There are actual wolves in Fear the Wolves, which I was a little surprised by. I thought the title was a figure of speech, referring to the predatory packs of other players that form the lynchpin in the tension of a Battle Royale game. Nope! Turns out it was a reference to literal wolves there to be feared.
Unfortunately, it's quite hard to fear them at the moment, since they move like they've lost a leg in the sea of treacle they appear to be wading through. I'm pretty sure that my reaction to a wolf eating my virtual face off shouldn't be to burst out laughing, but that's exactly what happened when I lost my first game to a pack of those three-legged treacle-dogs.
Have we collectively decided that being ropey as an 18th century ship on launch is a desired feature of the battle royale genre? Yes, Fear the Wolves is an Early Access game. But when you use Early Access as a springboard to leap upon a bandwagon with a title that's barely acceptable as an Alpha, I'm not inclined to be understanding. We're two years down the line on this battle royale money-train, with two massive, finished games for players to choose between. One of which, I might add, is the biggest game on the planet. If you're gonna come at the King, at the very least you should be wearing some clothes when you miss.
I'm especially annoyed by Fear the Wolves rushing into the court in its underwear, because I quite like the idea that it screams as its battle-cry while stood in its pants. Granted, that idea is just to smush battle royale together with S.T.A.L.K.E.R like a child making two dollies kiss, but I still think it's a relationship that could work. The haunting and oppressive atmosphere of S.T.A.L.K.E.R's anomaly-strewn wasteland is an ideal setting for a game of weaponised hide and seek, and I think that a large-scale, competitive multiplayer S.T.A.L.K.E.R game could be absolutely brilliant.
Anyway, let's begin this salvage operation. A game of Fear the Wolves commences by dropping 100 players onto Chernobyl (in a helicopter rather than a plane, because that counts as innovation in the battle royale space). At least, in theory there are 100 players. At the moment you'll be lucky if you get 50 players on a server, and even then you'll have to wait a good 5 minutes before the server fills up. After that, Fear the Wolves provides a familiar loop of scavenging items, gradually escalating combat, and navigating a shrinking map in an attempt to become the last person standing.
The key difference in Vostok Games' pitch is that the environment is against you as much as those other players. The area surrounding Chernobyl is littered with dangerous anomalies, which currently appear as shimmering bubbles in the air that explode violently if you touch them. Meanwhile, Fear the Wolves' interpretation of Battleground's map-shrinking gimmick takes the form of strange, rust-coloured spores that slowly fill the map in square patches. Remaining in one of these areas for too long afflicts you with "Adrenaline sickness", which is a posh way of saying "death".
Fear the Wolves' other defining features is that the locations containing the best equipment are highly irradiated and fraught with danger. Venturing into them requires you first to gather a bunch of other equipment, such as an oxygen tank, a breathing mask, and a hazmat suit. I love this idea, but at the moment it doesn't work, as the game moves too fast for players to cobble together those items in a reasonable space of time.
What I mainly like about Fear the Wolves is its sense of atmosphere, although right now it's more the potential to be atmospheric. In its vanilla state it looks little different from PUBG which is to say duller than the underside of my shoe. But it does feature dynamic and highly erratic weather that lends it all a greater sense of personality. I particularly enjoy the cloying fog that reduces visibility to almost nothing, which is also fun from a game perspective as it really heightens the tension. The lightning storms are pretty spectacular too, although the "heat" weather state looks appalling. The fact that the game announces which weather is incoming rather spoils the immersion, however. The gunplay is decent too although this shouldn't be vastly surprising, given that Vostok has spent years working on the FPS Survarium. Nonetheless, there's a slickness to aiming and a sharpness to firing that makes combat feel pleasingly responsive.
Sadly, all of these potentially good features are rendered moot by the fact that Fear the Wolves is so severely undercooked. The map is lacking in variety and distinction, with most villages and towns looking identical. The initial parachute phase is completely broken. Animations and sounds don't work properly, and the controls for manipulating your descent are highly inconsistent. The inventory UI is terrible, crammed into a tiny space in the bottom right of the screen that makes it very difficult to navigate. And as I already mentioned, the servers are half-empty, to the point where you're lucky if you see another player after the parachute drop.
Of course, all these issues are resolvable. But a deeper problem for Fear the Wolves is that it's currently little more than PUBG with a S.T.A.L.K.E.R-y skin, and I think to stand any chance of survival, it needs to lean much harder into Vostok's GSC roots. Constantly having to dash through clusters of anomalies just to get to a safe zone feels downright wrong. Fear the Wolves ought to be slower and more methodical, offering all players the chance to explore those dangerous exclusion zones and really build up their equipment before squeezing them together. Hunt: Showdown has demonstrated that large-scale competitive multiplayer can be successful outside of pure Battle Royale, and I reckon Fear the Wolves needs to do similar thinking about the nature of its premise, or at least how its inspirations are weighed.
I fear that Fear the Wolves will never get this far. Battle-royale has already proved a cutthroat development space, having left multiple casualties in its wake over the last twelve months. To be struggling to fill your servers days after launch is a very worrying start, and given the game's current state, it's hard to blame players for wanting to avoid it like one of its vicious anomalies.