It’s been difficult to miss the wave of enthusiasm within the gaming community for the fabled ‘PLAYER UNKNOWN’s BATTLEGROUNDS’; a currently early access title with its roots set in the modding community (like so many great games before it) and with a user base now measured in millions. Having only a cursory understanding of the game, but a high degree of curiosity, I jumped in a couple of weeks ago and with about 24 hours of playtime I’ve been staring at a blank screen trying to work out how to go about wrapping up these hours in a digestible and entertaining form… If I’m honest I’ve begun and scrapped half-a-dozen attempts to take a witty spin on it, or begin in a quirky off the wall way, and come to the conclusion that for PU:BG, a blunt direct approach might just be the best for what is in essence a clean and straightforward concept.
If there is anyone out there that still has no idea what I’m jabbering on about, PU:BG is a Battle Royale game based on an open world island; 100 players skydive in, all with the aim of being the last standing. Periodically the blue shimmering play boundary, known only as “the circle” shrinks, forcing those hiding and trembling survivors to scamper from their rabbit holes into the rapidly diminishing territory. Players outside the circle are ‘encouraged’ back in through the use of physical damage, and an occasional air strike is thrown in just to keep everyone on their toes. Other than that the game is fairly standard shooter fare with weapons, health, & armour pickups in buildings, vehicles to move hastily (but noisily), and an island peppered with soviet era towns, buildings, & bridges along with a healthy dose of wilderness. The task can be tackled in solo, pair, or four person squad modes and although the island is always the same, the vector of the transport aircraft along with the shirking play-zone seems to keep gameplay fresh whilst allowing the player to quickly recognise landmarks (and even pick out the odd favourite haunt amongst the buildings).
It’s a game that has little fanfare around the gameplay either; once you’re out, you’re out, and thrown back to the lobby (or to spectate your teammates), there are few options and only in the recent updates have the cosmetic items really deviated from a drab selection of military clothing. In this regard, I was initially struggling to see what all the fuss was about, especially given that in its current state the game suffers from a good number of early access niggles that in some cases (well, at least before the update last week) made it almost unplayable. The fact that I, and so many others, have persevered to play the game despite the technical shortcomings is a pretty good indication that it’s doing something right, but I’m still wrestling with how I feel about it as a game, so I’ll just share my experiences so far.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my initial scepticism of PU:BG was bought on from its modern military shooter stylings; it’s just not a genre that I’ve ever taken to, even the critically acclaimed ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ didn’t really add an marshmallows to my hot chocolate. Whilst PU:BG isn’t technically about a military force, the weapon set, mods, and general feel sits quite firmly in that camp. My doubts weren’t exactly quashed the first time I entered a game and in the first 30 seconds was scrambling for the options menu to mute the public ingame chat …imagine 100 players all thrown in to a single public voice channel… first hurdle cleared, the game began proper and I briefly began to relax as I sailed downwards to the earth before realising that I had no idea what I was doing, what I should be looking out for, or where I should go. I was half expecting to bow out in that first thirty seconds of landing on this first attempt, but on that maiden voyage a combination of luck and hiding kept me alive until the last 14. The next dozen or so games were similar affairs; the mix of landing, hiding, scurrying between cover, closing doors, and hiding in bathrooms with shotguns was a pretty reliable way to make it to the last 20.
On a side note, if anyone was playing PU:BG about a week go and opened a bathroom door to be met with a crouching trembling mess of a player and a face of lead shot then part of me is sorry that you had to retire in such an undignified way… the other part of me thanks you for the XP….
A few slow realisations began to occur; firstly that it had been a long time since I’d played something with a background level of tension, secondly that it was tense without me even doing anything, and thirdly that I wasn’t improving by hiding in bathrooms. Combat was (and is) a struggle; every time I’d attempted to engage in a style other than ‘water-closet-surprise’ it ended in disaster, and as this then required me to restart, wait for players, airdrop, and tool-up before giving it another go, I wasn’t motivated to continue to be target practice for other players. Survival in PU:BG isn’t too difficult, up to a point, and that point is when you’re actually required to move, or if you’re attempting to claim sufficiently good equipment that the end game might swing in your direction. My current best surviving act involved being repeatedly shot and healing whilst running away from a town with only a handgun to my name, swimming for a distant boat, taking a leisurely scenic tour of the island’s coastline and frequently healing whilst outside the circle, before finally make shore only to hide in a bush for 10 minutes…. This fiasco took me to a mighty second place…
Around the twenty game mark I took stock of the experience so far and was sitting precariously on the edge of giving up with the whole thing – sure the game had created tension, but the idea of further hours wasted in cupboards, heart racing as I heard approaching footsteps, didn’t really seem like a fulfilling prospect. I stuck with it though, because a random message from some friends who enquired if I was “having fun?” and if I would like to “join a squad?“. The move from the solo to squad (and to a lesser extent the duo) game transforms PU:BG into a different beast entirely. My first squad game was a disaster; we landed near an apartment block (always a good place to pick up weapons and equipment) and quickly swept the building, all picking up a solid weapon set before things tumbled into ruin. Our lucky find of a vehicle became our undoing when we met another travelling troupe who quickly (and I maintain luckily) took me out with a well placed headshot leaving the rest of the group circling around them in some ill-conceived attempt to exact revenge before the car finally exploded and we were once again in the lobby. Despite my first squad outing being a distinct fail to achieve anything, it had been far more action packed than any of my solo runs with people calling out plans, counter-plans, where items were, sharing ammo, discussing strategy; in many ways it had echoes of ‘No More Room in Hell‘ that I had enjoyed so much. The rest of the rounds that evening were each distinctly different involving systematic sweeping of buildings, tactical evading of opposition squads, daring runs across open land, and more than one poorly thought out attempt at parking.
The squad based rounds (specifically in the company of some more experienced players) helped my solo game progress; the next evening I found myself being more dynamic, which usually involved an abrupt ending to the round, but didn’t matter as I was improving. I managed to take out the odd opponent, dash for the circle when I was unlucky with my chosen landing zone, and generally read the situation a little better. I’m not any closer to winning a game, but I think the draw of PU:BG is similar to those wave based survival games where the player battles just to see how long they can stay afloat, improvising, taking chances, and just hoping for a lucky break here and there. The solo game and co-op modes are distinctly different affairs, but even in solo I’m beginning to drop into the ‘higher risk’ regions (yes, I’m looking at you military base) where the early combat is furious, but rewarding in pickups. I still prefer having a partner or team to share the load with, and that feeling of ‘scheming’ with someone else along with the safety net of an extra set of eyes just rounds the edge of the tension enough to stop it from becoming exhausting.
That’s kinda where I am at the moment. I’m holding off on long-term judgement, but I can certainly see the draw. It’s a simple idea that the developers have resisted complicating; the variety is found in how the player attacks the game and from being able to adapt to the situation. The fun is in continually re-evaluating this situation and hoping that the breaks go your way in the same way that a good roguelike pulls you back in for ‘just one more run’.
Have you been playing PU:BG? What have been your experiences so far? Feel free to jump into the comments!