Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Image: Apex Legends (EA), Fortnite (Epic Games), PUBG (Bluehole), Graphic: Allison Corr
William Hughes and Sam Barsanti

Few genres have become institutions in modern gaming faster than the battle royale game, the sort of rapid zeitgeist shift that forces developers to change long-brewing plans in a way normally dictated only by Twitter accounts that ask if you can pet the dog. From its humble origins as a mod of a mod of a semi-obscure, acronym-heavy military shooter, to the kind of cultural ubiquity that dominates the minds of Funko Pop designers and births awkward re-creations on SNL, the idea of a set number of players dropping into a randomized environment, scrounging up weapons from the landscape, and using said weapons to blow the hell out of each other until the last person standing wins has become practically unavoidable if you want to play or talk about the present state of games.

But after a tumultuous handful of years—in which BR games seemed to drop from the sky in ever-present, highly fractious hordes—the genre appears to have settled down somewhat as we round the corner into summer 2019. That seemed like an ideal time for us to take a moment, assess the various merits and faults of the biggest names on the market, and then—obviously—pitted them against each other in a brutal and senseless battle for survival of our very own. (What can we say? We’re products of our environment.) So without further ado, let the Battle Royale Battle Royale commence!

Apex Legends

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC

Player count: 60

What does it say when you win? “You are the champion.” Inspirational, fun, and straightforward.

How does it keep you moving? A slowly closing circle of death with no apparent lore or explanation behind it.

What’s the hook? There are so many, but the main one is the introduction of the “Legends” themselves. Like Overwatch’s heroes, the Legends each have distinct character abilities that give them different advantages in different situations. There’s a robot with a grappling hook, a spooky girl who can make portals and become invisible, a madman who tosses around poison bombs, and a former athlete who once ran so fast that his legs exploded. Speaking of, the game’s other big hook is its free-flowing mobility—even if Apex doesn’t share the wall-running and double-jumping of developer Respawn’s tragically underrated Titanfall games. You can run fast and scale up walls, but the most fun option is sliding down hills on your butt (a holdover from Titanfall that feels much better utilized here). There’s also the revolutionary ping system that allows players to clearly communicate about loot and enemy locations without having to—blegh—put on a headset and talk to strangers, which should be mandatory in every game with any multiplayer component from now until forever.

Chances of winning? In battle royale terms, Apex Legends is sitting right at the center of the final circle with max-level armor. All it needs to win now is some follow-through, but it’s still unclear if it can pull that final push off. Apex recently kicked off its first “season,” allowing players to level up and get new skins for the guns and characters (often in the form of randomized loot boxes). The system is good in theory—it’s the exact model that has allowed Fortnite to become a massive success—but most of the rewards for Apex’s first season are both too boring and too hard to get, meaning it takes too much playtime to get a prize that isn’t necessarily worth the effort. Apex’s foundation is really good, the mechanics are solid, and the different characters are fun. But it might not be able to convince players to stick around if the rewards don’t do more to spark that all-important dopamine reward loop. On the other hand, it is a free game, and there’s something to be said about not looking a loot box horse in the mouth.

Battlefield V: Firestorm

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC

Player count: 64

What does it say when you win? “V for victory.” Simple, fitting, a little boring.

How does it keep you moving? A Johnny Cash-style ring of fire that starts partially enclosed, and looks like a bizarrely flat texture from far away.

What’s the hook? Multiplayer in modern Battlefield games is pretty much built on whatever hooks that its most direct competitor—a little series called Call Of Duty—doesn’t happen to do. There tends to be a large emphasis on diverse vehicles, the number of players in a given match is usually in the dozens, and there’s environmental destruction that allows players to demolish entire structures. Firestorm has all that, but with lots of small teams instead of two big teams, and you grab weapons off the floor instead of having a class that determines your loadout. Rolling into a town with a tank is a new thing in this genre, and so is using the tank’s gun to rip apart houses in search of enemy players. It’s also set during World War II, so everything is more old-fashioned, and you can choose to play as a Nazi if you want (but we don’t need to relitigate that whole thing).

Chances of winning? This is a real heartbreaker, because this was Battlefield’s game to win. The series has always had big maps, huge player counts, and drivable vehicles, so all of the bones of battle royale have been there for years. But Firestorm launched after all of these other games had already been established, and doesn’t really feel unique enough to draw players away from any one of these others in any meaningful way. It’s a fun mode that works fine, and it plays to the strengths of the Battlefield series, but it feels like it’s simply one battle royale game too many—especially when the core Battlefield game still works as fine as ever, and still has a dedicated fanbase that is probably infuriated at the claim that it and Call Of Duty are anything alike. Barring some huge, thrilling updates, Firestorm won’t be the last one standing.

Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4—Blackout 

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC

Player count: 100 at most, depending on the mode

What does it say when you win? A very utilitarian “#1 VICTORY.”

How does it keep you moving? A circle of madness that makes you hallucinate numbers and destroy vehicles.

