Screenshot by Conner Dejecacion / North by Northwestern, Image by Embark / Nexon

The Finals came out at the best possible time: after I was done with my actual finals. A few days earlier, and I have no doubt my GPA would’ve tanked thanks to this addicting game. The Finals is not your boilerplate battle royale or extraction shooter, but rather brings an ingredient sorely missing from the FPS kitchen in recent years: something new.

Embark Studios’ new free-to-play multiplayer shooter surprised-dropped last December, and quickly rose to the top of Steam’s most-played game charts—hitting nearly 250,000 concurrent players shortly after its release. Since being announced in 2022, the game underwent several closed and open tests that gave a select set of players early access to the game, and allowed developers to make changes in response to their feedback. The result has been a smooth arrival onto the scene, barring minor server hiccups in the first few days and a major outage on Dec. 22. That being said, I spent my winter break playing the game, and I can say with confidence that The Finals has the potential to be the next big thing in multiplayer shooters.

The premise of The Finals is a virtual reality combat game show that turns real-life locations like Monaco, Seoul and Las Vegas into fully-destructible arenas, where teams of contestants compete for prize money. The developers at Embark have already delivered such staples as EA’s tentpole shooter series Battlefield and the cult-classic parkour game Mirror’s Edge, and have leveraged their experience to generate some truly impressive mechanics. A key element of the game is the fully destructible environments. The abundance of high explosives means ceilings, walls and floors are just as fragile as the competitors themselves, enabling truly catastrophic damage to the game space on a scale I’ve yet to see matched by any game, past or present. This is all done server-side, which means there’s no lag in all but the most extreme cases of environmental annihilation I’ve encountered thus far. The game’s technical fidelity is all the more impressive because it’s also one of the best looking FPSs I’ve played, boasting detailed environments that range from futuristic casinos to quaint Riviera villas. Blowing them to pieces is a pleasure that never gets old.

Screenshot by Conner Dejecacion / North by Northwestern, Image by Embark / Nexon

This is not to say that players are just running around, turning each other into red paste. The game features an innovative objective-based mode called “Cash-Out,” which combines elements of the familiar Capture the Flag and King of the Hill modes. To score points, you have to open a “Vault” and then take it to an ATM-like “Cashout Station” where, after several minutes, it will deposit points into the team’s account. This process takes time, offering rival teams multiple opportunities to conduct a heist and rob you of your hard-fought prize money. It’s a game mode that rewards daring assaults and perseverance, as games can turn around in an instant and nearly always come down to the literal last second.

Players can choose from a variety of character types to suit their playstyle. The Light class comes equipped with stealth gear for sneak attacks, the Medium class has a wide variety of support items to aid their team and the Heavy class hits hard with rocket launchers and machine guns. The interplay between classes and loadouts allows for a variety of viable strategies, with few overcoming the rest as blatantly overpowered (except maybe for the invisible shotgun combo that enables cheap instant kills, but that’s just my saltiness talking). The weapons and gadgets all have satisfying tactile feedback replicated on the environment and other players. Getting killed isn’t a bloody affair. To keep the sponsors happy, dead contestants explode into a shower of golden coins. Meanwhile, the booms and bangs of guns and bombs creates a wild, chaotic atmosphere befitting the high-octane game show theme.

Embark went all out for character and weapon customization. Players have many options when it comes to personalization, including not just shirts and pants but wrist wear, tattoos, weapon reload animations and emotes. The monetization of these customization items raises a few eyebrows, but I can’t really be one to judge because I spent 10 actual real-life dollars on a battle pass that gives access to, among other items, this ridiculous alien skin.

Screenshot by Conner Dejecacion / North by Northwestern, Design Credit Embark / Nexon

The Finals has drawn some criticism due to its reliance on AI voice acting, which is most noticeable in the voices of in-game commentators Scotty and June. Their awkward, stilted narration would be a charming comment on the facade of mass entertainment if it didn’t mean professional voice actors were left out in the cold. While the company says it used ethically-sourced voice samples to train in-house text-to-speech models, it’s nonetheless disappointing that such a well-crafted game decided to take shortcuts on part of what makes the game stand out. The over-the-top commercialization within the game world, symbolized by the bloodless deaths of contestants who instead explode into showers of golden coins and the omnipresence of fictional corporate sponsors, might be a slick satire–but in light of the AI voice acting a certain degree of disingenuity emerges, I say: make Scotty and June AIs themselves and keep the awkward delivery, but hire real voice actors, please, and pay them well.

I’ve had a blast with The Finals–literally. I’ve always upturned my nose at most popular competitive shooters, and was never good at the ones I did enjoy, but the thrilling moment-to-moment gameplay of The Finals, as well as the stunning physicality and fresh game modes help it stand out in what I believe to be an oversaturated field.

Did I mention it’s free?

Screenshot by Conner Dejecacion / North by Northwestern, Image by Embark / Nexon

This review was NOT sponsored by OSPUZE. Pop. Pour. Perform.

Thumbnail Image Credit Embark / Nexon