Reviewer: Michael Mendis
Developer: PUBG Corporation
Publisher: PUBG Corporation
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
Platforms: PC [reviewed], Xbox One
One of the biggest hits in the movie industry in the last decade was the Hunger Games series. What began as novels turned into a film sensation, and part of the reason for this was because of the intensity of its premise: a group of people dropped into a large enclosed space, scrounging for weapons and fighting to the death until only one remained standing. This free-for-all competitive format was just begging to be used effectively in a video game, and a small indie developer has accomplished just that. When Brendan Greene (whose online username is “PlayerUnknown”) first created a mod for Arma 3 (a military shooter on PC), he set out to make a competitive game that forced players to be as careful with their in-game avatar as they are with their real lives and bodies; little did he know that he had stumbled upon a concept that would explode amongst the gaming community and support the creation of a standalone game. This game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, has taken the gaming world by storm, establishing itself as one of the most popular PC games of all time in just a few short months since its initial release. Many people within our own community of gamers, those that we at G&G play with and minister to, have taken a liking to this game as well, making PUBG an important part of our outreach efforts.
As I alluded to earlier, PUBG’s basic premise shares much with the Hunger Games setup: up to one hundred players (playing either individually or in teams of two or four) are airdropped onto one of two maps (either a large forest island or a mountainous desert area) and scavenge abandoned buildings for weapons, ammo, and other resources. Each individual or team then fights it out to see who will be the last one standing. As the match progresses, a damaging force field closes in around the players, covering up more and more of the map and forcing players to converge into a smaller and smaller area. Certain places on each map wind up being hotspots for combat, particularly the towns and large buildings where resources are abundant. As a result, the general flow of gameplay in most matches is defined by long stretches of downtime (looting buildings and traveling from place to place) punctuated by brief firefights against enemy combatants. Despite this downtime, the tension never truly goes away, as there are no respawns in the game, and you never know when someone might have taken up a position in the distance and has you in their sniper scope. The intensity ratchets up dramatically as the game approaches the finish: firefights increase in frequency as the safe area gets smaller, and the prospect of victory becomes intoxicating as you watch the counter in the corner of the screen show fewer and fewer other players remaining alive. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself literally shaking after a match.
In terms of its artstyle, PUBG aims for a realistic military look, which makes sense considering the game’s origin as a mod for a military shooter. Graphically speaking, it isn’t much to write home about; there aren’t many flashy graphical effects, even on the highest settings, and the sparseness of the environments leaves most areas of the map rather plain looking. Tall mountain peaks and cliff sides do provide some impressive vistas, and the forest map mixes it up with both both dense forests and open fields, but overall it can’t hold a candle to realistic shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield, which are made by much bigger teams of people.
Fortunately for PUBG, though, graphics aren’t the main appeal of the game; its draw lies in its gameplay, which stands out from other shooters both in terms of its pacing as well as many of its unique mechanics. As mentioned above, the flow of gameplay alternates between stretches of downtime and quick, intense firefights, which contrasts with the constant fast pace of its AAA counterparts. But that’s not all; PUBG’s scavenging and inventory system also sets the game apart. Each abandoned building contains random resources, which means that whenever you enter a shop or house, there’s a chance you could find really valuable gear (although some of the best can only be found in the special packages that are airdropped randomly on the map throughout the match). It also increases the stakes of the firefights; finding good armor and powerful weapons isn’t a guarantee of your survival, and the winner of any given fight can loot all the goodies off the opponent’s corpse. Even then you can’t rest on your laurels, as gunshots attract the attention of others nearby, and you’re a sitting duck as long as you’re sifting through your inventory screen.
My biggest complaint about the game is probably its steep learning curve. Because PUBG feels so different from other shooters on the market, it takes some time to get used to the flow of the game. The controls are also a bit clunkier than in other games of its type, and your character doesn’t move as quickly either, which adds to the adjustment needed to play the game well. And since PUBG lacks either a proper tutorial or a ranking system at this point, new players who don’t know what they are doing are simply dropped into a competitive scenario with people who may already be much better at the game. This makes playing the game solo particularly difficult and potentially quite frustrating until you get the hang of it.
While going it on your own can be a valuable experience, forcing you to hone your skills in an unforgiving environment with no backup, in my time with PUBG I’ve found that I have much more fun playing on a team. The quiet stretches of scavenging and traveling provide opportunity to chat and relax a bit, while the firefights require you and your teammates to work together, calling out enemy locations and executing strategies. And unlike in solo play, getting your health knocked down to zero isn’t an automatic death here; instead, losing your health puts you in a downed state in which all you can do is crawl, and your teammates have a brief window of time in which they can revive you. This sets up tense moments with players bleeding out and crawling to safety, their fate left in the hands of the one teammate forced to play the hero as he or she fights off the enemy. Even if some members of a team die part way through a match, all of them receive credit if the surviving teammates manage to win.
All things considered, PUBG is a great game that deserves the praise and success that it has received. The thrill it provides through its tense gameplay and unique mechanics is unparalleled, even compared to shooters that have much bigger budgets behind them. On top of all that, the opportunity to forge relationships with your friends through coordinated team play adds a potent social dynamic that eludes many other games. I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I first heard about this game and started playing it; the humble graphics and steep learning curve didn’t make for a compelling experience right out of the gate. But over time, and with a little help from my friends, I came to see how PUBG provides a fun and rewarding experience unlike anything else I had played before.