A shooter that’s as invested in creating a smart, nuanced survival experience as it is fun, action-packed combat.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds didn’t invent the last-person-standing formula that’s made it one of the most massively successful PC games in history, but – over the course of a nine-month-long early access period – it certainly turned it into something special. 100 players drop onto a sprawling map and fight to the death using whatever weapons they can find within a shrinking force-field. This simple, bare-bones take on the Battle Royale-style deathmatch foregoes the fluff and high time investment of most hardcore survival sims in favor of fast, accessible action. The result is a tight, focused, no-frills experience that’s as exciting as it is unpredictable, and where no two games are ever alike.
PUBG wastes no time putting you right in the middle of the action as you and up to 99 other players airdrop onto one of its two 8×8 km maps from the back of a large aircraft. Part of the genius of each match’s arc is how heavily it weighs every move you make, and it begins with the critical decision of where to land. Jumping early along the plane’s randomized flight path lets you hit the ground first, giving you a jump on the competition, but risks placing you farther from the parts of the arena where the fighting will likely funnel as the boundaries contract. Jumping late might distance you from other players, giving you some early breathing room and a chance to forage for loot in peace before entering the fray. Depending on the angle of the flight path, jumping right into the center — especially in large cities and other loot-heavy spots — could place you right in the middle of the action with some of the most trigger-happy opponents.
There’s bound to be something worth picking up no matter where you drop.
The tension mounts during the descent as you get a good look at the swarm of players in your vicinity, but things really pick up the moment you hit the ground, as everybody (no matter where you land) scrambles for weapons and gear, and the killing kicks off right from the get-go. Item distribution is partially randomized, and learning the spots on the maps that are likely to spawn military-grade weapons and attachments is a good, early strategy to work out on your own, with a team of up to four, or using the many fan-made resources that already exist thanks to PUBG’s hearty run in Early Access. You can’t count on finding a good gun early to keep you safe, but unlike similar games like DayZ, where you could potentially go long, tedious stretches without finding a weapon, there’s bound to be something worth picking up no matter where you drop. Backpacks for holding more items, a handful of protective gear like helmets and police vests, medical supplies, melee weapons, and a good mix of firearms are in good supply.
But no matter what gear you find, PUBG excels at creating a reliable and streamlined space for your adventure to play out while also allowing for a thrilling level of unpredictability. It isn’t out of the ordinary for someone with only a pistol to take down someone with a fully loaded SCAR-L assault rifle, since good gear is only half the battle — the other half is wit.
As players outsmart each other in deadly games of cat and mouse, those still standing are forced into ever-closer proximity within the confines of a deadly, shrinking force-field until just one player or team is left alive. Victory (accompanied by the coveted “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” screen) is an exhilarating reward, matched only by the suspense that emerges from the battle to achieve it. But even if you die early, jumping into a new game is always quick and easy.
In the Zone
The deadly, moving force-field that contains the arena and occasional airstrikes marked with red on the minimap add a consistent sense of purpose that drives you toward conflict, and with it, an exciting set of options. You might want to prioritize reaching the center of the circle to make the next incremental reduction in size of the survivable area easier to deal with; move slowly along the borders to pick off stragglers as they rush into the open to avoid the oncoming doom; or even hide in a building until you absolutely have to move, letting everyone else kill each other so you don’t have to. Hopping into a vehicle, like the speedy but vulnerable motorbike and buggy, the sturdy closed-top UAZ, or the slow-but-durable van — among others — is a quick, fun, and conspicuous way to cover a lot of ground, and can result in some hilarious and explosive encounters. Either way, you’re encouraged to stay on the move, but still have a set of options that lets you pick your pace. An aggressive approach is just as viable as a cautious defense, and the practicality of both playstyles is refreshingly liberating, bringing new sets of challenges that are just as fun to plan around and tackle as the next.
The incentives to stay on the move no matter your chosen pace forces ever more dangerous encounters with increasingly skilled (or lucky) survivors, condensing the action and ending a match after around 20 minutes, before it can get bogged down by campers or other distractions. Action isn’t hard to find if you’re looking for it, and impossible to avoid for long when you’re not, but PUBG manages to put enough space between encounters to keep those quiet, tense moments of cautious exploration intact.
