Preview – PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, affectionately known as PUBG (pronounced pub-gee) by fans, is one of those rarified games like Minecraft that, even if you’ve never actually played it, you’ve likely heard of it. Based on the 2000 film Battle Royale (a Japanese film in which high school students fight to the death as part of a government-backed game) PUBG was originally created by Brendan Greene as a mod and then revamped into a standalone product by PUBG Corporation with Greene at the helm.
The game gathers 100 players and drops them onto a massive island (measuring approximately 64 square kilometers in size) either solo or in teams of two or four, and lasts until there’s a single player or team left alive. Players explore the environment to find procedurally distributed weapons and equipment, looking to gear up enough to survive the combat to come.
Combat is inevitable in PUBG. The game continually shrinks the playable map down toward a randomly selected area, closing in on that point with a shimmering blue barrier that players must stay within or suffer incremental damage. The entire island is available at the outset, but players have only a few minutes to scramble for equipment – fighting off anyone else who parachuted down to the same area – before they’ll be alerted to the location of the safe zone. The first safe zone is generous in size, but successive ones get smaller and smaller until there’s nowhere to hide. This serves both to force player confrontation and to eliminate ‘campers’ who find a good weapon and then sit in one place to kill anyone that wanders nearby.
Two random events also spur player movement – artillery bombardments and loot drops. The artillery shelling is preceded by a small circle on the map being marked in red, allowing enough time for alert players to exit the zone and escape damage. The loot drop, a crate parachuted in from a transport plane, gives no warning but the drone of an aircraft overhead and smoke marking the landing spot. These drops offer high-end gear, and are irresistible to players nearby – no matter how dangerous picking up a crate might be.
PUBG launched on PC in March of this year and has seen a meteoric rise in popularity and sales, buoyed by its popularity on streaming services like Twitch and Mixer, outstripping anything that came before. Minecraft, for example, took nearly four years from release to hitting 10,000,000 sales– PUBG did it in less than 200 days. Those numbers will accelerate again, with the release of the game on Xbox One this week – a day after launch the leaderboards already showed more than 600,000 players tracked.
Released as a Game Preview title, PUBG is cheaper than most games – but also not as polished. You can expect to see a slew of low-res textures the first time it’s fired up, but fortunately it’s an issue that doesn’t seem to repeat after they’ve ‘popped’ into the high-resolution versions. The framerate absolutely chugs at the start of the game, first when you load into the holding area with 99 other players running around and then during the transport plane flight to the island itself. Once players have boots on the ground, however, the framerate issues – for the most part – iron themselves out. There’s the odd drop, especially when driving a vehicle full-tilt, but it sticks close enough to 30 frames per second to not affect gameplay.
What makes PUBG irresistible isn’t the graphics or the performance, which aren’t particularly top-notch even on PC though recent updates have helped with optimizations, but the tension you feel during a match. This is high-stakes play, far removed from the typical console shooter. Play Battlefield or Call of Duty and – outside of specific modes like Search and Destroy – there’s no penalty to dying aside from the hit against your kill/death. Die in PUBG, however, and it is GAME OVER. It’s not really a concept you grasp until the first time you start a game and wind up dead within seconds, having fallen prey to another player who found a weapon first. After that, every minute spent on the island sees the adrenaline ratcheted up to unbearable levels. You become keenly aware of every nearby sound, doubly so when exploring a location that may contain supplies. The discovery of an open door, a sure sign that someone else has been in the area, causes intense – almost crippling – paranoia. This is made worse by the sheer size of the playfield, which can leave you miles from the nearest enemy, but still living in fear that they could be taking aim on you at any time.
For every moment like that, however, there’s also the potential for ridiculous once-in-a-lifetime happenings that provides a rush of exhilaration few other games can manage. The first time you sniff out an ambush before it’s triggered and turn the tables on your would-be assassins with a well-thrown grenade and hastily-closed door that leaves them nowhere to escape to, you might wake the neighbours with your shouts of joy.
Even failure can leave you feeling satisfied. Getting into the final 10 is an accomplishment worth celebrating, and while having WINNER WINNER, CHICKEN DINNER splashed on the screen for a first-place finish feels pretty good, it was hard to say I felt any disappointment at coming in second or third. What you mostly feel is drained, as the tension level of a final-10 showdown, by that point in an exceedingly small ring of safe space, is extreme.
Can PUBG, the PC phenomenon, become PUBG, the console phenomenon? With over 600,000 sales in the first day it seems like that’s a question that’s already been answered. At a shade over $30 Canadian, this is a no-brainer for fans of shooters, especially if you like a more tactical focus to your games. You haven’t played anything on consoles with this level of tension. Keep in mind that, as a Game Preview title, you are playing something that’s still under development and that can mean a lot of patches and some up-and-down performance.