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

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