106 Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds
Developer PUBG Corporation Publisher PUBG Corporation, Microsoft Studios Format PC (tested), Xbox One Release Out now
PC, Xbox One
Perhaps, in retrospect, PUBG was always going to be a seismic industry event. The first game to successfully leverage all the component parts of survival gaming worth keeping and repackage them into a structured and finite experience? Come on. That was always going to be 20-million-player stuff. The droves of survivalists cruising through DayZ’s grim topography, the amoral nudists of Rust, even Minecraft’s Rube Goldberg machine builders – all could prove turncoats if offered an alternative to no-constraints survival sandboxing. Brendan Greene provided it.
Rather than simply handing over a sprawling dystopian space and trusting the player base to find the potential within it by itself, PUBG strong-arms its population into a specific and perpetually tense set of conditions that funnels people together into combat and demands a resolution to every game. It does so by channelling Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: 100 players forced to fight to the death on a remote island, scuttling towards an ever-diminishing safe zone, scavenging weapons as they go. Brendan Greene and PUBG Corporation weren’t the first to see the potential of a blend of survival gaming and Battle Royale, but they were the first to crosspollinate them in a way that holds an immediate draw when you press Start.
And they did so with a deft touch. Deliberately or not, PUBG creates an animosity between players that’s vital to the premise holding weight, simply by placing them all in such close proximity at spawn and enabling a public voice-chat function. When Sartre said, “Hell is other people”, we can now be reasonably certain that he was referring directly to a cargo-plane ride above Erangel in the company of 99 chatty racists.
We digress. More than marksmanship or reaction times, this is a game about decisions. The first is when to jump from the plane. It often proves the most consequential choice you’ll make all match, and by letting you leap out in any particular direction, rather than spawning everyone at random, PUBG invests you instantly: you chose this spot, now make it work. Weapons and equipment spawn in different locations every time, but the geography of both maps remains the same, and within them are areas where the good stuff is. Of course, nearly everyone else knows about the rich pickings around Erangel’s school and Mirarmar’s Hacienda del Patron, so every jump is about secondguessing the opposition and betting on yourself to get the goods. This soft-touch randomisation, along with the plane’s different flight paths across the island, did much to sustain PUBG’s 20 million players through early access when Erangel was the sole available map.
Then there are the decisions you don’t know you’re making. The door left absent-mindedly open that tells everyone nearby your location. The desperate sprint through open fields to reach the next safe zone, because you spent so long looting the Mylta power plant. The lolloping melee scrap with a stranger wielding a scythe –a scythe – whom you didn’t see parachuting down to the same building as you. It’s these micro-choices, rather than raw gunskill, that separate the great players from the rest of the pack. That’s a big part of the game’s long-term appeal. The ghillie-suited sniper who killed you was smarter than you for the last ten minutes, not more slavishly dedicated for 1,000 hours, and you both started with nothing. You’re not priced out of the community’s time economy in the same way that less devoted players often are in these particularly popular competitive phenomena. The remaining choice – whether to play alone or as part of a team – is the biggest of all. Sometimes, as you sit alone and motionless on your haunches in an eastern-bloc townhouse for five solid minutes, it feels like PUBG is a completely different game when played solo. Its strongest asset is its capacity to regularly make things happen that deserve to be immortalised in anecdotes – the motorcycle barrel rolls, frying pan headshots, naked escapes, impromptu hiding places and feats of Dacia-bound daring – so it goes without saying that all those moments are better enjoyed in the company of allies. It’s easier to stay hidden, to make consistently wise decisions, and to resist the urge to goad, showboat, or hatch harebrained schemes when you’re playing solo. But it’s more enjoyable, and more memorable, to do all those things wrong and talk about them afterwards with your friends. That PUBG has been consistently at the summit of Twitch’s viewing charts since launch should come as no surprise, then, although whether its popularity can be attributed to streamers or vice versa is a debate we’ll save for another day.
The caveat here is that being the first to die in a PUBG squad is a particularly cruel fate. There are no mid-round respawns, so if you’re shredded by a stranger’s shotgun in the opening minute, your only option is to spectate as your surviving squadmates have all the fun. You’re there to witness their travails and keep chatting on Discord if you like, but you won’t shake the feeling of distance, or of having let the side down. In that way, PUBG’s spectator mode feels like watching the gameshow host wheel out the prizes you could have won. New to the final release is a deathcam feature which adds another item on the ‘Things to do in PUBG when you’re dead’ list, and it’s always a grimly compelling watch. Primarily, though, it has the whiff of an anti-cheat measure, and in this area the team at PUBG Corporation have a long road ahead of them. According to anti-cheat service Battleye, over 322,000 cheaters were banned between its early access launch and October 2017, and although the pre-release
PUBG creates an animosity between players that’s vital to the premise holding weight
narrative about exploit levels being out of control was exaggerated it’s still present now, and it’s still a problem. Deathcams weed out the most obvious aimbots, but it’s going to take time and considerable effort to clean up the streets of Erangel and Miramar.
And here’s a thing: cheating’s especially hard to detect while you play, because honest players are often staggeringly devious. Some like to lie prone under vehicles and spring up in ambush; some litter houses with attractive loot and then lie in wait, like Kevin McCallister in kevlar, watching their baited traps. It’s even been known for folks to fool their foes by playing dead. This is a game that’s deceptively rich in strategic possibilities, especially so given how often it struggles to implement the complex mechanics of ‘person jumping over thing’ or ‘man opens door’.
If anyone was hoping that this inherent clunkiness to all movement and interaction, this sensation of moving a gun-toting washing machine around in the world, would be solved by a final release, they were a naive soul who doesn’t appreciate that horrible movement control is simply a genre convention of any game that’s been within 100 feet of the Arma franchise. PUBG’s origins lie in DayZ modding – itself an Arma mod – and in Arma III itself, and it shows. The tradeoff for those huge maps filled with dozens of vehicles is the knowledge that you’ll never truly be able to trust whether your bullets will pass through that chain-link fence, and that climbing through a window will always feel like you’re playing a terrible, 20-year-old game.
That’s not to say PUBG fails in that rarest and most difficult of feats, though: graduating from early access to bona fide final release. This doesn’t feel like an arbitrary version 1.0 by any means – everything currently within the game feels finalised, at least on PC. A decade ago you’d have looked at a multiplayer game with only two maps as some kind of throwback to the demo-disc days, but this is something new. It doesn’t have an existing point of comparison. Miramar dwarfs Erangel’s two islands, and its dusty hispanic climes are a welcome holiday from eastern-bloc brutalism. Volkswagen camper vans line the highways; squads squabble over much bigger patches of turf; there are new vantage points to be learned, new schemes to be hatched. Numerically two maps seems meagre, but their combined space – both physically, and in terms of their possibilities – is anything but.
Look for reasons to dislike Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, and you’ll find them. It’s often tempting to want to discover that the emperor of the moment has no clothes, and when the emperor in question displays its roots in modding and early access this prominently, it might even seem extraordinary to some that such a barebones experience could garner such popularity. It doesn’t have the cold, clinical polish of a major publisher’s venture, and it may never do so. What it does have is something an Activision or EA would kill for: a game built up around one good idea that drew in a community of unprecedented size. And that counts for a lot against PUBG’s flaws: its rough-edged movement, animations, collision detection, character customisation, spectator functionality, and presentation. Perhaps you might hear all that and think this isn’t worth your time. To do so would be to miss out on an absolute, and absolutely deserving, phenomenon.
Opening fire on someone is often every bit as as stressful as being fired upon, since the sound of gunfire alerts nearby foes to your presence. In other words, if you’re going to shoot, you’d better make sure it hits