I thought multiplayer shooters had run out of ways to surprise me, but I had a genuine shock to the system yesterday morning watching this gameplay trailer for The Finals, a free-to-play FPS in development by the ex-Battlefield devs at Embark Studios. The trailer shows a brief look at what's apparently possible in The Finals: Entire buildings crumbling into hundreds of pieces at the whim of a grenade launcher while players parkour across the falling debris like Nathan Drake.
What I saw didn't line up with my current understanding of what's possible in online games. You can't do destruction this big in a multiplayer lobby, so how is The Finals pulling it off? If I hadn't seen it myself in a remote presentation by Embark, I wouldn't believe it.
The Finals is a team-based FPS set in a virtual game show. The premise immediately brought back memories of Ubisoft's mediocre, now shuttered battle royale game Hyper Scape, but this definitely isn't that. The Finals' main mode is played in 12-player lobbies (four teams of three) on a variety of completely destructible maps based on real-world locations. Embark called it an "extraction mode," but its description sounds more like a normal respawn mode. Players fight over boxes of coins and compete to hold the most dough by the end of the round.
So there's a lot of standard shooter stuff going on, but everything revolves around The Finals' server-side destruction tech, which promises that players can flatten "everything from furniture to entire buildings." Embark is really proud of the behind-the-scenes technology making this possible, so much so that it won't comment on how it works before The Finals releases. Mysterious! And another reason to stay a little skeptical, despite the video clips we're seeing.
Embark co-founder and chief creative officer Rob Runesson expects The Finals' unique tech to change how similar games are made going forward. "I think that many other studios that are working on dynamic shooters will panic now," he said. Creative director Gustav Tellby chimed in, "Well, let's hope they do."
The answer is probably a lot of smart math aided by generational advancements. It certainly doesn't hurt that The Finals is leaving last-gen console hardware behind. It's planned to release on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S, but not PS4 or Xbox One.
Dynamic destruction has long been a white whale in multiplayer games. There's a reason that most online games with destructible worlds, like Fortnite or Minecraft, are often made up of simple, block-sized pieces that rarely move: every piece of the environment, from its appearance to its location, has to perfectly sync across dozens of players, so keeping it simple makes sense. Some games have achieved truly dynamic destruction, notably Rainbow Six Siege and Battlefield (makes sense that Embark's DICE alums are interested in the challenge), but the scope is relatively small. While Battlefield has select buildings that can be punctured to trigger a canned collapse animation, buildings in The Finals will blow apart like chunks of swiss cheese until gravity brings them down. The dense, crumbly explosions in the trailer reminded me of what Red Faction Guerilla managed to pull off in a singleplayer game in 2009.
Tilleby says this level of destruction is "a holy grail" that Embark has been chasing.
"We want The Finals to be a game about intuitiveness, where if you think something should work, it probably will, and where if you want to play the game a certain way, the game won't stop you," he said. "It's a game that says yes more than it says no."
Malleable city blocks will certainly introduce unpredictability to The Finals unseen in any other multiplayer FPS, but I'm just as interested in the other ways you can interact with the world. The way Embark describes The Finals sounds like a physics-y systems-driven game, almost like an immersive sim. You can pick stuff up and throw it around, set fires, or make sky bridges with a glue cannon ripped straight out of Arkane's Prey. The same glue stuff can be found in barrels and thrown at the ground to create instant cover. Based on how prominent grapple hooks are in the trailer, that may be a default way to get around. Gunplay, unsurprisingly, looks a lot like Battlefield in terms of speed, mobility, and the types of guns on offer (I spotted your standard AK-47 equivalent, a light machine gun, and pistols). It's near future, but definitely not Cyberpunk 2077.
I'm immediately eager to check out The Finals for myself. Blowing stuff up looks like a lot of fun, but the novelty could wear off pretty quick if there's not a fundamentally enjoyable game at its core. Yesterday's press presentation didn't go deep on character customization or monetization, but Embark said there will be a battle pass and lots of cosmetics. The studio is also holding its first playtest later this week from September 29 to October 3, so we'll know soon how well the server-side destruction survives in a real network environment.
"This is not a marketing beat. This is for us to make sure we start building better games together with our community," Runesson said. Embark didn't mention when The Finals is coming out, but we know it'll be sometime in 2023. The studio recently delayed its other game, the co-op robo shooter Arc Raiders to 2023 so that it can focus on getting The Finals out first. Gameplay in the trailer is tagged as pre-alpha, so it's still pretty early.
You can sign up for the playtest on The Finals Steam page, but Embark said only a small number will get in this time.