If you haven’t heard of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, chances are you’ve been living under a rock. The astronomical success of this game almost came out of nowhere, with Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene working with Bluehole to create a new game around the Battle Royale game mode that he helped popularise via mods and spin offs. This success came despite being in Early Access right until the final days of 2017, when version 1.0 added numerous gameplay features, introduced a new map and let the team say that the game now included everything they envisioned.
Note: This is a review of the PC version of the game. You can also find our thoughts on the Game Preview release for Xbox One.
Battle Royale is a simplistic game mode: 100 players leap out from an aircraft flying over a remote and abandoned location with nothing but clothes, they then proceed to scavenge for randomly distributed weapons and equipment, are herded toward a particular part of the map by the gradually shrinking safe zone, bringing you closer to other survivors and forcing you to fight to try and be the last person standing. It’s complicated by the allure of the periodic supply drops from a plane, the red zones that are bombarded by artillery fire, and the use of vehicles.
It’s a game that effortlessly blends tedium with heightened moments of stress and tension. You can easily spend a good 20 minutes in a match just sprinting from one side of the 8km2 map to the other, not seeing another soul as you try to stay ahead of the safe zone barrier, or you can find yourself embroiled in gunfights throughout. In fact, seeing other people is rare, unless you decide to drop into a town to gamble for some of the better guns and equipment, and most deaths come from someone getting the drop on you as opposed to clear head to head fights.
Personally, I’m a coward. I drop from the plane and get as far away from its path across the map as possible, I scavenge and keep ahead of the safe zone border. When there’s gunfire, I tend to ignore it, or simply keep on running if the bullets are dropping near me, running until they give up so I can slink into the top 30, the top 20, the top 10. Knowing when to pick your fights is key, because every crack of a gun, every muzzle flash gives away your position – having positional audio and learning what sounds to listen for quickly help you determine where bullets are coming from.
The atmosphere changes when you play in the duo or squad playlist, as you’re now coordinating with others, sharing resources and going up against multiple enemies at once. Similarly, it’s even more intense when playing in first person as opposed to third person, as your ability to look around you when running or see over the grass you’re hiding in are reduced, cutting down on your spatial awareness.
Learning the two maps in the game also helps, with the original Erangel map based of Eastern European landscapes and the new Miramar map evocative of the US-Mexican border. The latter certainly feels more considered and polished visually, and it offers different challenges to players with more densely built up areas dotted across bumpy and rocky terrain, comparing starkly to the long, thick grass of Erangel.
Sticking to their promise, Bluehole released PUBG version 1.0 for PC at the end of last year, bringing the game out of Steam Early Access and marketing it as a full game. What’s abundantly clear is that while 1.0 is a milestone release, this is not a finished game in the traditional sense. When Overwatch released, it exuded polish and refinement; when Destiny 2 landed, server load hiccups plagued it for some time, but the actual game was solid; when PUBG hit version 1.0, it was still subject to the same lack of optimisation and polish that have plagued it all the way through its public development.
I still encounter a number of minor bugs on a fairly regular basis, but the game’s performance is a particular sore spot. In the regular run of play, i can easily get a V-synced 60fps at 1080p with Ultra settings thanks to having a competent but ageing overclocked Core i5-3570K and a high-end Vega 56 in my PC, letting me brute force my way to good performance. However, there’s an advantage to using comparable Nvidia cards, and many people prefer to drop to low or very low settings both for competitive reasons and to get 60fps performance with GPUs that can get better performance in prettier games. Battlefield 1 is a particularly interesting point of comparison, as it too has to deal with high player counts and has more of them in closer proximity, but offers higher fidelity as it does so. Even with Ultra settings, PUBG is no looker with muddy textures and crude identikit buildings used across the maps.
While not really the subject of this review, its this lack of core optimisation that is currently hampering the game on Xbox One. Fortnite Battle Royale might have certain advantages with its more cartoony art style and a more compact map, but the simple fact that Epic know how to get the best out of Unreal Engine 4, which PUBG also relies on, means they can get a pretty solid 30fps across the board on console.
So what does 1.0 actually mean for PUBG? Well, it’s now feature complete. Compared to when it first entered Early Access, you now have dynamic vaulting over scenery, there’s improved vehicle physics, third and first person play modes for solo and team play, there’s the second map in Miramar, and a legitimately excellent replay feature that records entire matches for you to rewatch. It’s a more complete and well rounded game, but when viewed through the lens of more traditional development milestones, that would mean it’s just entered beta testing.
Having now passed the 1.0 mark and left Steam Early Access, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds remains a diamond in the rough. The Battle Royale game mode is so compelling, with each loss only making you want to do better next time, and each victory giving you stories of tense games of cat and mouse and frantic gunfights. It’s still lacking in terms of polish and optimisation, but after years of experimentation, this feels like the real start of a new paradigm in multiplayer gaming.