At first glance, The Cycle looks like a cynical attempt by Yager Development to shove every popular game mechanic of the last decade into a single game — to hopefully print money. But after spending some time playing the game’s latest Alpha, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t just work.
The Cycle describes itself as a “competitive quest shooter” that features both player-versus-player (PVP) and player-versus-environment (PVE) combat. The action is set on the distant world of Fortuna III — a beautiful but deadly planet ravaged by a never-ending radiation storm circling the globe. In the downtime between storm cycle (see what they did there?), teams of “Prospectors” descend to the surface in search of resources. It’s a race against time to scavenge loot, ruin the other team’s day, and evacuate before the storm swings back around (killing you horribly). Then the storm passes and the cycle begins anew.
I saw a lot of players in the lobby chat describe The Cycle as “Battle Royale with bounties,” but that’s not quite the impression I got. Instead, I’d liken it more to a weird hybrid of PVE and PVP game modes from Destiny 2. At the start of each round, five four-person teams airdrop onto Fortuna III and receive a series of challenges to accomplish. These tasks — not too dissimilar from Destiny bounties — range from mining resources, killing fauna, and collecting flora to just capturing an area of the map. It’s by completing these objectives that you score points in The Cycle.
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The PVP component comes into play when you encounter enemy teams — who are themselves trying to complete as many challenges as possible. Killing other players doesn’t score you any points. However, it does slow them down as they’re forced to respawn and lose progress towards their own goals. You might also have competing goals. Maybe you both want to mine the same rock, and there’s not enough to go around. It’s a powder keg waiting to go off. Learning to balance completing objectives withdisrupting the enemy will be key to high-level play in The Cycle. If you notice another team pulling ahead, it might be worth hunting them down (or sending a couple of players to harass them while
you play catch up).
When you do decide that the other team has outstayed their welcome, you’ll fall softly into the loving arms of The Cycle’s robust gunplay. There is a wide arsenal available and the weapons I tried out all packed a satisfying wallop. The PVP time-to-kill seemed fair, letting you maneuver and pull back in combat, but without tanking everyone up toJRPG boss levels of health. The wildlife starts off weak, but gets stronger as the end of each cycle approaches — ramping up the intensity and ensuring the PVE never gets too easy.
Eventually a timer appears to inform you that your vacation on Fortuna III has come to an end. At this point, you have a choice: scarper towards the evac shuttle or keep grinding to complete a few final challenges. The evacuation system was clearly kidnapped from Titanfall. But given that it’s one of the best mechanics from one of the best competitive shooters out there, we’ll let it slide.
There are some key differences anyway. In Titanfall and Titanfall 2, only the losing players need to escape — giving them a chance to eke out some pride in a failed battle. But The Cycle requires everyone to get the hell out of Dodge. Oh! And one more thing… You’ve all got to share the same ride home. As a result, the evacuation stage gets tense. Everyone wants off the planet, but nobody wants anyone else to leave. Starting a fight puts you in danger, too, but gives you one last chance to come out on top.
You see, the evacuation ship won’t let you board straight away. The owners need to verify your identity first. This leads to nervous standoffs as teams try to ensure their own escape, while fending off others trying to save their own hides. You can also use this system to your advantage if you came up short on the challenge front. The enemy team can only bank their points if they make it off-world, so ruining first place’s day is a solid last-ditch strategy.
It should go without saying that there’s a crafting system, too. It’s 2019 after all. You earn resources at the end of each cycle, which can unlock new weapons, armor, gadgets, and attachments. The various armors offer different defensive and mobility options, while weapon attachments can tailor specific guns to your playstyle. The suit and gadget options mean you can massively alter your toolkit on the battlefield, with ground-pound attacks, invisibility cloaks, and mobile turrets (and a load more to boot).
Buying a fancy new toy doesn’t give you immediate access to it in your next game, however. You still need to earn enough credits on the planet to buy your upgrades every cycle — similar to Counter-Strike, or buying items in League of Legends and Dota 2 (more of those kitchen sink similarities I was talking about). This ensures that players start on even footing at the beginning of each round, equipped with only a sidearm. You earn credits by killing wildlife and completing challenges that allow you to draft in heavier ordinance. This means that playing the mission is key to your success, because you can quickly lag behind other teams in the arms race. Nobody wants to turn up to a late-game rocket launcher fight with a pistol!
I have to say that, despite my misgivings, I was thoroughly impressed by my short time with The Cycle. The movement and gunplay feel great, it has a vibrant aesthetic, and it comes with a solid gameplay loop. What remains to be seen is how well this house of cards has been stacked up; you can’t just mash together features and ideas from myriad games without considering balance. And I can already see some problems around “fairness” in The Cycle’s future.
Encouraging players to fight will be the biggest issue, I suspect. It’s cool to imagine teams sending solo players off on guerrilla operations, but your best bet will almost always be avoiding contact with the other teams. It’s a similar, albeit self-correcting problem in traditional battle royale games.
You can last a long time in Apex Legends and Fortnite by avoiding conflict. But that won’t get you geared up or practiced for the final confrontation. The difference is that The Cycle doesn’t necessarily require a final fight at all. Instead, you can concentrate on cranking your own score up. Another issue — one that comes from mashing together everything popular — is that you put yourself into competition with everything else. I can’t see the Destiny stuff pulling people away from Bungie’s shooter, or the PVP dragging people off their Fortnite.
Still, it’s early days for The Cycle. This is an alpha, after all. And Yager’s hybrid PVEVP shooter is stacks up nicely in the moment-to-moment chaos. I just want to know if its grandest ideas will weather the storm its brought onto itself.