“The Finals is a game show at heart; it’s not a battle royale or a military sim.”
That’s Gustav Tilleby, creative director of The Finals, describing a new shooter from former Battlefield developers that’s launching today — a surprise shadow drop during The Game Awards. Tilleby and the team at Embark Studios have spent nearly five years painstakingly developing server-side destruction to create something truly unique. The entire environment is destructible, making The Finals feel like a first-person shooter like no other.
In The Finals, you play in teams of three, competing in a game show-like arena where you’ll collect cash and bank it to win. There are three different classes (light, medium, and heavy), all with different weapons and abilities. That all sounds like your typical arena shooter. But what sets The Finals apart is the ability to crash through buildings, blow things up with canisters, and witness UFO invasions, orbital lasers, or ramped-up destruction modes mid-game.
After playing the open beta alongside 7.5 million others, I haven’t been this excited about a first-person shooter since I played the early versions of PUBG. The Finals has the potential to shake up a formula that has gotten stale, and perhaps even boring, in recent years.
“From the very beginning, we said that if we’re going to make a shooter, it needs to be different; it needs to be something that nobody else is doing,” says Tilleby in an interview with The Verge. “I personally love systemic game design where you give the players tools and it’s really up to them to use them.”
A fully destructive world means the tactics of a usual shooter like lanes and choke points go out the window. You can be standing in a hallway in The Finals waiting for an enemy, and then, the next minute, the floor underneath you is disappearing. You can be great at aiming, but in The Finals, you need to be great at adapting and using the environment to your advantage.
“It’s almost a childhood fantasy of mine where you can play in a game where you can go into every single building, every single room, and pick up every object and destroy everything,” says Tilleby. “It’s really cool that we actually managed to build it. It’s not been easy to do.”
Server-side movement is the key component of the destruction inside The Finals. In typical shooters, the elements that move inside the game and the physics engines all run on your console or PC, with movement syncing up to a server to be distributed to other players so everyone is experiencing the same multiplayer interactions. There’s always the chance here of desync, where the server and client hitboxes aren’t fully in sync and you end up with situations where you thought your aim was perfect but the bullets didn’t register.
Embark Studios decided to shift all of this onto the server. That doesn’t mean you’re streaming a cloud game; it just means the movement, destruction, and physics engines don’t run on your PC or console at all. Instead, it’s all part of network data, so moving platforms, debris piles, and all in-game movement syncs that way instead.
“So the way our model works is that as much as possible, where we can, we sort of cheat a little,” admitted Arvid Burstrom, technical animator at Embark Studios, in a podcast earlier this year. “We run this thin prediction wrapper on top of our gameplay and then we try and minimize the amount of prediction we have as much as possible so we can stay true to what the server is saying.”
It has taken years of testing and tweaking to perfect the prediction model, and even the movement in a beta earlier this year felt a little too floaty. In the early days of testing in 2021, the team discovered a series of amusing bugs, including buildings that would multiply and then collapse on top of each other and walls that had a mind of their own. Many of the object interactions and destruction elements you see in the game today were first built years ago but have been improved to the point where everyone gets to experience them now.
All of this focus on destruction has also changed how the team designs maps. “Working on other projects before, you can easily hide things or have things as backdrops because you know people will never be able to go there. Now, we can’t just create this empty space because we know people will be able to destroy it,” explains Joakim Stigsson, a senior environment artist for The Finals, in an interview with The Verge.
That has meant designing around structural integrity, considering the amount of beams, pillars, and other elements of a building that players can use to weaken a building and ultimately destroy it.
“We play test our game more or less every day,” says Stigsson. “When we’re designing the map, together with the level designers, we are playing and iterating on the maps to see if it hits the design goals we set out at the beginning.”
One of those goals was to vary the maps that are available in The Finals. “A huge addition for launch is Las Vegas,” reveals Tilleby. “It’s a bit different from the ones we’ve done so far. It has really big interconnected interiors, and it’s even leaning even more into destruction and that type of gameplay.”
The Las Vegas map even has a UFO invasion event that can appear mid-game, similar to the modifiers that suddenly appear to kick off a low-gravity mode or even more destruction damage. The alien invasion mode will include a flying saucer that can tractor beam the map and pull stuff up into the air to create an even more chaotic environment for players to fight in.
You can imagine the team will add more of these events in the future. “There are tons of ideas of where to take it next. Wind systems and weather are definitely things that are on the drawing board and that we might do sometime in the future,” says Tilleby. “I personally want to expand on features that can create knock-on effects and chain effects and so on; that’s something that would be very interesting and expand on the experience of playing the game.”
If you played last month’s open beta, there are some new abilities to play with today. There’s a new vanishing bomb, which sounds like it’s going to be very useful for stealth play. “It’s similar to the stealth ability, but it affects all players that are in a given range so you can vanish your whole team for a short while and reposition,” says Tilleby. Throwing knives are also now part of the game, giving you some options for a ranged attack.
The first season of The Finals kicks off today, with a 12-level battle pass that includes 96 rewards. You’ll need to unlock the competitive side of the game, and the entire battle pass should take around 40 hours to complete for the average player.
The Finals is undoubtedly an exciting release for first-person shooter fans, but it now has to live up to the hype and perform the delicate balancing act of being a free-to-play live-service game. These types of games are difficult for studios to maintain, as we’ve seen recently from Destiny 2 developer Bungie.
The delicate balance involves keeping the game fresh with regular updates, a solid progression system, player rewards, and how and when paid cosmetics are available. On top of all of that, there’s the constant cat-and-mouse game against cheaters or the first-person shooter debate about cross-play, skill-based matchmaking, and how much aim assist to give console players. What I’m trying to say is that it’s a lot.
The Finals is launching on PS5, Xbox Series S / X, and PC (Steam), with cross-play only enabled if you actively choose to. That allows console and PC players to avoid each other and spare most of the arguments about cross-play. Mouse and keyboard players will likely have an advantage in The Finals anyway simply because there’s a lot riding on your ability to respond quickly to environment changes and movement.
The matchmaking in The Finals should be a little bit more relaxed than something like Call of Duty simply because the skill gap will be different than who can hit their headshots. There are so many more variables here with the environment, player abilities, and movement that the best players will be the ones who can master the chaos and adapt. “We’ve seen that in our internal play tests; it’s not necessarily the people who are best at aiming that come out on top,” says Stigsson. “I’m not the best player in the house, but I’ve managed to win tournaments internally in testing.”
I’m now curious to see where Embark Studios takes the gameshow element of The Finals in the future and the balancing act of a live-service game. The core foundations of a destructive world are very solid here, and the timing couldn’t be better for me personally, as I’m fatigued by Call of Duty, Overwatch, and many other first-person shooters. In a year full of great games, The Finals feels like a welcome surprise addition to my list.