What’s the hook? The biggest hook is right there in the title: This is a Call Of Duty game, with all of the polish that the name has come to imply after years and years of putting out technically excellent (if occasionally creatively stagnant) shooter games. Playing Blackout feels great, and first-person shooter skills directly translate, which means it’s just as approachable and just as punishing as the average COD game. It also strikes a nice balance between the speed of something like Fortnite and the tactical nature of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, though it is weighted a little bit in favor of COD players who can nail sniper rifle headshots in their sleep. The developers have also shown a willingness to alter the map in fun ways and introduce weird new modes, like a “cops vs. robbers” event that was all about dodging players in police cars, and an especially strange mode that cut the player count considerably, allowed players to respawn after death, and took place on small map full of zombies. It was an interesting experiment, even if it barely counted as a battle royale.

Chances of winning? Call Of Duty is a pop culture force that cannot be stopped, and it’s clear that the various teams Activision has working on the series right now have no intention of giving up on Blackout. It’s been continually updated since release, even as newer games like Apex Legends divert some of the battle royale attention away. Activision has also tested the waters of selling off Blackout as its own product separate from the other modes in Black Ops 4, implying that it has some confidence in Blackout being able to live on its own. That all being said, Call Of Duty multiplayer is already tough for new players to get into, since some people have been playing the series for over a decade. And so it can be especially tough to be successful in a game that plays like Call Of Duty, but also, you only get one life, and you’re surrounded by enemies, and might get shot before you ever find a weapon. Call Of Duty isn’t going anywhere, but Blackout might not have much life beyond existing franchise fans.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive—Danger Zone

Platforms: PC (because all the console versions of CS: GO were released a generation ago and have never been updated)

Player count: 18

What does it say when you win? A simple “1st place,” but at least you also get a thrilling (and slightly overpowering) anthem to play alongside the victory.

How does it keep you moving? Welcome to the Danger Zone, baby! (Note: Do not stand in the Danger Zone. You will die.)

What’s the hook? Take a look at that player count: This is one of the scrawniest (and, thus, the most quickly paced) of all the battle royale games currently around. It also riffs in interesting ways on the tried-and-true Counter-Strike formula, allowing combatants to spend money to pop open weapon crates or air-drop in better guns and supplies—at least, if they don’t mind another player tracking their lethal little Amazon deliveries right to their hidden location. That focus on informational awareness is all over the place in Danger Zone, which also gifts its players with one of the most aggressively useful maps in the entire genre, allowing them to see (in general terms) where their opponents are congregating, waiting to leap out to ambush them. In a game type that so often devolves into impromptu duels breaking out whenever opponents randomly bumble into each other in an abandoned building, the emphasis on knowing and understanding Danger Zone’s admittedly teensy map stands out.

Chances of winning? As a new mode bolted on to a seven-year-old game (which was, itself, a remake of one that turns 20 next month), Danger Zone is paradoxically both one of the oldest and newest entrants in this particular fight. On the one hand, that makes it capable of learning from its competitors, carving out a niche by combining the series’ classic twitch shooting with some exciting little tweaks and innovations. But it also makes it weirdly un-invested in standard “success.” People have been playing CS: GO on a competitive and casual level for the better part of a decade now, and are spoiled enough by its quality that they can largely write off one of the more technically interesting participants in this melee as little more than an interesting distraction from their own personal main event.

Fortnite

Platforms: How long do you have? Notably, Fortnite is one of the only “big” battle royale games available for players on the Mac—and PC, and PS4, and Switch, and Xbox One, and iOS, and Android, and…

Player count: 100 riders on the Battle Bus

What does it say when you win? “#1 victory royale,” a phrase destined to be shouted at high school graduations and court case victories for years to come.

How does it keep you moving? “The Storm,” i.e., the last real connection that the game’s rushed-into-production battle royale mode maintains to the four-player co-op zombie shooter that ostensibly spawned it.

What’s the hook? Initially, at least, Epic Games’ little copycat-that-could had two major selling points—one obvious, one slightly less so. The easy-to-see one is the titular fort-building, which adds a ridiculously high skill ceiling to the colorful shooter mayhem, as talented players whip up massive fortifications in mere seconds, then use them as defensible locations from which to calmly shoot you in the head. The only-slightly-less-obvious one is that it was the first of these games to go free-to-play, allowing every PS4-equipped child in America to taste the addiction that PUBG players were shelling out hard-earned cash for on over on PC. But really, to focus on any one Fortnite hook is to miss the point; Epic Games’ genius is that there is always a new hook for players to indulge in, whether it’s the addition of fast-travel-friendly skyways, rolling death cubes, or a brief appearance from the big mean purple man, Thanos, himself. Fortnite’s dedication to novelty is its hook, regardless of what the latest twist to its gameplay actually is—and it just keeps on working, season in and season out.

