The Culling: Origins’ bizarre buy-to-play relaunch is a disaster
If you were only peripherally aware of developer Xaviant’s melee-focused battle royale game The Culling before reading the headline, one could hardly blame you. The Culling originally launched back in 2017 as one of the many games looking to capitalize on the sudden surge in battle royale popularity brought on by Fortnite and PUBG. However, Xaviant’s debut foray into the battle royale genre also met a similarly unfortunate fate as most of those other offshoot games; failing to find a large audience and quickly fading into obscurity.
Xaviant’s quick pivot was proof enough that the studio was nothing if not persistent. Less than a year after The Culling’s debut, Xaviant launched an aptly titled sequel called The Culling 2. The sequel was unanimously rejected by the first game’s small yet dedicated fanbase because it jettisoned everything that made The Culling unique in favor of bland graphics and gameplay which summoned thousands of irate “PUBG knockoff” accusations. The whole fiasco led to a direct video apology from Xaviant’s operations director Josh Van Veld along with a promise to return focus to the first game.
Well, the recently-launched Xbox One-exclusive The Culling: Origins does technically make good on that promise, but only in the most superficial sense. The Culling: Origins may appear at first glance to be the same experience fans remember, but that initial impression can’t cover up a woefully inadequate online infrastructure, a frustrating lack of gameplay polish, and one of the most bizarrely restrictive monetization models ever conceived.
Grand Designs, Grim Tidings
Given how much energy (and likely money) Xaviant has poured into the marketing surrounding The Culling’s relaunch, it’s hard not to get swept up in the pageantry. A flashy new announcement trailer (which you can watch above) that went up on May 12 was buoyed by a prepared statement from Josh Van Veld promising a strong return to form:
“The Culling is one of the pioneers of the Battle Royale genre and even today it stands alone as a unique up-close-and-personal combat experience. We get messages every day from players who want The Culling to come back and for the last several months we’ve been working to make that happen.”
There was a second part to Van Veld’s statement which sounded equally promising on the surface, if also a bit…odd:
“Our new approach focuses on sustainability. We’ve optimized our systems to keep server costs low and we’ve shifted our monetization approach to ensure that players will be able to visit the island for years to come.”
Having now played through The Culling: Origins, I can say from personal experience that while Van Veld’s second statement is technically true, the specific language he uses demonstrates the importance of reading between the lines. Origins’ server costs are low because the game’s online infrastructure is a barely-held-together mess of error messages and poor netcode. Players can technically keep visiting the game’s island setting “for years to come,” but only if they’re willing to tolerate a monetization method that’s laughably flagrant in its predatory implementation.
Pay to Play…To Pay to Play
Unless you purchased The Culling’s original Xbox One launch version back in 2017 or downloaded the F2P relaunch Xaviant tried and failed to get off the ground a year later, playing The Culling: Origins will require a one-time $6 up-front investment. A 24-hour free trial is available for those who’d rather try before they buy, but the unique nature of Origins’ “pay-per-match” monetization method renders the free trial mostly pointless.
Once a player completes an online match in The Culling: Origins, they have to wait 24 hours before they can play another one. Playing additional matches beyond the one-a-day limit requires the spending of online match tokens, 25 of which are granted to players upon first logging in. A single token is also granted for winning a match, but it’s clear that Xaviant wants dedicated players to feed their Culling habit by spending real money on either packs of tokens or online access passes which grant an unlimited number of matches for a certain number of days.
To be fair, none of the above-mentioned microtransactions are overly expensive, with the priciest item being a 30-day online access pass which costs another $6 (the other items range in price between $1 and $5). Of course, you might also notice the cool-looking cosmetic items featured in the pictures associated with the seven and 30-day online access pass purchases in the above screenshot.
The pictures seem to imply that players will get those cosmetic items if they purchase the respective online access pass, but such is not the case. In fact, the initial $6 buy-in players need to pay to even access The Culling: Origins grants them no cosmetic benefits of any kind. All of the game’s cosmetic items are either crafted using in-game currency or unlocked through randomized loot crates earned by leveling up. You might assume that Xaviant would want to toss loyal fans a little good will by including some crates and/or crafting currency in their $6 buy-in, but you’d sadly be wrong in your assumption.
Oh, and if you’re a loyal Culling fan looking to make another go at it with Origins, here’s hoping you don’t mind having to start from scratch. Part of Xaviant’s aforementioned optimization efforts was a full saved game wipe for all players, which means any cosmetic items a player unlocked in The Culling must be unlocked again in Origins.
You Get What You Pay For
A bizarre and surprisingly stingy buy-to-play model is just the start of The Culling: Origins’ problems. During my time with the game, constant pop-up ‘Failed To Join The Lobby” error messages made navigating the main menus a nightmare and in some cases forced me to restart the game because certain UI components (like the button to open cosmetic crates) would glitch out and fail to load.
As for the actual in-match gameplay, it feels like a rough draft of what could have been a promising PvP survival title. Merely moving at a gait faster than a walk drains your character’s stamina, which means they’re constantly winded and panting heavily. The floaty and spastic movements of player avatars also robs melee combat (the game’s marquee feature) of any sense of fun or engagement. There is technically ranged combat in the form of bows and arrows, but good luck trying to hit a distant target who’s doing anything other than standing completely still.
I would commend Xaviant for its intruiging rock-paper-scissors-esque approach to melee combat (attacks can be blocked to stun the attacker but blocks can be broken with a shove) and its support of offline game modes if the actual gameplay wasn’t so shoddy and unsatisfying. It’s nice that players can participate in offline bot matches or the wave-based ‘Survival’ offline experience (both of which award XP just like online matches), but it’s also impossible to ignore the alarming amount of corners Xaviant clearly cut.
Xaviant mentions multiple times in its marketing for Origins that a bulk of its efforts went into “streamlining backend systems to reduce costs and improve efficiency.” Less than 10 minutes spent playing The Culling: Origins makes it clear that Xaviant’s statement is merely marketing speak for “we threw up a barely-held-together barebones version of the game you like in the hopes that you’ll blindly spend money on it.”
Despite Xaviant’s promises to the contrary, The Culling: Origins is not “optimized,” it’s not “streamlined,” and it’s certainly not the version of The Culling that fans remember. It’s a borderline-broken and woefully shallow relic of the bygone battle royale era which proves that the only thing Xaviant has less of than artistic integrity is shame.