It’s official – my relationship with Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is strictly love/hate. It’s almost like an addiction. The ultimate in ‘just one more round’ gameplay. It’s a punishing experience, requiring an iron will, the patience of a demi-god, and a cool temper. And even then that will only get you into the top 10 a handful of times. To explain the premise to those of you who aren’t familiar with the meteoric success of this game, it’s simple: you and 100 others parachute from a plane onto a open world (think DayZ levels of desolation, but without the zombies). Then you rummage and forage in and around the farms, towns, and other collections of buildings for the best weapons, armor and gear. Using stealth and skill, you must fight to become the last man standing, all the while keeping within the confines of an ever-shrinking ‘safe-zone’, and being outside of this zone for too long means certain death.
But that description doesn’t do it justice. There’s a reason for why I just can’t seem to go more than 72 hours without (begrudgingly) diving in. Because Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is not just your average ‘Battle Royale’ type affair. Bluehole Inc. have crafted a no-thrills, highly focused experience that doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks to excite its audience. It’s as much about having the right frame of mind, and always thinking one step ahead of the enemy, than having the right gear. In that way, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is like chess. But chess with guns, and chess with 99 other players, and chess where any small mistake means immediate expulsion from the game.
Your first move is deciding where to land on either of the two maps. Erangel is the lush landscape that most players are very familiar with, as this was the only map available during its rather lengthy time in Early Access on Steam, while Miramar is a barren, mountainous desert that was put into circulation with the full release. Both maps offer myriad options for you to start your campaign of dominance, the only problem is weighing the risks and rewards of each location. Land in a city or other large facility, and the chances of finding better weapons and armor (or anything at all) are higher. But it’s usually the case that the skies will be swarming above places like this, and the most gung-ho players will be itching to land, arm up, and pick fights from the get-go.
Or you could choose to have a leisurely first 10 minutes, landing somewhere away from these big battlegrounds. You may not be able to stock up quite as much, but barring a confrontation or two, you’ll probably make it into the top 50 without too much fuss. That’s how I would usually to start most of my games. It may sound boring, but there was something exhilarating about being a loner out in the field. I’d find a nice position outside a city (preferably with the safe zone to my back so other players will inevitably head in my direction), and lay an ambush. But that’s just one way of playing, and it was never a sure-fire way to guarantee success. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is so perfectly unpredictable, and that’s because the landscape and the loot is only half of the formula – the other half is the players themselves.
Every one of your 99 other opponents is thinking about how best to outsmart you and everyone else, and there are so many means by which to achieve this. You may want to pick a spot in the center of the safe zone to give you an easier time finding a better position when the boundary is no wider than a hula-hoop. Or stay on the outskirts of the zone to take out players as they arrive. All the while remembering that threat’s hide in every house, on every hilltop, around every corner. Even if they don’t, you’ll absolutely need to think that they do if you’re to survive. The sheer levels of concentration required means that when you’re playing, you feel utterly immersed. Not many games elicit this feeling, least of all those from the Battle Royale genre. But Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is heart-in-the-mouth stuff.
And of course, despite all the tactics, everybody has one final goal in mind: winning. When there are perhaps 30 players left, you’ve probably snatched a handful of kills, and amassed a nice arsenal, so dying and losing them now really stings. The safe zone is closing in, and you have to move. Every distant bush could be an enemy. Every rustle could be a footstep. The creak of a floorboard announces that the enemy is closing in – the sound design in these situations can drive you mad. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s implemented with such effectiveness. Being shot at out in the open is a game of finding the source of the gunfire before you die. Thanks to the directional audio, this is made much easier. And listening out for some poor soul plodding up the stairs of a house, completely unaware that you’re on the second floor, is incredibly nerve-wracking.
Then you look up after dispatching the heavy-footed intruder, and discover you’ve made the top 10. How? When? It doesn’t matter. You just need to survive! And then the final moves of the game begin. Deciding when to advance, when to shoot, and you can be sure your chest will be hammering through every decision. Just one left, 1 vs 1. You spot them, take the shot … sweet victory! And a delicious chicken dinner!
I can count the times that has happened to me on one hand. Other than that, it’s been sour, soul-crushing defeat, time after time. The worst case scenario is gathering a nice assortment of gear, then just being popped off from god-knows where with no warning or no sight of who shot you. But still, you dust yourself off, wipe the tears away, and try again. And every time you play, you’ll discover a new little tactic to help in your efforts the next time round. Like closing every door behind you to make sure you leave no sign of your presence. Or not parking your vehicle right next to a house you want to explore (because, as I’ve learned, parking your car beside a house you’re in is a dead giveaway that you’re inside). Or you’ll even just learn how to use the tools the game gives you more effectively.
Such as with the ability to lean. I mostly ignored it up until recently, but then realized just how much of an advantage it can give you. Popping out from behind a tree, so only your top half is showing, gives your enemy a much smaller target to hit. It sounds obvious, but leaning can be a bit of a hassle when first using it. But as with anything in Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, mastering this tool gives you that extra edge, and brings you won step closer to the #1 spot. And the list of tools like this are pretty expansive – like being able to look around effectively by holding ‘Alt’ when running, or learning just how far your bullets fly until they drop (and then compensating for it). The whole experience is enriched by numerous tiny additions like this. Even doing basic stuff like managing your inventory, switching fire modes, or being able to get the map up while on the move is so easy – so easy in fact that your fingers are able to do all the work for you, allowing your brain to fully concentrate on that delicious chicken dinner.
It’s these little nuances that make every round so varied – and a quick glance at some of the really crazy gameplay videos out there will show you just how inventive people can get. You really can’t be sure what’s going to happen from session to session. But that’s also partly where Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds comes unstuck slightly. Because glitches and bugs can throw a nice spanner into the mix, adding in an unhealthy portion of unpredictability. Game breaking glitches were rampant in Early Access, and thankfully they aren’t too common any more, but they still occur more often than they should. Like entire pieces of scenery not loading, or even just crashing straight to desktop. And the cheaters are definitely still an issue, not one that Bluehole Inc. are ignoring, but they’re still a massive problem. This is alleviated somewhat by the DeathCam – where you’re able to watch the last 20 or so seconds of the game before you were killed, from the point of view of your killer. This makes it very easy to spot when someone is hacking, and a handy little reporting feature means you can do something about it.
But most of the time you’ll be having so much fun that moments like these won’t stop you wanting to load up another round. Of course, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds still has a lot of rough edges, but this means that the game can only get better in the future. Even as it is, PUBG will make you feel a full range of emotions: joy (finding a 8x scope in the first house you explore), rage (getting into the top 10 only to clumsily fall off a cliff), elation (having the final opponent in your sights when they have no idea where you are), fear (is that a bush? Is that a door opening? Where’s that gunfire coming from?!), and sadness (it’s 1am and you have work tomorrow).
The focus is squarely on the gameplay. You’re given the pieces, and it’s up to you how you use them.