Review – Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds
Early Access is a trend becoming more and more popular among small studios as a way to both play test and market their upcoming projects. Developers will charge players a set price for an unfinished product that lacks features and is riddled with game-breaking bugs, sometimes collecting money for an entirely unplayable game. While the practice is often effective for gaining exposure and growing a following, it’s rarely well received by players. When it launched its Early Access/beta program in March of last year, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds took off in sales and became an internet phenomenon, despite the unpopular methodology. It was in those early moments that we knew Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) was going to be something truly special.
Through film series like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, there’s been a growing audience for the last-man-standing kill-for-sport genre, and Bluehole is the first developer to successfully capture the genre’s allure of grand scale sport. At the open of each match, one hundred players jump out of a plane and parachute to the arena below. Players are given free reign of where they would like to land, controlling their character’s decent for a much needed strategic entry.
But anyone willing to take the dive will find that their drop to the island will be the only relatively peaceful part of the experience. The rapid descent is slowed by automatically deployed parachute, giving you a brief moment to take in your surroundings, and the terrifying number of competitors planning to land right next to you.
From the moment you leap out of the plane, it’s a race to the ground. The first to land has the first pick of the weapons, ammunition, armor, and a slight advantage. As items are randomly scattered throughout each maps buildings and landmarks, there’s still a tremendous element of luck that comes into play. Some games, players may find a wealth of munitions ready for them to pick up the moment they land; while other games may not hold anything more than a clearance rack worth of pants and shirts, leaving players hopelessly defenseless in the early stage of the match.
Players are allowed to carry a total of five weapons: two rifles, one handgun, a melee weapon, and a grenade. For players that are fortunate enough to find a good backpack, they’ll be able to carry additional grenade types, ammunition, weapon modifications, and first aid. Backpacks and armor all have three tier levels, becoming more and more effective at the higher levels. All tiers are available from the start of the match, but level three equipment is considered rare and an absolute must should players stumble across any. If you can’t find any gear scattered about, you aren’t out of options. Upon death, contestants will drop their items into a crate left where they died. Need some new armor? Hunt down another player and take it from them. Too timid or ill-equipped to attack another player? Scavenge densely populated areas to pick up what your adversaries forgot on their way out.
Worst case scenario, you can beg a teammate for help when you’re running short on resources. What’s that? A teammate? While PUBG currently only has one game type, there are a few ways that you can choose to enter into it. For those who prefer a more lone wolf style, they can connect to Solo servers where they will play against ninety nine other individuals players in a last-man-standing game worthy of Highlander. However, it can be incredibly intimidating for players who are just starting to get the hang of PUBG, so the developers included various team modes for novice players and for those of us who prefer to play with a group of friends. There’s Duo mode that will connect you with another player so that the pair of you can face off with fifty other groups of players; Squad mode permits groups of four to play against one another. And finally, for those who are truly brave, there’s the 1-Man Squad, which will connect you to Squad servers but will place you in a team of just you against teams of three or four, ensuring a greater challenge.
In theory, siding with three other players would be easier, but in practice it’s an entirely different beast. In a game like PUBG having teammates that aren’t familiar enough with the game and the competition that it offers can be detrimental to your success. I’ve played many a Squad match, where an inexperienced teammate would advertise our team’s location and got us all killed by a team of snipers on higher ground. The biggest difference between Squad and Solo matches are that final rankings are based on the last Squad remaining. So long as a team has one player still in the game, they are not yet eliminated. As a result, contestants will find themselves in positions where they are the last one left on their team, facing a number of full teams that are well coordinated. It doesn’t make for a fair contest as one bad egg can leave a squad outnumbered in a dire situation, but I’ve personally found that I enjoy the game most while I’m cruising around an island with my mercenary bros in a 90’s station wagon.
To make the game more interesting, PUBG has a few mechanics that are meant to keep the action going as the survivor count dwindles. After a few minutes into the match, players are alerted that the play area is going to be restricted in a few minutes, cuing contestants to check their map where they’ll see an area of the map highlighted by a large white circle. Once the timer starts running, only the area within that circle is safe, anything outside will be subject to a rapid decline in their health. If you aren’t moving through the map enough, PUBG will force players to a central location where they can no longer hide. However, players that think ahead will be able to estimate the center of the play area with rough accuracy and will gain the (cheap) advantage of holing up and hoping to get the drop on players when only a few are left.
There’s also a bomber that continues to fly over head throughout the match, selecting bombing ranges at random. Depicted by red zones on the map, the bomber will shell these areas for an unknown period of time, forcing players to run outside of the Red Zone, or run for cover in a building. Red Zones aren’t a big threat, but in the heat of a battle, it’s easy to forget about until the sky starts raining fire and fury around you. You’ll be fully protected if you can find shelter, but be sure to stand away from windows, lest you find yourself knocked out.
