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Tencent's own battle royale game has hackable zombies

After investing in PUBG and Fortnite, Tencent is increasing the competition.
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At first glance, Synced: Off-Planet looks like a battle-royale blend of Left 4 Dead, The Division and World War Z. When Tencent Next Studios debuted the game at NVIDIA's Gamescom 2019 press conference, social media lit up with comparisons to these existing franchises. Some comments wrote off the game as a cheap clone, while others were intrigued by the idea of a new, yet familiar-looking shooter.

"You can argue it looks like World War Z and The Division," Next creative director Clark Jiayang Yang said the day after Synced's reveal. "But to be honest, having so many players -- we have 48 players in a round and 1,500 AI zombies in the same place. That's something that in any other games we haven't really seen before."

Next describes Synced as a "PvPvE and co-op" game, meaning players team up to battle other people, and slaughter hordes of AI-driven zombies known as Nanos. But Synced isn't simply about survival -- there's a time limit on each round, and the win ultimately goes to whichever team claims a solitary airship. The goal is to get off the planet, as the title suggests.

Synced: Off-Planet

Synced supports 20-minute matches with 16 teams of three players each, plus 1,500 Nanos that spill onto the map in AI-driven bursts. And there's an extra twist: Players are able to hack the zombies, transforming groups of them into weapons for a minute at a time. After the hack ends, the affected Nanos fall to the ground, fully dead.

"We've all played zombie games before," Yang said. "We know what to do with them -- kill them all. With this game you can do that, but we also need to look at the zombies as a resource."

"We also need to look at the zombies as a resource."

Or as a potential roadblock. The bodies of dead Nanos don't disappear into the ground once they've been felled, instead persisting and stacking up in the level wherever they land. By the end of the demo round that Yang and two other developers played in front of me, the concrete slab surrounding their escape vehicle was consumed by zombie corpses, transforming the battlefield into an undead knoll.

Hacking a horde involves finding a zombie with a vulnerable node, shooting it out, and then spending a few defenseless moments holding down a button while the malware spreads. Every nearby Nano is then under your control, and will automatically attack unhacked zombies and enemy players, or travel to any spot you designate. Friendly Nanos glow green, while the mean ones are purple.

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Unlike popular battle royale games such as Fortnite or PUBG, there's no shrinking map in Synced, and players start each round at designated spawn points, rather than dropping in at their whim. Meanwhile, the Haven adds a layer of social interaction, strategy and customization to the game -- it's a pre-match area where folks can hang out, organize their teams, and purchase accessories. This section of the game is being developed by English studio Gobo.

"We're not going to do pay-to-win."

Synced will have microtransactions, though developers haven't decided whether to offer the game for free or charge a fee upfront. Any monetization decisions will largely come down to player feedback, Yang said. The studio is planning to host a closed beta and early access period next year, and Synced is set to hit PC afterward. The particular storefront -- Steam or the Epic Games Store -- is still undecided, even though Next's parent company, Tencent, owns 40 percent of Epic Games.

"We're not going to do pay-to-win for sure," he said. "I hate those pay-to-win games. As long as it's fair for everyone, I think that's fine."

Synced has a rich pedigree. There are roughly 50 developers working on the game, and Yang himself is a veteran AAA level designer whose credits include Batman: Arkham Origins and Far Cry 5. Meanwhile, Synced's publisher, Tencent, is one of the richest companies in the world. Visually, the game reflects its roots -- it has smooth animations and sharp graphics, complete with ray-tracing.

Synced: Off-Planet

Tencent is best known for releasing mobile titles with microtransactions, such as Honor of Kings, though it also owns League of Legends studio Riot Games, and it has a minority stake in Epic Games, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft and other AAA companies. Synced represents a different kind of game for Tencent's development team at Next. It's a polished competitive and cooperative shooter built to compete with the top PC games of the day.

Yang takes it a step further, calling Synced a new type of game entirely.

"People can compare us with The Division or World War Z, and to us, actually it's something we're happy with," Yang said. "Because our bar is at that level. For the gameplay, people go, 'Oh, the UI looks like Division and the zombies like World War Z.' Fine, fair enough. But when we see this mechanic of controlling zombies, when we see that we have other players to fight with each other, the gameplay is actually hiding some big stuff. We don't see any of those mechanics in any other games."

Catch up on all the latest news from Gamescom 2019 here!

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