Battlefield V’s Firestorm mode is live now. It features all the stuff you’d expect from a battle royale game from DICE. You drop onto a battlefield sans any weapons or equipment, madly scramble to get kitted up, then kill other players as a circle of death forces everyone into an increasingly smaller play area until only the final survivor (or team) remains. The Battlefield V wrinkle is that there are tanks and other armored vehicles to fight in and over, and most of the structures are fully destructible, which is as it should be since we’re talking about a series built on “levelution” and squads of players riding on camels. It’s a fine interpretation of battle royale, but it remains to be seen how well this Johnny-come-lately does against the already established heavyweights that are either free-to-play or have been around for months. Regardless of how its received by the audience, there’s one thing Firestorm does perfectly that none of the other games do well.
Firestorm takes its name from the apocalyptic ring of fire that encircles the battlefield. In other battle royale games, the circle of death is a technobabble contrivance that lays bare the gamey nature of the mode. It often has no basis for existing in the in-game fiction except it must exist to make the mode work. It’s a blue crackling field of energy controlled by some sadistic arena AI. It’s a red circle of radiation that pulses inwards because of reasons. It’s artillery that blankets the countryside. It may as well just be a pair of giant game designer hands that pushes players together. It’s not even much motivation to move! There are well-known tactics that depend on staying just outside of the safe area during the final moments of the match to maximize a player’s distance from the action. None of this is true in Firestorm. It’s literally a flaming circle, the aftermath of overzealous incendiary bombing, that destroys everything. Nowhere is safe. Houses and barns are chewed into spectacular conflagrations. Trees burst into match-paper kindling. Fire races along the ground, melting roads and reducing grass to ash. The visual and sound design of the storm is panic-inducing. Even if you could keep calm, being overtaken by the fire is a death sentence measured in seconds. That’s the other thing. It’s fast, unlike most danger zones in battle royale. The safe circle contracts at a breakneck pace once it gets going. No dawdling here! You move, or you get covered in fire. Firestorm is terrifying.
In Koushun Takami’s 1999 Battle Royale novel, the island the students are forced to fight each other on is divided into a grid, and being in a grid sector after it’s been declared off-limits results in an explosive collar decapitating the offender. The zones change a few times during the book, pushing the surviving students around the island’s geography and forcing them to engage. It’s a great system in the story, but too complicated for videogames which would need some intelligent grid sectoring to chase players around and would require too much of the players’ attention. The constricting circle of death we’ve settled on works well because it’s simple to understand, can be parsed quickly on a minimap, and is relatively easy to program. Firestorm takes that concept and makes it more than a barely motivating gameplay mechanic.