Our society is fascinated by the concept of desperately fighting for our lives. Just look at pop-culture fixtures like the American-made novels and films for The Hunger Games, Japanese cult classic manga and movie Battle Royale, and to a lesser extent, the recent outcropping of hardcore survival reality shows (which have yet to incorporate teenagers slaughtering one another with deadly weapons). It’s fascinating to consider how you’d respond to being ripped out of your daily routine and dropped into a brutal, kill-or-be-killed arena where only one person gets out alive.
These stories are so popular in part because everyone can empathize with the characters’ fight-or-flight desperation. Taking in their suffering and back-to-the-wall heroics naturally elicits a thought experiment: would you personally be able to withstand such harsh conditions? Do you have what it takes to fend for yourself, or would you seek refuge with others? Could you kill to survive? Surrendering yourself to the aptly named Battle Royale mode in H1Z1 lets you find out the answers to those questions firsthand, and it is glorious.
For me, BR mode completely eclipses the base game, a zombie survival shooter that closely mimics DayZ but with the benefit of a smoother game engine. At this point, I’ve had enough zombie games to last a lifetime, so the prospect of foraging for crafting materials and establishing a camp – all while fending off hordes of reanimated corpses – doesn’t do much for me. Luckily, BR does away with the undead entirely.
Instead of joining a persistent server full of rotting AI walkers and established zombie-killers, you and around 130 other players are airdropped onto an unpopulated stretch of Middle America. The match ends when a single contestant is left standing; to prevent a camped-out stalemate, the map continuously fills with green clouds of toxic gas. If you don’t get moving towards the ever-shrinking safe zone, you’ll choke to death – but you’ve also got to wrestle with the idea that all the other survivors are also headed to that same location (much like the films). It’s practically assured that the whole thing will end in violence.
Every round of BR I’ve played has been a series of unforgettable moments, sandwiched between periods of paralyzing paranoia and tense silence. Instead of the randomized knapsacks of Battle Royale, or the frenzied free-for-all at the start of The Hunger Games, you’ve only got some binoculars and your own two fists to being with. The catch is that, unlike regular H1Z1, the environment is littered with weaponry, from handguns to assault rifles to plain ol’ bows and arrows, all strewn about the houses, pick-up trucks, and camp sites that dot the post-apocalypse wilderness. It’s a mad dash to find a firearm in the first few minutes, because if you’re stuck with melee weapons, you’re already dead. It’s as foolish as bringing an aluminum kettle lid to a gunfight.
Thing is, everybody’s got that same panicked need to arm themselves out of the gate, and that groupthink creates a lot of early carnage. As you parachute to the ground, you’ll see other would-be killers swooping towards structures, and you must choose whether you want to take your chances in that fray or avoid the early crowds. Whenever someone dies, a message pings out to every player, listing the killer and victim along with the total number of remaining contestants. And because the speed of your initial spawn-in depends on how quickly your computer can load the environment, it’s entirely possible that you’ll see these bleak notifications popping up before your feet even touch the ground.
But maybe you have an inherent advantage, in the form of a dedicated ally to team up with amidst all this senseless murder – which, in my opinion, is the only way to play. My buddy Ian and I will boot up Skype before each match, trying to orient our drop-in locations as quickly as possible during our descent so we can meet up somewhere in the middle and watch each other’s backs. Like Katniss and Peeta, our fates are intertwined. Call it cheap, but we’re clearly not the only ones trying to coordinate an alliance, judging by how many other pairings we’ve run into (and subsequently shot bullets at). I’m determined to keep playing with Ian until we’ve achieved what I’ve started calling ‘The Dream’: the two of us as the final survivors, guns drawn on each other on the peak of a mountain, sobbing into our mics that “I just can’t do it, man! Not after everything we’ve been through!” But there can only be one winner – and I can’t say for certain who’s going to shoot first.
Until that dramatic finale actually happens, BR continues to entertain with its deeply human interactions, facilitated by the proximity-based voice chat. Once, I was cowering for dear life in the bedroom closet of an abandoned apartment, cursing the fact that I had found a bow but no arrows while gunshots rang out through the neighborhood. Suddenly, another player burst into the room, and we both stared at each other in startled terror, not realizing that the other was unarmed. “Oh, wrong house!” he stammered in his actual voice before bolting in the other direction, my empty bow still pointed at the doorway in a desperate attempt to bluff him out. Surviving this surprise encounter felt like robbing a bank with a fake gun.
Or there are those quiet, almost tranquil moments when you’re holed up with an AK-47 in hand, trying to appreciate a momentary reprieve between running away from danger and trekking towards poison-free zones. I’ve spent long minutes crouched underneath a desk in an empty office building not unlike my own, barrel aimed at the closest door, wondering if someone was going to step into my crosshairs. It’s times like these that let you take in the believability of H1Z1’s landscape, particularly the urban environments. Open-world games like Grand Theft Auto have taught me to see giant buildings as little more than a few centralized rooms, so actually being able to explore every personal office, meeting room, or cubicle area on any floor (usually in the search for ammunition) feels strangely empowering. If you’re looking to recreate the woodland scenery you’ve seen in the films, the expansive forests surrounding the occasional town will do the trick – but I just feel naked taking cover behind trees.
The best I’ve ever finished in BR was third place, killed by someone who was not unlike Hunger Games‘ Cato or Battle Royale‘s Kazuo Kiriyama – bloodthirsty competitors who willingly volunteered to join the fray for the fun of indiscriminate killing. There aren’t just guns scattered throughout the environment – you can also scavenge for cosmetic items to give your survivor a distinct look. By the end, the elite players will usually be decked out in garish costumes: motorcycle helmets, stylish jackets, and clean sneakers likely salvaged from their victims’ corpses. The last thing I ever saw during my longest run was one such veteran, who wordlessly lobbed molotovs towards the patch of tall grass where I was fearfully lying prone, waiting for a clear shot. Unable to take the pressure any longer, I sprayed bullets in his general direction, revealing my location – and in the next moment, I was dead, a congratulatory message (and a small prize for being among the last remaining players) layered above an aerial view of my sprawled-out corpse.
What’s astounding is how quickly I want to relive these kinds of moments as soon as a bullet strikes me down. Turns out, the grim mass murder of The Program or The Hunger Games is actually pretty fun when your life isn’t actually on the line. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to be Katniss Everdeen or Shuya Nanahara, Battle Royale mode is your chance to find out. Without it, I would’ve never given H1Z1 the time of day – but with it, I imagine I’ll be doing what it takes to survive for many adrenaline-amping nights to come.
Note: A former member of the GamesRadar staff now works for Daybreak Game Company, the studio that makes H1Z1. This editorial was written independent of that relationship.