Cowboy battle royale Grit has horse combat, trains, and a clever take on loot

Name your favorite scene in a western, and there's a good chance that the developers of Grit, a new 100-player battle royale set in the wild west, already have an idea for working it into their game. The classic high noon duel, like in For a Few Dollars More? When you die, you can win a duel to get back in the game. Riding a horse up to a moving train to take it over, Bandidos-style? Trains and horses were both considered must-haves in Grit. Poker? Yes, even poker—you won't be sitting down mid-match to play a game like Maverick, but Grit's loot system is built around collecting playing cards that represent different weapons. Put together a flush, and you'll earn a perk that sets you apart from the average cowpoke.

"The thing that really sealed the western theme for me is when we got horse combat working well," says Bob Berry, co-founder of the new studio behind Grit. "I was like, this isn't just PUBG in the west anymore. It feels like a very different game now, and it's fun."

We have a million different game mechanic ideas that we want to try

Bob Berry

Game developers Bob Berry and Jon Mavor, who both do programming and design, call themselves industry lifers. They've been making games for more than 20 years, working together on Planetary Annihilation and Monday Night Combat, and started thinking about Grit back in 2017 while playing a lot of PUBG. There may have been a rush of battle royale games in the four years since, but Mavor argues there aren't actually many that play like Grit—and none of them have cowboy hats that protect you from headshots until someone blows your Stetson off your noggin.

Despite that example of absurdity, Grit "is definitely on the more simmy side," Mavor says. Movement is weighty, and you move more slowly side-to-side than you do forwards and backwards. It's in third person, though weapon handling encourages aiming down sights for accuracy. Grit has bullet simulation and bullet drop over distances. "It's not Call of Duty-style, it's more PUBG-style. I'm hoping that people like me who do like to play PUBG also like some of the mechanics we've chosen."

Grit's biggest surprise is that it's actually playable today, in a beta that runs through the weekend. It's not quite an Apex Legends style same-day announcement and launch—Grit is still in development—but this the first of several betas that will help the dev team see how well its cowboy sandbox holds up to real life 100-player matches.

I spent more than an hour talking to Mavor and Berry about what's in Grit right now and what they're planning for the months to come. Here's what stood out.

The poker-based loot system is what interests me most

Grit battle royale

(Image credit: Team Grit)

Looting in battle royale can be tedious, and even Warzone's streamlined loot slots presented a problem for Grit's 19th century rifles and six-shooters. "They aren't known for having rails on them where you attach your laser pointers," Mavor jokes. From the beginning, he wanted to integrate poker into Grit somehow, and that idea eventually evolved into the perk system. Weapons will have both a rank and a suit (eg, the King of Diamonds). The rank roughly maps to how powerful the weapon is, but collecting multiple weapons of the same suit, or making poker hands out of rank/suit combinations, will give you specific perks.

"When you're looking for a weapon, yeah, I want the ace, but if the ace is the wrong suit, I might take the king or jack or something else to maintain my perk. When you're looking throughout the game it puts more of an emphasis on the hands that you want and spending more time to get that set, and it extends that loop of looting to be more interesting," Mavor says.

Here's an example: If you have two hearts in your inventory, you can revive teammates and use medicine more quickly. If you collect four cards in a suit, your perk gets even more powerful and your whole team will gain access to the level one perk for that suit. In an ideal scenario, each member of your squad is trying to collect a different suit and coordinating buffs (and yes, you can easily trade cards). 

Don't expect SMGs, but the weapons still sound plenty varied

Grit battle royale

(Image credit: Team Grit)

Grit is sticking to period-appropriate weapons, but there are lots of wild guns from the 1800s to keep things interesting—like a double-barreled 12-shot pistol, for example. You won't be slotting upgrades onto the weapons themselves, but a rifle with a scope or a specialty pistol can show up pre-configured as a king or ace card, for example.

"Ace [weapons] can have really elaborate cards, special features to them that are just built into that version of the weapon," Mavor says. "For example, the Ace Sharps Brass is the most powerful sniper rifle in the game. It's the only weapon that can one-shot headshot someone that has a hat on, because a hat is your head protection. But through the interaction of perks, there are other weapons that can be brought up to be able to do that if you get the right perks in combination with them. There's a very tight balance point amongst the ways the cards interact, the way looting works, that I think has been working out well for us."

Even without automatic weapons, you'll still be able to fire quickly. There's a fast-firing lever action rifle called the Cavalier. With a pistol, you can actually stand in a different stance to trigger fan firing mode, where you'll shoot all six shots in a single burst. And in the spirit of western quick draw contests, it'll be faster to swap to your pistol than it will be to swap between other weapons.

Expect a familiar battle royale structure

Grit battle royale

(Image credit: Team Grit)

How do cowboys fall out of the sky? At the start of each Grit match, you'll be parachuting into the old west from a zeppelin that flies across the map. Your parachute is a cloth wagon cover that should look familiar to anyone who's played The Oregon Trail.