Action isn’t hard to find if you’re looking for it, and impossible to avoid for long.
The two large maps aren’t the best-looking environments in gaming, but they do provide much-needed variety on the battlefield. Both the forested island of Erangel and the sunny desert of Miramar boast an assortment of small towns, large, dense cityscapes, and rural industrial zones ripe with loot. There are some parallels between maps so as not to restrict your options when you’re dropped randomly into either one (the server picks for you). For instance, the small military base on an island off the coast of Erangel sees its match in Miramar’s remote military camp, for the high-risk players looking to compete for high-level equipment right off the bat.
But both maps have their own unique merits, too. The abundance of trees on Erangel provides plenty of cover, even for groups of four, while the sparser, rockier Miramar makes moving across open areas on foot and in vehicles much more dangerous. While some areas in Miramar feel more isolated than even the most secluded spots on Erangel, the diversity of elevations, more interesting city layouts, and some great map-exclusive weapons — like a sawed-off shotgun that fits conveniently in the sidearm slot — more than make up for it. Adapting to new challenges and making last-minute decisions based on each of these factors is part of the fun. But no matter what you’re facing, an abundance of loot in even the smallest buildings in both maps ensures hunting for a weapon is never a frustrating task, which not only keeps the playing field balanced and fun for everyone, but ripe for all sorts of thrilling confrontations.
You might find yourself involved in a frantic shootout in the woods, or on either end of a deadly hunt across a dense city or town. You might even find yourself holed up in an attic, listening for the slightest creak or scape to indicate a nearby presence, shotgun in hand. The use of sound to build tension and alert you to nearby enemies is one of the ways PUBG forces you to stay attentive and tactical rather than treating every round like a fast-paced shooter à la Call of Duty or Battlefield. Play long enough, and you can learn the subtleties that tip off when another player has been in a place before you — an open door or an unusually dense or sparse pile of mismatched loot are telltale signs you should watch your back. All these layers merge to build a shooter that’s invested in creating smart, nuanced survival and understands how even the smallest moments of your story build up to create the larger adventure.
Last One(s) Standing
The entire dynamic of both exploration and combat changes drastically by grouping up in the pre-game lobby. Playing solo brings certain elements to the formula that going in with a partner doesn’t, and the same goes for trios and four-player squads. There might be more freedom and greater opportunity for stealth in going alone, but a well-coordinated team has more potential for pulling off exciting ambushes and vehicular assaults – and they’re much more survivable because you can revive a teammate who’s been knocked down but not finished off. Playing in first-person-only servers also brings a new, challenging dimension to matches by eliminating the corner-peaking advantages granted by the default third-person camera.
The gunplay itself is also great.
The gunplay itself is also great. Firearms feel good to shoot and there’s a good range of options for all playstyles. And while PUBG does retain that military-sim stiffness that’s become synonymous with the genre, it’s just smoothed out enough to keep combat and movement satisfying and accessible to newcomers. The new vaulting system (added as PUBG left Early Access) is a particularly handy addition, allowing you to climb over fences and through windows for easier getaways and sneakier shortcuts.
Other than that, a couple handy hotkeys to cycle weapons, switch between third- or first-person perspective, toggle auto or burst fire for your gun, and adjust zeroing distance are most of what you need to know beyond the obvious. The simple and intuitive UI is also particularly refined, which makes looting bodies and swapping items with teammates as easy as a quick click and drag.
A number of quality-of-life features round out even PUBG’s roughest edges: being able to access your inventory and map while on the move, adjust the camera mid-stride without changing direction, and a generous leniency with fall damage stand out as some of the most valuable. Since the 1.0 launch, I haven’t experienced significant performance or rubberbanding issues, but it’s important to note that version 1.0 still hasn’t managed to eliminate the hacking problem that’s most prevalent in high-skill matchmaking games, or a handful of persistent bugs.