PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) has been available on PC via the Steam Early Access program since March of 2017 but the official full 1.0 release was finally unveiled this week, meaning that the game is no longer in beta testing. It is also available as a console title on the Xbox One, so PUBG Corporation have opened up their game to critique without the excuse of “it’s not finished yet” to fall back on. Let’s have a dive in and see what your £26.99/US$29.99 get you these days.
First of all, the facts and figures:
In under a year, PUBG has sold over 25 million copies on Steam. At its peak, nearly three million users were playing it concurrently. At time of writing, there were 2,352,598 people playing it on PC, with these numbers expected to continue rising off the back of the official launch. If PUBG were a country, it would be the 51st most populous in the world, somewhere between Yemen and Madagascar. Make no mistake, this game has become an absolute phenomenon and all without the massive advertising budget or sequel hype that a AAA title such as, say, Grand Theft Auto V would receive. So what is all the fuss about?
Player Who What Now?
The lead designer of the game, Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene, initially created what would become PUBG as a mod for an already existing mod; the zombie survival game DayZ, which itself ran using the military simulator ARMA 2 as its base game. Brendan’s main inspiration for PUBG was the Kinji Fukasaku film Battle Royale, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Koushun Takami. The film was set in a dystopian version of Japan where high school students were randomly selected in a lottery, put on an island, given random weapons or equipment and told that the last one alive would be declared the winner. Hilarity ensues.
A promotional shot for The Hunger Games movie.
Eventually Brendan took himself and his idea to a Korean publisher, Bluehole, who were so confident in the title that they eventually made the subsidiary PUBG Corporation solely for the task of developing the game.
Effectively, every round of PUBG plays out the same, with some minor variation in team sizes or aesthetics. You can play solo, with a friend or with several friends, up to a squad size of four. You can also choose to play with a first-person or third-person point of view and that’s really about as much choice as you have. Because you begin the game with no equipment at all, the only unlockable content you can earn are randomly distributed items of clothing, which are purely cosmetic.
Initially the game only had one map, Erangel; a temperate island with Eastern European/Russian sounding locations and architecture such as Georgopol, Pochinki or Yasnaya Polyana (though I don’t think Leo Tolstoy lives there any more). Recently a second map, Miramar, has been added which has a desert climate and Spanish sounding location names, presumably based on Central/South American locales.
Skydiving in booty shorts; now *that’s* brave.
Up to 100 players will meet in a pre-game lobby, an area where you can briefly familiarise yourself with the controls and weapons of the game without fear of being injured, before being dumped into the back of a transport aircraft. Once you are over the island it is up to you to decide where you will parachute out and land, then you are left to fend for yourself. As soon as you hit the ground, you are fighting for survival. You must quickly scavenge buildings for weapons, armour and equipment while also trying to not be taken out by the ninety-nine other people doing exactly the same thing. If this sounds stressful enough already, the game has a few more tricks up its sleeve to heighten the tension.
Ever Decreasing Circles
Once the game has started and everyone has landed, two concentric circles will appear on the game map; a white circle and slightly larger blue circle. A countdown timer will also begin. Once this timer hits zero, the blue circle will begin to shrink in size until it is the same size as the white one. Anyone outside the white circle will see a wall of energy begin to close in on them and if they cannot make it inside the safe zone quickly enough, it will begin to sap their energy until they are dead. This “safe zone” will grow increasingly smaller, forcing the remaining players into closer and closer proximity.
On top of this, occasionally red zones will appear on the map; anyone caught outside in one of these red circles will immediately notice a massive series of explosions begin to rain down on the area, possibly representing some kind of artillery barrage.
The map is pretty large at first and players may find themselves a long way from the safe area after their initial landing. It then becomes a tactical decision; to move slowly and cautiously through the countryside and towns, to avoid being spotted and risk being caught by the deadly blue dome of energy, or run Hell for leather and make yourself an obvious target to any other players with a long-range weapon. There are vehicles in the game (cars, motorcycles, boats) but these are distinctly noisy and attract a lot of attention, as well as bullets.
Finally, random supply drops will be parachuted into the map via cargo plane. Again, the risk vs reward aspect of these cornucopias have to be assessed by the player. Sure, there might be a tasty light machine gun and medical supplies in that crate, but they often land in the middle of open ground and you can be assured that someone, somewhere is keeping a close on that supply drop through the scope of a rifle.
It’s OK, I didn’t want this one anyway…
As stated at the beginning of this review, many of the technical flaws of PUBG (and there were many) were waved off by the fans and developers citing the fact that this was an Early Access game, a work in progress. Now the game is at version 1.0 this doesn’t really hold water any more, so how is it?
