With a name that strikes somewhere between wonderfully-bizarre and generically “video gamey,” the indie hit sensation PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (aka PUBG) has proven to be anything but generic in the past few months, where it went from being a relatively unknown title to one of the year’s biggest breakout successes.
Over the past few days, I’ve dipped my toes into PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds partly out of curiosity and partly because of my friends that have become obsessed with the title. While I’d known about it for some time since its availability in late March, the noise surrounding Battlegrounds has only grown over the past three months, especially considering the fact that it has sold over 4 million copies alone since its Early Access debut.
A large portion of that can be attributed to its incredible popularity with streamers on YouTube and Twitch, but even more of that can be given to the fact that, even in its Early Access state, Battlegrounds is an incredibly-nuanced multiplayer experience worth playing, even if survival/Early Access games aren’t necessarily your thing. Take that recommendation from someone who – prior to Battlegrounds – wasn’t exactly a fan of the rising “survival sim” genre (particularly on Steam) in the slightest.
I was one of those people for quite some time. Over the course of various preview events, conventions, and on my own time I’ve dabbled with a few different Early Access titles or survival games to varying success. Recent titles of the past few years, like Rust, We Happy Few, or ARK: Survival Evolved, grabbed my attention for a short amount of time thanks to their unique premises or ideas, but ultimately I ended up losing interest from some of the usual quirks of the survival sim genre. Given their love of crafting systems – which I often find unintuitive and confusing – and the need to monitor a series of Hunger/Thirst meters with death usually inches away, I’ve bounced off most of those titles fairly quickly. Survival sims can sometimes be intimidating to newcomers, and as a result that’s sometimes made me reluctant to try them.
That fear is also combined with the fact that so many titles in the genre can feel as “Early Access” as an Early Access title can be. Without delving into the numerous technical and performance issues that can crop up with titles in an early development state, there can also be the feeling of mechanics and gameplay ideas that haven’t had the proper time to cook yet, and there’s no knowing what a title can look like months (or even years) out from what players have available. That’s the nature of Early Access games as we know them, and while that’s as much an expectation for what you’re getting, it can also factor into the hesitation of plunking down money on a game that is, for all intents and purposes, unfinished.
In the hours that I’ve played PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, most of those fears have gone away from the start. That isn’t to say Battlegrounds goes completely against the grain when it comes to most Early Access survival sims – there are bugs a-plenty and what’s actually available in the game for players is a bit sparse at the moment (though frequent updates are regulating that). However, I find what PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds does best so far is capture what I like the most about survival games – that intoxicating stress of fighting for your life – while stripping away almost all of the mechanics that I often clash with in the genre.
For those that don’t know much about the title and/or have lived under a rock in the past few months, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is an Early Access survival shooter that pits 100 players against each other in typical survival game/Battle Royale fashion, developed by Korean studio Bluehole and Brandon Greene, the titular “PlayerUnknown.”
Originating from Greene’s work on developing mods such as DayZ: Battle Royale (originating from ARMA 2 and its subsequent DayZ), Battlegrounds ultimately became a sort of mix of the attributes that Greene wanted to take from survival games – the emphasis on player choice and preservation – while refining some of its weaker points. Specifically, Greene’s focus on making large maps that would be difficult to pin down exact strategies from game-to-game play a large part of what Battlegrounds has turned out to be, while item randomization ensures that no match plays out exactly the same as it did before.
Whether players decide to head in Solo or as part of a Duo or four-player Squad with friends, each game more-or-less starts off in the same fashion as players jettison out of a derelict warplane and parachute onto the abandoned Soviet island that serves as the game’s titular battlegrounds, which spans a massive 5×5 miles in size. Ultimately though, players are left to decide where and when to land, whether they want to drop immediately for a chance at grabbing weapons and equipment right away, or a later drop that costs resources but could set up players with a bit of breathing room away from all the chaos.
After landing, players must then scavenge the environments and abandoned houses nearby to pull together weapons, ammo, and other equipment that will ensure their survival against the 99 other players and try to be the last one standing (resulting in winning the game’s signature “chicken dinner”). While the basic strategies and how the matches play out start off fairly similar, Battlegrounds proves to be anything but familiar as every match can play out radically different and unexpected at virtually every turn.
Part of that comes from the twists and turns that Battlegrounds implements to keep the action focused and the dynamics of each match constantly evolving. Aside from other players, one of the biggest threats that players will have to face throughout the entire match is an electric forcefield that constricts the playable areas of the map gradually, which works to both prevent camping or cheesing the game mechanics, and to push players into tighter fields of play and encourage confrontation. That also goes for the game’s occasional airstrikes (the “red zones” on the map) that drop lethal bombs on unsuspecting players, and passing planes that can also drop supply care-packages that contain some of the game’s best weapons and gear for players that get lucky. Better yet, the care packages also offer a chance for crafty players to use them as bait and pick off those that aren’t paying attention to their surroundings.
Even though I’ve only put a few hours into Battlegrounds at this point since jumping in, I can already see it as a title that I’ll more than likely come back to in the coming months. With rounds that usually extend for me around 20-30 minutes (if I don’t get killed right from the get-go), the game has drawn in me like few others ever have, much less any type of survival sim or Early Access game before it, and most of that comes down to its incredibly streamlined sense of survival at play, and how it draws players together in a fight to the finish. To say Battlegrounds is exhilarating is an understatement: even in its earliest state right now, I’ve kept coming back to the game night after night because it’s gotten my blood pumping like few other games have in the past few years.
In the hours I’ve played in Battlegrounds, I’ve come out of each round with wildly different outcomes. Some matches I died almost immediately after parachuting into a dropzone, due to either just dumb luck or a lack of vital resources to gather. Other times, my friends and I rode our way to near-victory (with our best Squad game resulting in #2 placement) and executed squad tactics with lethal precision – only for the game’s unpredictable ways catching us by surprise in the end.
As a genre that’s only grown in popularity over the past few years, I’ve mostly found myself bouncing off most survival games for a combination of reasons. I’ve liked the style of We Happy Few, the Hunger Games-inspired carnage of The Culling, the man vs. nature atmosphere of The Long Dark, and several others in the past, but few have ever left their impression on me for more than a few hours, largely due to gameplay mechanics that I (often) don’t quite mesh with fully.
However, with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, I’ve felt the compulsive need to check in to the game and attempt a few runs, whether I get oh-so-close to victory or die a hilariously-brief death. Though it doesn’t exactly break away from all of the attributes we expect from Early Access titles – IE bugs, bugs, and more bugs – it makes for one of the most effective survival experiences I’ve played in years by keeping its survival focus lean and simple, but with tons of depth for its rapidly-growing audience. All I know is that Battlegrounds is teasing me with victory and a chicken dinner, and I’m hungry for more.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is available now for PC through Steam Early Access, while an Xbox One version of the game is planned to arrive later this year.