With all of that said, let’s get down to what PUBG is really known for: the bugs. Despite it’s large following, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds has had a rough development process filled with delays, glitches, and server errors. Players would regularly fall through the environment floors, drop server connection, or be unable to fire at a crucial moment. As broken as the game was before and after launch, it didn’t stop us from enjoying the mess.
Most frustrating, and the reason why it took me so long to fully review PUBG, were the server and lag issues. Even after the launch of version 1.0 on December 20th, 2017, server connections had a tendency to stutter or drop entirely. When connections stutter, you’re an open target as you teleport back and forth to the left or right of the door you so desperately want to open. It’s can be as funny as it is gamebreaking. After several patches, Bluehole has finally been able to get this patched and all that remains are some entertaining physics issues.
The basic control scheme makes a lot of sense for quick menu access, but I can’t say that I find it to be the most intuitive. After a short learning curve, you can move through menus, drop items, swap grenades, and use first aid kits pretty quickly when it’s calm. The controls can quickly become a nuisance while under fire. Every second counts when you’re equipping that urgently needed stun grenade. But you’ve foolishly equipped a frag and are now rushing through the cumbersome menus while taking invisible bullets to the chest. However, after playing on both a keyboard and Xbox controller, I find that PUBG is one of the few games where I really must advocate for the keyboard and mouse controls. Controllers simply can’t get the same level of accuracy that is so necessary to survive in PUBG.
My personal experience was a mixed bag for sure. As a chronic extrovert, I prefer teams over free-for-all games, which lead to some very interesting language barriers when my copy of PUBG kept defaulting my region to Asian servers where I couldn’t understand my team. On a few occasions, my team became frustrated with my inability to understand them, so they left me in alone in a room with a live grenade or ran me over and left me to die.
My next few squad rounds resulted in me intentionally sabotaging my team’s strategy. In one instance, I blindly followed my team without understanding a word they said to me. As I armed myself to the teeth with the best armor and close range weaponry that I could, my squad was coordinating with one another over voice chat, covering one another as they stormed into buildings, clearing it one by one, modding rifles and snipers with the best scopes. I clumsily stockpiled grenades, shotguns, a crowbar, and a sedan for me by myself. Each time my team tried to climb in, I floored the gas and the turbo and drove twenty yards away, stopped, and honked violently for them to get in. It’s a miracle no one sniped us all.
Eventually my team gave up and moved on without me. They cautiously approached the next house from the high ground to find a full squad inside a house surrounded by tall fences. The other three members of my squad perched themselves on top of hills surrounding the house, lined their sights on each of the windows and entry ways, and patiently waited, until they were able to get a clean headshot through the window. With one man down, the opposing squad knew they were being watched. They got low to stay out of sight, and positioned themselves at the entry ways ready for a fight. The opposing squad hadn’t returned fire, likely because they weren’t able to spot my team yet.
Suddenly, I felt my PUBG senses tingling up my spine and to my trigger happy fingers and I knew that my team needed the great IrishNomad. So I pushed the petal to the metal, fired off my 90’s hatchback sedan’s turbo, sped off a small hill and launched my car into the air towards the house’s fence like only the Duke of Hazard could. Landing almost perfectly into the home’s garage and only nearly missing my chance at turning someone into roadkill, my prey knew that I had arrived. However, my useless squad did nothing to aid my heroic efforts and let me die before I even had the chance to get out of the car. I can only imagine the carnage they left behind as they avenged their hero of a teammate. I expect to my name added to the Leroy Jenkins monument any day now.
Once the next patch rolled out, I was able to select the US server and communicate with my teammates for the first time. It was a glorious experience only overshadowed by my brief run of beginner’s luck. It last only a few matches before my skill level really began to shine. I’ve gifted our readers with a brief montage of my talents below.
While it’s evident that PUBG is absolutely not the game for me, it certainly scratches the Battle Royale itch. It was a long road for Bluehole to get PUBG to where it is now, but it was definitely worth the wait. With three million copies sold in 2017 on Xbox alone, it’s evident that Bluehole has found a substantial audience and I doubt that they will stop here. After the recent release of the desert stage, it’s clear that Bluehole will be continuing to support this newfound audience with updates and new content over the course of PUBG‘s hopefully long lifespan. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s absolutely worth your time. However, should you encounter a player named IrishNomad, I suggest you keep your distance. Rumor has it, he’s a bit grenade happy.
Reviewed on PC.
Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds is currently available on PC and Xbox One.