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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Hunt: Showdown’s Quickplay is secretly the best battle royale game

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I’m peering over the rim of a barrel in a rickety warehouse, listening for any sounds that might interrupt the ambient creaks of the building and the not-so-distant wailing of the bayou’s beasts. It’s a solid hideout: one floor, two entrances, both of which I’ve blocked off with barbed wire and bear traps. Not to mention the formidable Meathead monster and its legion of leeches that I agitated outside before scarpering in here—my oblivious guardian.

I put out the candle on the barrel, and I wait.

There’s a big target on my back. I’m the holder of Hunt: Showdown‘s Wellspring, which means that at this moment as many as 11 hunters know my exact location and are converging on me—killing and clambering over each other to take what I have before time runs out and they all go up in a blaze of flames. The Wellspring is exclusive to the Quickplay mode, and without it, none of these other players will survive.

Suddenly—shh, shh—footsteps. Up on the roof, then around the side failing to get in through one of the barricaded doors. 

I watch a human silhouette through the slats as it runs towards one of my meticulously trapped entrances. They open the door and stumble straight onto my poison tripwire. I fire, I miss, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve backed off and time is ticking away. Cunning and patience—rather than marksmanship and reflexes—are keys to victory here. This suits a wily thirty-something fox like me perfectly.

Backing away from the now-breached entrance, I blow up the two explosive barrels to create fiery puddles, smoke and confusion. My foe makes one final desperate push through the warehouse. They emerge out of the smoke, we turn our sights on each other, but before anyone can fire time runs out. They burn before my eyes.

I am the Soul Survivor in this round of Quickplay mode, and I did it without a single kill.

The above is a typical Quickplay story, and a big part of why this is the best battle royale experience I’ve had since PUBG first introduced me to the distilled thrills of the genre three years ago. 

The general idea is that you and up to 11 other solo hunters are thrown into one of the game’s two vast monster-filled 19th century swamps, seeking four clues randomly spawned around the map. The first player to get all four gets the Wellspring, which kickstarts their countdown to victory and reveals their location to all other players on the map. They need to then kill the Wellspring holder to take its power and be saved when the countdown ends.

On the one hand Quickplay is a good way to get in some practice with an expendable character. In Bounty Hunt—the main mode in Hunt: Showdown—you’re spending Hunt Dollars (strictly in-game currency) on equipment and risking a character who can die permanently each time, but in Quickplay you can jump in with nothing to lose. The neat twist is that you can gain a lot, too, because if you win you get to keep your character along with all the equipment, traits and XP you gain in that match to use in Bounty Hunt. 

This builds up a peculiar sense of attachment to my character the deeper into a game I go. As I accrue clues, upgrades and weapons, creeping ever closer to that initially improbable victory, I become more invested in victory not only for myself, but for this plucky, mysterious hunter I’m controlling. Their swift, intense journey from doomed nobody to notorious somebody is punctuated by the fact that, upon victory, my character gets granted a name (knocked out by a charming old-timey frontier name generator).

Hunt: Showdown’s very setting lends itself well to storytelling. Unlike a lot of other battle royale games, this moody, cursed bayou in 19th century Louisiana doesn’t feel like a nowhere place populated by blank-faced mannequins, microtransaction bunny ears or gaudy gun skins. It feels like a place with its own history and tragedy, which you feel through the design and little world-building touches.

Sure, I have no idea /why/ a bunch of 19th century misfits would find themselves trudging around a zombified swamp, but their grizzled faces and sharp sense of fashion fill them with life, and inspire me to craft little backstories for these Quickplay vagabonds as they roam the swamp.

There’s David Middleton, who lost his eye after a barroom wager that he could knock back a quart of moonshine bourbon through his right peeper. He lost his eye, won the bet (more bourbon), and sticks to close-range weapons on account of his stunted depth perception.

This is Petter Branden, whose glorious leather jacket can’t mask the fact that he looks like a man who lived with his beloved ‘Momma’ until her unexplained disappearance around his 40th birthday…

And here’s Adam Macintosh, rocking a striped shirt with patterned yellow waistcoat. At a time when the US Supreme Court coined the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine to justify Louisiana segregation laws, it’s little wonder that ol’ Adam decided to fuck it all off and take his chances amidst the zombies and bounty hunters. Out here, at least everyone is equally doomed.

I love every one of the outlaws who emerge from this character creator-by-fire.

Quickplay can also lead to some interesting player interactions. When everyone’s still hunting for clues, you shoot first and skip the questions. But as soon as someone activates the Wellspring, teaming up may be the only way to get to a well hunkered-down player who’s turned an abandoned church or meat cellar into a trap maze.

In one such game, I managed to frantically convince two fellow hunters via proximity chat that I was a dab hand at cutting barbed wire (in fairness, I’m better at that than shooting), so we joined up to infiltrate the Wellspring holder’s makeshift compound. 

The tension was as thick as the swampy miasma as we crept through the building towards the orange glow of our target, occasionally twitching our sights towards each other with guns primed just in case anyone got cold feet about our fleeting little alliance. Suddenly, we heard the deadly fizz of a fuse, and split off in different directions as a dynamite stick landed between us and the bullets began to fly.

With less than 20 seconds until the Wellspring ran dry, one of my teammates landed the deciding shot to become the new holder. Amid the chaos, I found myself directly behind my one remaining maybe-still-ally. In a split-second decision that’s probably a damning indictment on my moral compass, I took aim at the back of his head, figuring that the target may be maimed enough that I could take things from here. But right as I prepared to throw my allegiance to the winds along with his brain matter, a single shot rang from the shadows to end my game. My character was dead—doomed to never earn a name or story. 

It’s a shame that such a great game mode is hidden away behind a name that evokes being dumped into a Battlefield server with seven people on it. Quickplay may be secondary to the main Bounty Hunt mode, but it feeds into it perfectly, letting you forge characters and stories of desperation, friendships and inevitable betrayal. It’s an intense, intimate twist on the battle royale, imbuing the mode with a strong sense of character that it’s so often lacking.

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