Three weeks ago, I bought PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds with the intention of playing for an hour and refunding it. This isn’t a practice I recommend or regularly indulge in, but I’d already written Battlegrounds off as yet another shoddy H1Z1-like that would slip into obscurity before the year was over. Over the last three years, the Steam storefront has become inundated with early access Battle Royale games thanks to the success of DayZ, and despite genuinely trying to get into a few, shoddy design and other flaws have always overshadowed my enthusiasm about the genre’s potential. Still, despite my misgivings about its off-putting title (note to publishers: putting somebody’s username in your title is literally never a good idea), I wanted to give Battlegrounds a chance to prove me wrong. The Battle Royale idea has always been compelling—The Hunger Games and Battle Royale make for great video games on paper—but nobody had managed to execute on it well enough yet.
About three hours after clicking the “purchase” button, I casually glanced at my phone while waiting for the next round to load and realized how much time had passed. I was well beyond the refund period, and despite my lackluster placement in most of my matches, completely engrossed. In that moment, I slowly began to realize (and would soon have sales figures to confirm my suspicion) that this was it. This was the one. By God, they’d finally done it.
Battlegrounds, or PUBG as its sizable community has taken to calling it, is the Battle Royale game for people who don’t care about Battle Royale games. The sheer volume and variety of players it’s attracted has been entirely unexpected; friends, family, and public figures who I never would’ve imagined trying, never mind enjoying a Battle Royale game, are pouring dozens of hours into it every week with no sign of slowing down. For those of us who haven’t been invested in one of these games before, it’s one of the most refreshingly different multiplayer experiences in years, and for the sizable community of players moving over from games like King of the Kill, it’s a much tighter, more refined version of the game they already know and love.
So what exactly is Battlegrounds? It’s a 100 player deathmatch set on a massive island that can be played solo, in pairs, or in 4 player squads. Each round begins on a gargantuan plane that soars over the map on a randomly selected path, from which players can freefall to a destination of their choosing. From there it’s a rush to find loot by searching buildings and airdropped crates, and use that loot to kill all who oppose you until you’re the last player (or team) standing. A health-draining energy field speeds things along, closing in on a random location each round and forcing players closer together as their numbers dwindle until all that remains is a tiny patch of land for the final handful to finish each other off. It’s a brutal game, and occasionally feels slightly unfair as finding the best items and being in the optimal position can come down to luck as much as skill, but it’s also immensely satisfying to play. Every kill feels like an achievement, and nearly every death a lesson learned.
Combat itself is short and intense. 2-3 hit deaths are common in solo play (a revive mechanic makes team-based modes marginally more forgiving), and a lack of hit markers or damage indicators means that you must rely heavily on your eyes to determine if you’re hitting your target (or where they’re hitting you from). Players of milsim shooters like Arma or Squad will already be familiar with this relatively realistic interpretation of combat, but I suspect that for most players this model is a novel new spin on the age-old videogame tradition of shooting dudes. Simulated bullet physics and shot acoustics add a layer of strategy to how (or if) you use your weapon, resulting in a deathmatch game that requires thoughtful play as much as quick reflexes.
It’s the level of thinking that PUBG demands from players that makes it so novel, especially compared to other popular shooters. Coming out as the top player requires an understanding of how to position yourself in the environment, when to engage opponents, and if/when to move across the map. For advanced players, learning to use some of the trickier mechanics, like zeroing and grenade breaches also provides a significant advantage. The game is still something of a wild west right now, with no meta or generally accepted strategy, so a huge part of the fun is figuring out the playstyle that works for you, then improving on it. For some, immediately dropping into a high-level loot zone and contending with dozens of other players who have the same idea is just fine. For others, seeking out less populated areas to lay low and prep for the late game is the way to go. These strategies are just two of many valid ways to play the game, each of which has numerous pros and cons to consider. This level of nuance makes Battlegrounds a thinking man’s game through and through, where careful analysis and decisionmaking (along with a little luck) are the difference between success and failure.
So why play Battlegrounds over one of the other big games that does the same thing? Well, the easy answer is simplicity. While King of the Kill (the other “big” game right now) may share much of PUBG’s DNA, Battlegrounds is a more stripped-down affair, with a greater focus on doing a small number of things very well. There’s still plenty to learn, but the curve is much gentler thanks to Battlegrounds’ slower movement and gunplay, simplified inventory and healing systems, and shortened match times. In particular, the shooting stands out as the best in the genre—merging the handling and physics of Arma’s guns without most of the clunkiness, making them extremely satisfying to fire.
It’s also an unexpectedly addictive experience. Despite not exactly being a roguelike, Battlegrounds shares the genre’s basic loop of “play, die, learn, repeat”, culminating in a potent “one more run” mentality that has kept me playing late into the night more times than I’d like to admit. The relatively short games (30 minutes max!) play into this, as does the sense of tangible improvement. Placing higher and higher as you become more experienced is extremely gratifying, and sharing that feeling with a partner or group of friends is even moreso; nevermind the heart-pounding thrill of actually getting first place, which continues to excite even after numerous wins.
PUBG is a fresh experience, in the truest sense of the word. A shooter reliant on strategy above all else that tasks players with surviving rather than simply racking up kills, bolstered by a high skill ceiling that demands attention and strategy from solo players and smart teamwork from groups. In its early state it still has a way to go, with planned improvements to optimization (which is sadly lacking at the moment), new maps, modes, weapons and balance changes on the horizon. Still, for just $30 it’s well worth a look, and even this Early Access incarnation can provide hundreds of hours of gameplay, especially if you go in on it with friends. It’s not the only Battle Royale game on the market, but it is the most friendly to newbies thanks to good design that allows players to choose playstyles that don’t require much combat if they prefer patient, (mostly) pacifistic play. I’ve sunk over fifty hours in since launch, and plan to play many more over the coming year. I’m incredibly excited to see where PUBG goes, and suspect that many more will experience the same revelations I have as the year goes on, and again when the game launches on console in 2018. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Battlegrounds is for everybody, but it’s undeniably different, and well worth a look if the concept of last-man-standing multiplayer interests you at all. As for me, I’m going to get back to chasing my first Solo win.