Game Review: The Cycle - Frontier

There Was Something Special Here
game review
game design

August 1, 2023

The Cycle:Frontier Header Image

The Cycle: Frontier is a free-to-play PvPvE Extraction Shooter driven by suspense and danger. Prospect for resources and other riches on an abandoned alien world ravaged by a deadly storm, inhabited by monsters and other ambitious Prospectors.

So Long And Thanks for All the Foam

It will be sad to note that anyone reading this will not be able to experience the game. And, it really was an experience dropping to planet Fortuna to become the Goblin King of mostly useless garbage. I jest to some level since most of the guns stolen from other players were fun; twice as much if the gun was something yet to be unlocked. The world was colorful, believable and fun to explore. I spetnt about 350 hours total on the surface of the planet and regret very few of them.

What Went Wrong?

Cheating Was Intolerable

You cannot discuss The Cycle: Frontier and failure without pointing at the elephant: Rampant Cheating. Talk to any player, read any of the reviews and even talk to the developers the answer was cheating:

During perhaps one of the most important periods of a live game, we faced many challenges. One of them and perhaps the most crucial one was the increasing number of cheaters shortly after TC:F went live. Although we had tools and measurements in place, we quickly realized we needed to improve our anti-cheat efforts to be able to ensure a fair game experience for all players. By the time we got additional partners onboard for our anti-cheat efforts and could focus again on gameplay and performance improvements for The Cycle: Frontier, many of you had already been affected and as a result we saw a significant decrease in our player base.

It was worse than you could imagine. The amount of people running everything from ESP to aimbot and even enabling noclip/god mode to fly around the map killing players was painful and obvious. By the time they even begun making a dent in the cheating - which took till just a bit shy of Season 3 - most of the players had left the game. And, who could blame them? When you’re running around with new and strong guns only to become instakilled by a Pickax across the map so someone could steal it and sell it on an item Black Market then who would want to drop to the planet with anything of any substance?

Quests Are Boring

Extraction Shooters always need a justification to drop you down to engage in the risk of playing the game. That means there is a mixture of Player Vs Everything and Player Vs Player gameplay. This game leans quite heavily into the Everything by placing guns and maps behind doing the quests and jobs from the different factions. And, those quests were always about as basic as it gets. The designers of the game simply grafted an MMO quest system inside the game and it did not work. Worse, stealing from other players ended up being far more useful then ever bothering to complete quests. You did get money, equipment and scrips for the different factions so it’s not completely worthless but barely.

What Match Making System?

There was a match making system but it might well not have existed. New Players often could end up with late game players which ends as a painful expereince for newer players. Perhaps this is due to how the system works and the assumptions built into the system. Of what we did know, the value of the loot you take out of a server was some component but this only moved you into what were tiers of buckets players were placed into. If those numbers were not tuned as the player count changed then it may of been doomed.

Some extraction shooters simply do not bother as part of the allure of the game is getting powerful gear as well as conquering players with better gear. There is some level of symbiosis between players with different desires - but many new players simply do not bother playing much after a new season starts; this is something which I have seen with discussions of Escpae from Tarkov. That is likely how the game has ended up with the low players counts now.

More Weapon Variability

One of the complaints many people with hundreds of hours into the game raised was that the weapons ended up repetitive. once you’ve ran around with an Advocate for 100 hours there is basically the Orange, faster Advocate - called the Korr - then maybe you’ll play the Green Advocate - the Manticore - just to do something different. The content of weapons never changed and therefore the gunplay never changed either. If you want players to stick around after a thousand hours - and also to come back for the new seasons - then you need solid infusions of content for old players.

Mobs Are Not So Smart

The creatures on Fortuna are colourful and cruel but they’re not smart. Most had two attacks and that was about it. The creature variability was not great either; there were four different mobs with a variant stronger re-colored version with more health. A variant combination of 8 mobs with 16 attacks is not enough for a game that leans on PvE as heavily as The Cycle does. They needed to have a team dedicated to pumping out new mobs to cycle in and out.

What Went Right?

The World Was Amazing

Running around in the world created by Yaeger was a lot of fun. The environment was both well built, arrange beautifully and felt good to fight in. Considering how many games get the world building wrong or neglected this is a very big bonus. The factions made sense and they all had their own roles in the fight against the planet itself. And, everything about being a prospector was an excellent backdrop for what we were doing. Even the terminology from “drops” to “getting foamed” was perfect. The storm on the planet felt terrifying for a while as it feels and looks dangerous. And, it is dangerous since there were lightening strikes trying to kill you. The change to the planet while under the effects of the storms was also beautiful. Hopefully, there will be videos on the internet which can be looked up.

Movement Was Amazing

Just about everything you can jump to can be climbed. You can get on top of all kinds of places and trees and mountains and buildings. This makes moving around the world so much fun as you can literally climb around wherever producing some wild angles to shoot at players. Forget hiding in a bush; hide in the side of a tree and snipe! The character intertia before Seaon Three was also perfect. You could pivot and slide around making the projectile bullets of other players so much harder to hit. Good movement could easily drive home a victory even if someone had a better gun; even if someone was holding an angle. Silding into a corners to pull yourself out of gunfire in walk ways or windows other players did not anticipate felt excellent. It was a rewarding gunplay system and fights felt good most of the time. You wont a fight because you were a better player and you knew you were the better player; you lost becuase you were not good enough and you knew you were not good enough.

Novel Design Decisions

There were some choices made in the game which should be genre defining. The ability to drop into a server which already exists for an extraction shooter and leave whenever you want were brilliant. Players could stay just about as long as they could find a way to survive in the server. And, using The Storm as a gameplay mechanic to push players out of the server was perfect. Frankly, more games need to adopt this design and it is a real shame we don’t see more Extraction shooters moving in this direction.

The design of the inital movement system was ideal. Since the game had its roots in a Battle Royale game, we ended up having movement and a weapon system which was similar to Apex Legends but simple enough that it was easily approachable. Tactics like Armor swaps and Quick Looting Bag Swaps were useful tools which are much better than how something like Tarkov’s sytem works.

Speaking of, the models were excellent and you could tell at a glance what any player was using for a gun and the bag they were using. The visual language of the game was perfectly on point and nothing about what you saw was difficult to understand. Everything was visually marked by specific colors making communication and decisions in combat clear. Very few games get this right - and Cycle did it.

I’d Recommend, If I Could.

Seeing that the game is closing down, I cannot recommend playing it but if you have not I would strongly recommend checking out the VODs of people playing it simply to inspire and learn from.