respawn-based modes are generally more indicative of skill than those of non-respawn modes, and why battle royale is the most egregious example of the no-respawn problem. Any number of unfair circumstances can result in your death in battle royale matches, but unlike most non-respawn shooters, where there are multiple rounds for chances at redemption, death in battle royale is final, whether you deserved it or not.
Even if the circumstances of a fight seem perfectly fair, the chances that the fight goes to the best player is still far from guaranteed in battle royale. These modes are built around gear collection, with players stocking up their arsenal with equipment found randomly scattered across the massive maps. Skill tends to go out the window when you incorporate randomized mechanics into competitive games, and battle royale is no exception.
Any player that crosses your path could have better weapons than you, or you them, and this plays a massive factor into who comes out victorious. Occasionally more impactful than the weapons are the randomly generated defense boosts players can find and equip. Whether it’s shields in Fortnite Battle Royale or armor in Blackout, most battle royale modes feature some form of supplementary defense that comes split into tiers of quality or amount. If you have yet to come across a single piece of armor in Blackout before getting jumped by a player with level 3 armor, you quickly learn how little difference skill can make.
So why not just play it safe until you’re comfortable with your gear? This is one of the two common strategies players employ in battle royale, but neither are necessarily reliable. When first jumping into a match, players will either dive right into hotspots and race to kill everyone else in the area, or veer off to a more desolate area of the map to stock up before joining the fight. The aggressive approach regularly results in a higher kill count, but a lower likelihood of making to the end, while the slower approach is more reliable for getting into the final circle, but takes longer to stock up and doesn’t see nearly as much action. The problem is that neither of these approaches remedy the incessant blindsiding that plagues battle royale modes.
Ultimately, no matter how you play, battle royale matches feel like massive wastes of time more often than not. If you jump into hotspots, you’re prone to dying quickly and being kicked back through the loading screens and lobbies you just endured. While the slow approach can give a greater sense of progress, one instance of crappy luck can result in the same conclusion, just with less excitement and more time wasted.
Even winning might not be as satisfying as you’ve convinced yourself it is. At least for me, the first thing I do when I win a battle royale match is think back to all the ways it could have gone wrong. Instead of a sign of relief, this moment of reflection just depresses me, causing me to overanalyze whether or not I actually “earned” that win. Furthermore, battle royale games generally don’t feature any progression system, at least not in a manner that imbalances the experience. Sure, most BR games have cosmetics if you’re into that sort of thing, but without the promise of new content that adds to the gameplay in some meaningful way, victories feel hollow. Win or lose, other shooters make me feel like fights are worthwhile, and that my victories are earned.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying battle royale as a gaming experience, but the genre doesn’t deserve to be considered at the same competitive tier as other multiplayer shooters. The randomness of its gameplay and systems leave it without a skillful foundation, which is perhaps why this genre blew up so much lately. Battle royale may be tedious and unpredictable, but it is truly anyone’s game. While the best players are off oppressing fellow gamers in their respective shooters, battle royale offers an environment in which anyone can claim victory, even if that last kill was total BS.