Chances of winning? Well, it’s the only entry in this fight so monumentally popular that it singlehandedly launched its own online PC sales platform, so… pretty good? Give Epic credit, though; Fortnite might be the least laurel-resting-prone game in the entire history of the medium, rolling out new content (and the occasional Weezer song) at an absolutely blistering rate of development. Gorgeous and fast-paced, it may not be the best shooter on the list—in fact, in terms of straight combat mechanics, it’s somewhere near the bottom—but it’s marketed itself so successfully, and so relentlessly, that not even objectively better games (hey, Apex) have a chance of knocking it off its perch. Every other entry on this list is a mere game; Fortnite is a phenomenon, and that’s going to be damn hard, if not impossible, to defeat.

H1Z1: Battle Royale

Platforms: Windows, PS4

Player count: 100, hypothetically, if you can find that many people interested in playing it today

What does it say when you win? “Winner, winner, chicken dinner! Take a short time to celebrate!” Fun fact: In China, clones of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are known as “chicken-eating games” because they all copy this particular phrase.

How does it keep you moving? A deadly cloud of extremely orderly green gas, the camouflaging effects of which have some strategic implications for those players willing to hang out, hidden, in the funk.

What’s the hook? Some of the cars are kind of neat; you can wear a gnarly looking clown mask while murdering your opponents. The ability to revisit the hottest battle royale graphics of 2017 is vaguely nostalgic.

Chances of winning? It doesn’t bode well for future success when the most compelling aspect of your challenger for the battle royale throne isn’t its combat mechanics or innovative features, but the fascinatingly screwed-up road it took to its current state. Developed by Daybreak Game Company—formerly Sony Online Entertainment, the creators of EverQuestH1Z1’s (or whatever it’s calling itself right now) biggest claim to fame is that it’s the game Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene consulted on before he codified the entire genre with the massively successful Battlegrounds. Since then, it’s gone through a convoluted trail of revisions and revamps, including moves into and out of the free-to-play market, a brief period in which Daybreak handed the entire game off to another company—which promptly reverted it to two-year-old design documents—and its eventual sloughing off of a zombie-focused secondary mode eventually dubbed (and canceled as) Just Survive. At present, it trails glumly along in the shadow of both PUBG and Fortnite, scrounging up battle pass subscriptions like a player whose long, circuitous route to the battle didn’t include enough time spent looting up or building up some competent fighting prowess of its own.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC

Player count: 100

What does it say when you win? The all-time great: “Winner winner chicken dinner.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

How does it keep you moving? A blue orb of death typically referred to simply as “The Circle.”

What’s the hook? Somehow, despite the existence of every other game on this list, there’s still nothing quite like PUBG. It’s cold and tactical, and where games like Fortnite and Apex prioritize having fun and streamlining everything for new players, PUBG is really just an attempt to capture what it might really be like if you dropped onto an island with 99 other people and had to fight to be the last one standing. Using the guns kind of sucks, and scooping up loot or arranging the things in your virtual backpack is clunky. But those factors work to balance the game in a weird way—essentially, being good at shooters won’t necessarily translate to being good at PUBG. That all adds up to a fairly hardcore game where anyone can get lucky enough to survive for a few rounds, but only The Best (or The Luckiest) can take home the win.

Chances of winning? PUBG is still huge all over the world, and its weird mobile version regularly has new events. But the shine has worn off here in the United States thanks to the release of, oh, all of these other games. PUBG didn’t invent the genre, but battle royale wouldn’t be what it is today if not for PUBG. The sad truth of that is that the game itself has been kind of left behind, and for as unique and thrilling as it still is, it’s hard to ignore that it’s not quite as fun as a high-flying round of Apex, a well-polished game of Blackout, or a dab-filled Fortnite match. PUBG is a masterpiece of multiplayer game design, and it’s not going to go away any time soon, but it most likely missed its chance to outpace all of these other games that found ways to recognize its shortcomings and surpass its strengths.

Tetris 99

Platform: Nintendo Switch

Player count: 100 (hence the name)

What does it say when you win? Nothing, really, just a big gold “1,” and the knowledge that you stand supreme over the block-dropping rabble.

How does it keep you moving? Nothing extrinsic, just the falling detritus of your bastard opponents.

What’s the hook? It’s the sort of idea that should be a lazy April Fool’s concept: “Tetris Battle Royale.” And yet Tetris 99 works so well in execution that it’s almost terrifying, at least in part because it’s not hard to imagine other developers hastily following suit. By eliminating the shooting, the looting, and pretty much every other aspect that supposedly defines the genre, it boils this whole phenomenon down to its simplest, most addictive hook: There are 99 other human beings in this arena, and they all want you dead. How long can you keep them from getting what they want?

Chances of winning? As what is, almost certainly, the cheapest-to-develop game on this list, Tetris 99 pretty much wins as long as it helps convince people to stay subscribed to Switch Online, the only way it’s available to play. But by standing apart from its bathroom-looting ilk, it also charts a separate way forward. Certainly, it’s the only game on this list that Fortnite doesn’t have at least a chance of devouring the next time it drops a new “season,” and in a battle like this, that’s actually saying a lot.

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