DEVELOPER PUBC Corporation / PUBLISHER PUBG Corporation / WEBSITE www.playbatttegrounds.com
Despite its inelegant name, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was a defining game of 2017. Launching on Steam Early Access in March, it quickly reached the top of Steam’s bestseller lists and has pretty much remained there. As of December last year, it catered to 30 million players worldwide, and reached a record-breaking three million concurrent players in the same month – more than twice the previous record held by Valve’s Dota 2.
Also, Battlegrounds managed att these feats without technically being finished. Even now, in its 1.0 release, it remains a clunky, buggy and not especially attractive creature. So what exactly ties behind Battlegrounds’ undeniably massive appeal, and is it really any good?
The answer to the second question is yes, although it’s by no means as good as it could be. The answer to the first question is more complex. You could say it landed in the right place at the right time, although it would be more appropriate to say that it had the right idea at the right time.
Battlegrounds gathers up to 100 players together on the same server and packs them onto a military transport plane. The plane flies across an island white the players leap from the fuselage at their choice of time. Having parachuted to the ground, the players must then scavenge nearby buildings for weapons, body armour and other equipment, before fighting it out in a gigantic deathmatch until only one survivor remains.
Battlegrounds is often compared with the cult Japanese film Battle Royale, but the game’s true lineage resides in survival gaming, most notably the multiplayer ArmA II mod DayZ. In DayZ, players had to survive for an unlimited amount of time in a dilapidated eastern European landscape, scavenging supplies white avoiding AI zombies and player bandits.
Battlegrounds sacrifices much of DayZ’s nuance for a sticker and more accessible experience, cutting out a large portion of DayZ’s secondary mechanics. You don’t need to worry about finding food or shelter in Battlegrounds, white injuries are simple to treat provided you have bandages or a medpack. Nor do you need to fret over whether another player you spot might be friendly or hostile, because you know everyone is against you.
Instead, the most pressing concern in Battlegrounds is time. After the players have parachuted to (relative) safety, a circular forcefield encircles the island. This field gradually shrinks after a series of decreasing intervals, starting at five minutes, then three minutes and so on. If you’re caught outside the field, you’ll start suffocating and eventually die.
Consequently, the players are gradually squeezed together within an ever-tightening noose, which makes the game incredibly tense. The longer you survive, the higher the likelihood you’ll encounter other players. You’re constantly torn between reaching the next safe zone before the forcefield begins to shrink, and abandoning the relative safety of whatever building you’re scavenging and exposing yourself to potential sniper fire. Combat in Battlegrounds is a halfway house between arcade and realism. Often it amounts to long-range rifle exchanges, but close-quarters battles inside buildings also occur with relative frequency, usually involving barrages of grenades and sprays of submachine gun fire.
Perhaps Battlegrounds’ most important innovation, however, is that it squeezes a large-scale and highly dynamic multiplayer experience into a comparatively miniscule time frame. Most games of this scope would demand dozens of hours of your time, but a round of Battlegrounds takes no more than 25 minutes, and that’s assuming you survive until the end. It’s an ideal game for a quick evening or lunchtime bout, offering you an entire mechanical arc – introducing the concept, evolving and wrapping it up – in under half an hour.
With 100 players and only one victor, Battlegrounds could be dispiriting, but it works hard to keep its experience fresh. Many of its elements are randomised, from the trajectory of the introductory plane and the locations of those concentric, shrinking safe zones, to the placement of weapons and equipment inside buildings. The game also awards points for killing other players and how long you survive, which can be spent on crates containing random cosmetic items.
Finally, there are several different ways to play, such as an exclusive first-person mode that ratchets up the tension by reducing your field of view You can also play cooperatively in ‘squads’, which makes for a very different experience. Because players are clumped together, cooperative firefights tend to be much more spectacular and intense than in solo mode, and it’s also more tactical, letting players work together to flank and surround enemy positions.
With the full release, the developers made several additions, including a second map – the desert landscape of Miramar – along with a bunch of new weapons, items and some of the aforementioned modes. It isn’t radically different from the Early Access game, however, and there are plenty of areas that could easily be improved.
Despite its phenomenal success, Battlegrounds still looks like a cheap knock-off of a better game. It’s visually competent but entirely uninspired, its environments are dreary, its character models and animations are basic, and it lacks the imagination of Battle Royale, The Hunger Games or The Running Man. In addition, although combat passes muster, it’s still relatively basic, while the presentation of the menus and server lobby is distinctly lo-fi.
The netcode can be unwieldy too. For a relatively sterile-looking game, loading times can be astonishingly long, while we encountered laggy servers more than once. Also, because of the game’s enormous player base, Battlegrounds isn’t short on players seeking to spoil the experience, with seemingly infinite health bars, oran uncanny ability to lock onto your head with their scopes.
If Battlegrounds’ supremacy is to continue, these issues need to be sorted soon. There are already, more stylish pretenders to its throne, such as Epic Games’ Fortnite, and many more games will aim to take a juicy bite out of Battlegrounds’ pie. Despite its flaws, however, Battlegrounds is a superbly thrilling multiplayer shooter; a virtual hide-and-seek’em up where even sitting in a house for 15 minutes is fraught with tension.
Cooperative firefights tend to be much more spectacular
OVERALL SCORE 80
Plunkbat’s style may be sterile and its presentation amateurish, but few games are capable of creating such tension and atmosphere over such a short period of time.