How many times have we heard that? “We want to change game development”, “we want to breathe life back into the genre”. Big words, but apparently meant by Rob Runesson, ex-DICE executive and now co-founder of Embark with Patrick Söderlund (also DICE). Not only does this team have the means to do so, they also let the assembled press play their multiplayer shooter The Finals right after the vision presentation. As if to prove that these are not empty phrases. And what can I say: After these almost three hours, I can hardly wait for the start of the closed beta this week. These were some of the most exciting battles in a long time. Alas, I don’t get a key!
There are now 250 people at Embark in Stockholm who optimize their workflows with AI-supported processes and also had a few good ideas for their games. It was no coincidence: Six developers let them work on the sixth floor for six months to come up with a concept that should make everyone involved feel butterflies in their stomachs again. More specifically, Creative Director Gustav Tilleby speaks of a game in which dynamics, player freedom and tools for meaningful environmental interaction are the focus. And interaction means, above all, large-scale destruction.
Battlefield, look here!
I couldn’t help but take this as a pointer to the old employer and Battlefield maker DICE. In recent years, he had increasingly put his destruction on a leash and limited it to spectacle effects that you watch more than they played a role in the match itself. Large parts of the architecture here, including many ceilings and floors, are no problem for the explosive arsenal. The Finals should also sparkle with intuitive possibilities. Tilleby sends out the mnemonic that the question of whether this or that might work should mostly be “yes”. “It’s a game that says ‘yes’ more than ‘no’!” he says.
So what is The Finals about? The backdrop is a macabre future game show where the team that makes the most money wins. What sounds sinister is pulled strongly in the feel-good direction by the sunny and clean design of the maps, which is often reminiscent of a less sterile Mirror’s Edge. Four teams of three loot one of several vaults and then haul the loot to a cashout, where it takes a while for the money to be added to the score counter as points. Other teams see the loot and can intercept it or divert the money to their points account if they manage to take out the guarding team. Kills are therefore only a secondary source of income, but they are also worthwhile if each player falls into an effective rain of gold coins when they die. Chic!
And yeah, then there’s the fact that the destruction is just on a completely different level than anything I’ve seen before. At one point, an opponent heated me up with a flamethrower, I fled backwards, out of his reach, and got help from a fellow player. The flamethrower guy broke off the pursuit, backed into a small room. I threw a grenade after him and shortly thereafter see all four walls fly away. The whole room was gone. I have no idea if I caught my opponent. But I knew I had just experienced one of the coolest moments in a shooter in a long, long time. And there were quite a few of those in my session.
His own league
In particular, a last rush to a brimming cashout machine, which was almost ready to credit the cash to our opponent team, burned into my memory. This time it was a larger hall, where even the ceiling collapsed at the end. Interestingly, navigating between the boulders wasn’t fiddly at all and getting to the top of the scree was no problem. So that’s what Tilleby means when he talks about saying yes to the game. In any case, it was a wonderfully chaotic, frenetic moment that I hadn’t experienced in any shooter before – maybe early Rainbow Six: Siege would have been comparable in terms of a-ha effect. Basically, however, the extent of the destruction is in a completely different league.
It was particularly important to Embark that the destruction and movement of the characters happened on the server – after all, everyone has to see the same thing if you want to play with and against each other. A piece of debris that got in your way but went somewhere else for me kills any competitiveness in a multiplayer experience. While I can’t tell if this level of card Armageddon is well balanced in the long run. But I feel the excitement and unpredictability that this literally mind-blowing physics allows for is worth the occasional losing out to “force majeure” should it occur. It just feels great to be able to make a “door” almost anywhere. On the map in South Korea there is even a crane with a demolition ball on it. The only time I made it up, however, was that I couldn’t assess the impact of my work. With a little more map knowledge and overview, this will certainly change.
The way the game deals with the avatars also falls into the dynamic and freedom category. You choose Light, Medium or Heavy and then you get the right moveset from relatively slow to lightning fast. Each class has one of two to three individual skills to choose from and a bulging toy chest that roughly matches the weight class. What you take with you is up to you. All items are subject to a cooldown instead of requiring you to resupply during a match. So you concentrate less on logistics and are completely focused on the match. You first choose your base loadout, and then a reserve of five other items to rotate in between rounds.
Choose your tool wisely
This can be necessary, among other things, because the maps are laid out quite differently. South Korea was more vertical so ziplines and portable jump pads were a good idea here, rustic Monaco was more convoluted and spread out so area control by mines or sensors was more appropriate. Gas grenades briefly close a door, foam grenade creates a physical barrier. The defibrillator gets players who are lying on the ground back on their feet immediately and thus avoids the rather long revival and if a card is played at night, the night vision device is certainly helpful. There was a lot more and everything seemed cool enough to want to try at least once. I give the game credit for the fact that I was allowed to do that, in almost any combination.
What hasn’t been seen so far are weapon attachments. You’re obviously not going to do a lot of mods on your guns, which I think is ok for a change. The individual skills were also of a kind that it was difficult to decide between them. For example, Light soldiers can either make themselves temporarily invisible or get a grappling hook, the Heavy can also shoot the foam of the foam grenade with a cannon, run through walls with a sprint attack (delicious!) or set up an energy shield in front of them. This is particularly useful when the medium player directs his healing ray at the heavy – as long as he was able to bring himself to do without the automatic machine gun turret.
There are also modifiers during a round. For example, the stadium announcer can announce extra weapon damage or a meteor shower that hits pretty devastatingly. In one round, moving platforms also flew around among the South Korean skyscrapers. I was absolutely infatuated with what I played here. The movement is nicely dynamic and full of possibilities, and the weapons are quite handy, although some might not love how many hits an opponent sometimes swallows before going down. I think it has to be like this. Because when you have so much going on and so many effects hitting you, it’s important to get a chance to correct the mistake of your unwanted absence. Since this game is primarily about gaining space and time, I think it’s bearable.
A matter of balance
The only thing that is still hanging in the air is the question of whether every game will be equally exciting for all participants. I’ve had several matches where three of the four teams were fighting over the same loot, which gave a fourth team more or less a clear path to the final cashout, which eventually became almost unattainable for their competitors. But I’m not going to pretend that I can tell after two and a half hours of playing with strangers. In addition, it was previously impossible to tell the opposing teams apart.
So yes: The Finals is exactly as exciting as the trailers make it seem. I had a blast and am genuinely excited for a shooter that celebrates the joy of chaos and destruction. That feels like a liberation from the now somewhat predictable shooter circus. Or, to put it another way, as if someone had breathed life back into the genre. Looks like Rob Runesson knows what he’s talking about.
The Finals goes into closed beta this week. The game will be free-to-play on Steam, PS5 and Xbox Series. The exact date is not fixed yet.