Population: One Kingdom Age hands-on preview: Let's do the time warp again

Population One Season 3 Preview Hero
Population One Season 3 Preview Hero (Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

As Population: One enters its ninth month of existence, developers BigBox VR are ramping up the seasonal content in the biggest way yet. It almost immediately made the list of best Quest 2 games upon launch last October thanks to its innovative free-roam climb-and-glide movement system — something that continues to set it apart in the crowded battle royale segment — and its success caught the attention of Facebook as BigBox VR became part of the first-party Oculus Studios fold last month.

Population: One Season 2 was a huge new expansion that saw an entire section of the map remade in a completely new theme, along with a bunch of new weapons and a handful of changes to the game's mechanics. Season 3, henceforth known as Kingdom Age, begins with a similar premise — transforming an entire section of the map into a massively different-looking area — but it holds back some of the bigger immediate changes with the promise of more to come over the next few months.

Kingdom Age is scheduled to last through October, giving players several months to hone their sword fighting skills, find their favorite battlements to snipe from, and earn a few seriously impressive character skins along the way. BigBox promises several surprises to come as it aims to deliver the biggest season the game has yet seen. As was the case with previous seasons, Kingdom Age is totally free for all players, with additional content earnable by purchasing a Season Pass.

I spent around 2 hours with the game: one hour on a guided tour of the kingdom and a few rounds with the developers, with a second hour later in the evening during one of the playtest sessions BigBox runs from time to time. I played both sessions on the Oculus Quest 2 using the Quest version of the game.

The glorious kingdom

Population One Season 3 Castle Official

Source: BigBox VR (Image credit: Source: BigBox VR)

Complex 33 and Ridgeline are gone. Annihilated. Smashed into a million bricks and reformed into something that appears to have been there for a thousand years. The remaking of a portion of the map into something wholly new and significantly more complex is something BigBox VR began with Season 2's Frontier area — which completely replaced the Cliffside area with a wild west-themed town and accompanying mesa environment — and Kingdom Age ups the ante even more.

The rest of the map feels utterly sparse when compared to the complexities of the kingdom.

During the playtest, the developer giving the tour plainly added that the kingdom area is the most complex indoor environment BigBox has yet made for the game. But, to be frank, that was underselling it a bit. It's not just the inside of the castle that's impressive; it's everything that surrounds and binds the kingdom together. The castle grounds include a peasant section, market, blacksmith, ruins, upper-class section, courtyards, bridges, turrets, two gazebos, and an intricate maze of walls complete with fortifications and embrasures to hide in.

It's both impressively intricate and yet massive, and that's not even including the throne room, round table area, or the chandeliers which can be hung from to literally get the drop on unsuspecting players. The rest of the map feels utterly sparse compared to the complexities of the kingdom. Those complexities help bring about new tactics, including better use of existing weapons like the zone grenade. I really can't wait to see what crazy strategies players come up with when I get more time with it.

Like the frontier in season 2, you might be wondering what sort of theme developer BigBox VR is trying to go for with the game. Given that season one seemed like it was going for a specific, original story, seasons 2 and 3 feel a bit on the random side. When I asked BigBox about their plans for the game and its theme, this is what they had to say:

We're always looking to add content that keeps things fresh and adds variety first and foremost. However, I wouldn't be too quick to assume our recent content updates deviate from POP1's story. The world of POPULATION: ONE is continually evolving, and it's still very young! We're excited to share future updates that continue to expand the world.PM at BigBox VR

While this may disappoint some folks who wanted to see where the story was going to go, it seems that BigBox is working on even bigger plans for the future. If nothing, Fortnite has proven that regular, wildly different thematic events can change up gameplay often enough to keep players interested, and that formula certainly seems to behoove Population: One.

A bit of deja vu

Population One Season 3 Sword Official

Source: BigBox VR (Image credit: Source: BigBox VR)

While it's going to take a bit more time to be totally sure, I wasn't thrilled with the fact that the game has dropped the maximum player cap from 24 back down to 18 players per round. For me, adding those two additional teams really helped move rounds along, as a map this large feels a bit empty with only 18. Developer BigBox VR says this change is not permanent, though, which certainly makes me happy.

This might also take a bit of time to settle in for other players, too, as everyone seemed to flock to the kingdom right away, hurrying things along in a way that likely won't happen as the season ages. Season 2 was this way as well, with players venturing to the Frontier first to catch those wild west vibes, eventually treating it as just another portion of the map when the novelty wore off.

The embrasures in the castle walls are the perfect place to hide for a takedown with Excalibur.

While you might have expected the frontier to be replaced by Ridgeline again, it seems that BigBox VR wants to keep these fantastically themed areas around for a good long time. As such, you'll find the wild west frontier towns and mesas sitting right next to the kingdom, giving players plenty of eye candy and variety while they're lining up their next shot.

The Matadors are actually gone for scored rounds — those were the dual-wielded tiny sawed-off shotguns that had extremely short-range — but an even more powerful, even shorter-range weapon is here for the kingdom age: Excalibur. In some ways, this feels a bit like the katana from season 1 because it's a large sword, but the similarities stop there.

First off, there's no shield to be found on Excalibur, either wielded with your off-hand or by just blocking with the sword itself. Secondly, the movement speed buff is fantastic and adds that running element back into the game. Third, Excalibur does some serious damage. Way more than the katana if memory serves me correctly.

A max of 18 players is only temporary, but the frontier is here to stay.

Flying up on a player and slashing wildly is almost always a recipe for a quick kill, and that feels so great in the close-quarters combat that the kingdom provides. Like the katana, though, this one won't do you much good in more open areas where you can't sneak up on people and surprise them.

The Custom Games feature that BigBox VR launched sometime during season 2 is still here and better than ever, thanks to the ability to use any of these retired features in a custom game. Custom games, in many ways, harken back to the 90s first-person shooters of yore, giving players the ability to mix and match all sorts of items and rules, even going so far as to allow modifications of core mechanics like shields and run speed.

Free times four

Population One Kingdom Age Infographic

Source: BigBox VR (Image credit: Source: BigBox VR)

Population: One Kingdom Age begins on August 5 and lasts well into October. While the length of this season is similar to seasons one and two, one big thing is changing this time around: this season isn't front-loaded. That means that, while we're getting this massively beautiful castle and a big old sword to wield right away, everything BigBox VR has planned for players isn't being dropped immediately.

Kingdom Age lasts for 11 weeks, from August 5 into October.

Rather, players can expect four events in total to make up season four. What you're playing starting on August 5 is just the first event, with several other new things to be added in the future. BigBox says it's doing this to help players who might not be able to dedicate 1,000 hours of their life to the new season in the first week; a problem that often manifests itself in these types of multiplayer games, as not everyone can dedicate the same amount of time to the game.

It also means that players theoretically shouldn't miss out on opportunities to earn skins and other items throughout the season, which was certainly possible in previous seasons where you'd have to level up to access items at the end of the season carousel. As with the main season, plenty of free rewards will be available throughout. So if you don't want to spend the extra few bucks a battle pass costs, you can still earn unique goodies. Check out the Light vs Dark teaser below for what to expect in the next set of updates.

Nicholas Sutrich
Senior Content Producer — Smartphones & VR
Nick started with DOS and NES and uses those fond memories of floppy disks and cartridges to fuel his opinions on modern tech. Whether it's VR, smart home gadgets, or something else that beeps and boops, he's been writing about it since 2011. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @Gwanatu