Expect a big, varied map. There will be old west towns, canyons, and plateaus that evoke Arizona's Monument Valley, as well as snowy mountains and greener pastures. In Grit, the closing circle that herds players into one tight spot is a fierce dust storm. But one way Grit differs from other battle royales is that you can survive in that dust storm if you're on a train.

Outside individual matches, expect some sort of meta progression. The details are still in the planning phase, but Grit will probably use the season pass model. 

Cheating was a consideration from day one and there will be an anti-cheat implementation built in, after the initial technical tests. As Berry explains, there are already loads of cheats out there built around the Unreal Engine that can be repurposed to work with a game like Grit.

"How cowboy is this?" was a key design question

Grit battle royale

(Image credit: Team Grit)

Horse combat is a big deal in Grit. When you first get on a horse, you'll become bonded with it. It'll become your horse and show up on your map. Later on in Grit's development, you'll be able to customize your horse. Expect cosmetics (and maybe even horse armor) in the future.

You can of course shoot while you're riding. You can blast other players off their horses or shoot the horse itself, but the developers want to steer you towards targeting players in most cases. "If the primary strategy is to shoot someone's horse out from underneath them, that's not very cowboy. Cowboys don't shoot horses," Mavor says.

"That's for yellow-bellies," Berry adds.

So you can shoot horses, but they have a lot more health to discourage you from shooting them. It also wouldn't be very cowboy to get off your horse and hide behind it as cover, which is why an unmounted horse will bolt when it's shot. It's one of many ways they're trying to marry the western theme with combat.

Expect old timey liniment, bitters, and snake oil, and health kits that look like old fold-up doctor's bags. Consuming items fills up your "grit," a boost bar that can give you different effects. 

Other western touches? You can shoot the church bell to warn people you're in town. They've added musical stingers for certain moments that will evoke classic western films. There are mines. Since body armor wasn't a thing in the 1800s, armor pick-ups are all stove doors. Lassos aren't in the game yet, but Mavor has ideas for them. 

Trains are a big feature

Grit battle royale

(Image credit: Team Grit)

We've seen trains appear in other BRs like Apex Legends, but they're even more of a thematic fit in the age of steam engines and frontier heists. Mavor says the studio's goal is to make them strategically valuable, and to hit western tropes like jumping aboard from your horse. The idea is for players to be able to control trains as they move across the map, which means there will be enough track to get you to most of the places you want to go. They should also have some secondary benefits, like gold on the train you can steal.

Splits in the track will have control switches you can engage with a button press or by shooting them, so groups of players can fight for control of the train by knocking switches back and forth. Most critically, if you're on a train or riding a horse right next to one, you're in a bubble of immunity from the sandstorm, up until the last couple of circles.

"If you ride a train around and can navigate it and get towards the zone, it gives you enough potential flexibility to make a train strat a real thing," Mavor says.

Part of the reason trains are still in flux is that they're apparently a challenge to implement in Unreal Engine 4, which Grit runs on.

"Believe it or not, multiplayer movement on a moving platform is not supported," says Berry. "It's not something the engine handles well at all. [Epic is] well aware of it. So you have to write a lot of custom movement code with client-side prediction and server correction. It gets complicated very quickly. It's been a challenge just getting the trains synchronized on all the clients."

Mavor underlines that some of his train ideas are still aspirational, but considering how much they informed the design of Grit's map, I think odds are good they'll live up to their potential.

Showdown mode sounds like Call of Duty: Warzone's gulag

"When you die you go to second chance showdown heaven," Mavor says. Armed with a special pistol, you face off against another cowboy to get back into the game. If you win, you get to parachute back into the map.

For a while the developers tried having players respawn in outhouses scattered around the map, but it didn't work out well. Which is a shame, because that's really funny.

Grit is made by a small team compared to games like Fortnite, but the devs aren't worried about keeping it fresh

"We have a million different game mechanic ideas that we want to try and a team that can move very fast," Berry says. "It's not just about how many hats we can put out per month. That's an outsource problem, if we need 50 skins for armor or horses or whatever. Right now we're way more interested in what cool mechanics we can bring to the game, and we'll try it with the players and get feedback on what's working and what's not. I think the game will feel alive because our updates will come fast and frequent." 

Grit won't be F2P, but it will be cheaper in Early Access

Grit's beta tests will be free, but the developers aren't planning to make the full game free-to-play. It'll launch in Early Access at a discounted price. 

The beta will be a real technical test, with a release later this year

The beta this weekend is mostly aiming to test Grit's stability and performance on fully loaded servers and a wide array of PCs. Don't expect the kind of polished, near-finished "beta" you get from some games a month before release. Find Grit over on Steam.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).