It's fair to say that Fear the Wolves landed in Early Access in a somewhat sorry state, but then again, that's also the point; to help developers fix problems and polish their product with help from the community. Vostok Games' post-apocalyptic battle royale was fairly rough around the edges the last time we played it, but since then plenty has been done to improve the experience for players and we're pleased to say that the game that has just released represents a marked improvement.
Perhaps the most interesting things about Fear the Wolves is the setting and the way that Vostok has used it to inform the gameplay. The result is one of the most interesting battle royale playspaces we've encountered, where the environment plays a more significant role in events than you'll see in nearly every other game of this kind. This Chernobyl-set arena is full of hazards, from radiation and harmful spores through to gameplay-changing weather effects, and it's not just the other players that are out for blood.
The biggest danger is in the name. Wolves stalk the world, and it's likely that you'll need to kill a few of them during a typical run. If you can take on one wolf by itself it's relatively straight forward, but a pack of them can make for a potentially deadly encounter, not least of all because the resulting gunfire telegraphs your position to anyone nearby. There are white wolves that lead the more traditional dark-furred critters, and if you do stumble across one it pays to either slink away unnoticed or fill it full of bullets before it can howl for support. If you can kill one, however, make sure to yank its heart from its chest as adding one to your inventory will dissuade other wolves from making unprovoked attacks.
When you do encounter a pack it's normally better to take flight than stay and fight. Once they're on you they'll keep on coming until either you can find safety and lose them (the bigger buildings are useful for this), you've been torn to shreds, or they're all dead. These grizzly creatures will circle you and attack as a team, making them engaging opponents, but they also have a very unnatural leap which we think could have been better implemented. When a wolf swipes a paw at you the injury is represented on screen by a scratch, and, of course, your health bar takes a hit too, so it's worth avoiding conflict with these mutated lupines if at all possible as there's very little incentive to tackle them, other than a slight bump to the points you're given at the end of the match.
The irradiated battlefield is, like we've seen so many times before, filled with weapons to pick up and utilise, although the passage of play when you're scavenging for supplies at the start that typifies the whole genre is more pronounced here. You'll need an axe to access certain buildings, and there are hazmat suits and other pieces of survival equipment dotted around the place. You're not just picking up the best armour - you have to make decisions about whether you want to be more durable when facing bullets or have increased survivability when engulfed in radiation.
Speaking of bullets. The gunplay in Fear the Wolves is solid, but not the game's selling point. Working either in twos or alone, you're taking on other solo players or pairs on your way to a helicopter that extracts the winners and takes them to safety. Guns are customisable and there's a decent variety on offer, so unless you're unlucky it shouldn't take too long for you and your buddy to find a decent weapon each. Then it's a matter of out-gunning anyone you meet on your way to the exit.
Except it's not that easy. This being a battle royale, the playspace is always getting smaller, but unlike most of the competition, it doesn't get smaller because of some shrinking circle, rather large chunks of the map become increasingly radioactive. It's moments like this, when little particle effects cloud your screen and poisoning starts to kick in, that differentiate Fear the Wolves the most, and you're constantly looking to avoid bubbles of radiation that pop up as well as whole sections of the map that can only be tackled when wearing the right protective gear (and even then you can't really hang about as you've got to watch your oxygen levels).
The unpredictability of the map and an emphasis on environmental danger makes Fear the Wolves feel unique within a genre that sometimes struggles to feel diverse, and we really appreciated the extra thought and effort that has to go into exploration and personal care. Another thing we liked was the maps found while foraging for supplies that would, in turn, lead you helpful stashes hidden out in the world, giving you a side-objective (and a potential lifeline if things are looking grim) on your way to extraction.
There's a lot to like about Fear the Wolves, but it's still not above criticism. Low player counts can be a problem and the experience of going up against 10 players just isn't as interesting as going up against 30. Moreover, communication between allies isn't streamlined and there's also very little to stop your buddy shooting you in the back once you've gathered lots of resources (this happened to us once when we were downed by an opponent, and after the fight our teammate decided to finish the job rather than help us back up). Another issue is the lack of progression - apart from a few cosmetic items that you can unlock with points earned while playing, there's no way to track your progress in general.
Then there are the bugs and glitches. True enough, it's in a much healthier place than it was last year, but there are still some nauseating moments just waiting to hit you. We've been kicked from several games, and we've also encountered a bug that stops us from picking up weapons and opening doors (and in a game like this that's pretty much terminal). We've praised the map, and it's true that it offers variety and personality that a lot of other studios should take note of, but it's also got a few unpolished areas such as unnaturally positioned pieces of scenery, and that kind of oversight can work against the atmosphere that has been so expertly built elsewhere.
Having said all that, we don't want to end on a down note, because we had a much better time with Fear the Wolves than we thought we were going to. It's still not perfect and it could have done with a bit more spit and polish, but Vostok has built a battle royale that dares to be a bit different in a genre that's somewhat stifled by its own conventions. It could have done with more time in development and there's a good chance it's going to struggle considering the wealth of options gamers have in this area, especially considering it launched in the same week as Apex Legends, an altogether more polished experience that has a much more tempting price point. That's a shame because, despite the technical issues that undeniably hold it back, there are interesting and well-implemented ideas here that deserve a larger audience than they're likely to get.