Probably the most glaring problem with the game is the lack of polish. The menus and UI have been spruced up and given a neat, flat design feel but it is rare to play a round without something threatening to break your sense of immersion. For starters, even a moderately powerful PC will experience object pop-in and lower frame rates than you would expect for such an… unremarkable looking game. Running the game on ‘Ultra’ settings will not provide you with stunning real-time shadows, crepuscular rays (“God Rays”) or incredibly detailed foliage; it will mainly ensure that the textures don’t look like something that would upset an N64 owner.
This made me all nostalgic for GoldenEye 007
Servers frequently experience a kind of “warm-up” period where assets haven’t loaded correctly, there is sometimes lag or “rubber banding” as your player will randomly shift location as the conversation between your PC and the host struggle to play catch-up. The way you use the UI to sort out your inventory feels like something left over from the game’s ARMA roots, overly complicated and menu driven in an era where quick-selection wheels or context sensitive shortcuts are the norm. Even the most enthusiastic proponent of this game would struggle to say that PUBG feels like a hugely polished title at the top of its game. It often feels unoptimised and rough around the edges, though this official release is certainly the best it has been since the initial launch on March of 2017.
So far I haven’t exactly been complimentary to the game and it may sound like I don’t even enjoy it, but that is not the case. I fully expect to see a few comments beneath this article from individuals who find PUBG boring, unplayable or who think that £27 (or equivalent) is too much to pay for a product that has two maps and one, online-only game mode, and that’s fine. There is a good chance you have already made your mind up if you like PUBG or not, whether you have played it or merely read reviews, seen gameplay footage, etc. I can totally understand why someone would read this laundry list of problems and think to themselves, “This is not for me.” So what do I enjoy about it?
I mainly play this game with two or three friends and, to be honest, I am not very good at it. I have always had terrible aim (both in video games and real life) and if I manage to get a kill in PUBG I consider it a good round. Quite often our squad will parachute into a location and find ourselves outgunned, outmanned and outfoxed. There have been more rounds that only last a few minutes than I care to remember.
But sometimes the stars align and we will find some high quality body armour, a powerful assault rifle and a stash of ammo. Our squad might find ourselves at the centre of the circle, so we will hold up in a building and pick off any intruders that try to explore our self-proclaimed base. We will see the ‘players alive’ counter in the top-right of the screen tick down and think to ourselves, “We could do this, we could get in the top 10.”
Please note that not only did this guy win, he didn’t even kill any other players.
The tension as you lay prone on the ground, rifle ready, listening for the sound of distant gunfire or footsteps is palpable, knowing that the slightest noise will alert everyone within earshot to your location. We will call out to each other when we hear a vehicle approaching or spot a rival squad moving across the countryside and evaluate if it is worth opening fire on them or not. I have been taken down by a bullet, crawled into cover and been revived by a squadmate then headed back to the fight, determined to enact revenge upon whoever it was that got the drop on me. Despite only having two maps and one objective, there are enough subtle variables in each round that —good or bad— it never feels like the same game twice.
I have swore in frustration because I ignorantly ran into a building without scouting it out adequately first, receiving a shotgun blast to the chest for my troubles. In the next game, I might redeem myself by knocking someone out with a cheeky shot through a building’s window or a lucky grenade over a hilltop. The closest I have come to winning was second place (and even that was a fluke) but I have had so much fun playing this game and defying the odds that I was happy just to get that.
I put PUBG in my top 5 games of 2017 because it is a title that I enjoy returning to again and again, despite its obvious flaws and relative shallowness. For me, it’s not about racking up huge kill counts or yomping to victory every single time. I think it’s a great laugh with friends and we always have something to talk about after every round, as we post-mortem who messed up this time and how. The game’s new replay mode is brilliant for this too, as you can go back and look at the whole round from different player’s perspectives, like some kind of bloodthirsty sports pundit.
I keep coming back to PUBG and can spend a whole evening on it without ever getting bored, and I think that’s the reason this game has become the monster hit it has; it takes a relatively simple idea and it does it well enough. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but 26 million copies sold shows that PUBG Corporation seem to be doing something right. Already clones and rivals of PUBG are beginning to appear and they too are enjoying a measure of success (notably Epic Games’ Fortnite) so, love it or hate it, these Battle Royale games are going to be around for a while. I’m happy with this one for now but it’s interesting to see a new trend on the rise.
Thanks for reading.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is available for Windows PC (via Steam) and Xbox One.