PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds Review
Not just a flash in the bulletproof pan
With PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (henceforth PUBG in this review), I am in a position I don’t think I have ever been in before. Going into this review, I have put well over 200 hours into the game, having picked it up shortly after it made its way onto Steam Early Access and played it semi-regularly ever since. Over this time my opinion of PUBG has fluctuated significantly, going from adoration to contempt and everything in between. At the end of the day, it is hard to deny the game has a strong pull and is very addictive, offering up some of the highest highs gaming has to offer, while also allowing for some spectacular personal failures that might cause you to lose some sleep.
So, what kind of game would bring out such rhetoric from someone who has been playing all kinds of multiplayer shooters for years? An open world, round-based, elaborate twist on deathmatch dubbed Battle Royale after the Japanese film it was inspired by, it turns out. PUBG’s premise is not terribly complicated. At the start of each round, 100 players spawn onto a plane that is flying over an island. Everyone on this plane must jump out, parachute to the ground, pick up whatever weapons and equipment they can find, and then attempt to either outlast or outgun the rest.
Even though there are up to 100 players in each game, the pacing of action is generally much slower than almost any other competitive shooter on the market. The maps are big enough and contain enough loot-spawning buildings that if you so choose, you will be able to land and pick up some basic weapons and gear without having to deal with other players if you land at one of the smaller settlements. Inversely, there are only a handful of locations with large amounts of loot, which will attract more players.
As each round progresses, a circle that delineates the play area slowly starts moving in, with any players caught outside its circumference being subjected to persistent health-draining damage that increases as the circle gets smaller. As the circle shrinks, players are pushed together and ultimately forced to engage. When only one squad or player remains standing (depending on the mode), the round will end. This ever-shrinking circle is probably the crux of what makes this game work so well, because its location is randomized and will shrink down to a different part of the map every match. This means that even though there are only two maps, end-game showdowns will always take place in different terrain, which forces players to stay on their toes and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
The other major contributing factor to what makes PUBG so effective is the diversity of playstyles which it supports. I mentioned earlier that at the start of a game, you can choose to go to a quiet spot with less loot, or a bigger and busier location with other players competing for a larger supply of valuables. Landing near other players is extremely tense, since if one player gets lucky and finds a gun before everyone else, that player will be able to end the other’s rounds before they even really began. You can punch other players or pick up a melee weapon, but the melee systems in PUBG are extremely unreliable and best avoided.
Still, some thrilling moments can come out of early encounters as you might hear an enemy player approaching while frantically trying to pick up and reload a weapon before he sees you. The gunplay in PUBG is challenging but rewarding, with the game’s Arma-roots showing in the realistic weapon mechanics that include high recoil and bullet drop. Both maps have a mix of open spaces and cities, meaning you probably want to find an assault-rifle or sniper to deal with long-range encounters and a shotgun or SMG for up close. At the start of a match you will go down very quickly, but can find various levels of body armor and helmets that can let you soak up a bit more damage before going down.
The firefights in PUBG are extremely tense and exciting, thanks to this challenging gunplay and the high stakes of each encounter. You can choose to play in third-person or first-person mode, and the game works well in both. Added late in development is the ability to climb through windows and over walls, which adds a lot of opportunities for flanking enemies and doing unexpected things when trying to defend a house against attackers. Playing with squads in particular can lead to some intense moments with multiple players shooting each other. In squads and duos you can revive teammates after they get shot, which makes finishing off an enemy team quite a challenge in some circumstances. You will need good positioning and keen ears to consistently prevail when it comes to combat in PUBG.
Alternatively, you can choose to avoid confrontation for as long as possible to out-last other players. This is especially effective in solo games, where you can find sneaky hiding spots and keep an eye on other players without engaging. I enjoyed this approach early on in my PUBG career when I was less confident in my shooting abilities and generally fearful of other players, with constant tension preventing the lengthy action-free stretches of gameplay feeling boring. Since the objective of PUBG is to outlast other players by any means possible, this approach is totally valid and opens up the game to those who wouldn’t consider themselves strong shooters.
No matter how you approach a round of PUBG, you will need to contend with a lot of variables that can work for or against you. The circle might move to a far-away position, forcing you to run long distances through exposed terrain, or look for a vehicle that will allow you to cover ground much more quickly at the cost of making yourself much easier to spot by other players. The different vehicles have varying handling and levels of protection, as well as randomized spawns, meaning that even something like which vehicle you find can impact the way your round plays out.
Throughout matches, different areas will randomly be bombed, which can spell an early death if you aren’t able to find cover or escape the bombing area. Loot spawns are highly randomized, meaning you might come out of your initial drop fully loaded or woefully under-equipped. While all of these variables can certainly lead to frustration and some long stretches of down-time, it also keeps things fresh and unpredictable, which is one of the big reasons the game seems to have a surprising amount of staying power even once the novelty of its premise wears off. Each round feels like a new and unique adventure despite there only being two maps, and this can be attributed to the map sizes and randomized elements that inherently cause each match to play out differently.
Outside of leaderboards and the ongoing hunt for another satisfying win, the only progression system in the game is purely cosmetic. As you play, you earn points which can be used to buy crates that contain cosmetic items like different shirts, hats or jackets. Given that one of the core tenants of the game is that everyone starts on equal footing each match, this is almost certainly for the best, even if the current cosmetic item unlock system isn’t particularly exciting.
Unfortunately, PUBG has not launched free of issues. Server lag and inconsistent performance have been ongoing problems since the game first launched into Early Access. While engine performance has seen some significant improvements, server lag is very much still a problem with rubber-banding and connection issues remaining common, especially early in games when there are a lot of other players nearby. This can make early firefights very messy with players warping around and seemingly well aimed shots not hitting their targets. To the game’s credit, matchmaking is snappy and if you do crash out of a game or disconnect, you are able to rejoin assuming your character is still alive.
Visually, PUBG aims for realism and while not exactly ugly, doesn’t look particularly great either. Erangel, the first PUBG map, takes place on a fairly verdant island with forests, farm fields and rolling hills. The other is a desert map Miramar, with larger cities which ends up looking a bit better overall mostly thanks to the lighting. The game runs well for me in the release build, and while I have not personally experienced any crashes in this build those I play with have, and there seems to be an odd bug where there can be long delays when loading from a match back to the main menu. The sound design is significantly more impressive, with directional audio letting you know the approximate direction and distance of enemy gunfire, and footsteps being very much audible and useful as a means for detecting other players.
To an extent, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is what you make of it. I suspect the size of the maps and wide scattering of players will deter those looking for more consistent action, but you can partially determine your experience by deciding where to drop and when to engage other players. Though it can certainly be very frustrating to play for the better part of thirty minutes only to die from an unseen sniper without firing a single shot yourself, the flip side is that when you do have a good round and the many variables align in your favor, PUBG can offer up some of the most intense and exciting moments gaming has to offer.