PUBG is one of the most popular games of 2017, which is odd considering it only officially released on December 20. Writing a PlayerUnknown's Battleground review feels a bit weird, considering it's been all over gaming news since its introduction to Steam Early Access in March. Having exploded so much in popularity, it's easy to forget that PUBG is just now getting a full release.
PUBG version 1.0 isn't an end to the development of the game. Instead, it's just a milestone, and it looks like it'll be getting support for years to come. Doing a PUBG review is kind of like writing one for a game like The Division or Destiny 2. You know that down the road (or even as soon as the next several months) the game will have more features, run smoother, and be better in general. However, this review will cover only what you can actually play as of writing in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and disregards any promises to fix or add content in the future.
If you've seen or read The Hunger Games or Battle Royale, you already know the basic premise of PUBG. You take 100 players, throw them in an 8 km2 map filled with weapons, gear, and items and the one that remains alive is the winner. You start out on an airplane which flies over the map. You can choose when you want to jump out, and from there you can land anywhere, you can see via a parachute. As time goes on in the match, players are herded closer and closer together by a blue, circular forcefield. Anyone not in the safe zone when the forcefield passes over them will start to take damage and eventually die.
It's a pretty simple concept, and it's not original by any means. The director of the game and lender of its name Brendan Greene (PlayerUnknown), first made a game in this style as a mod for Arma 2 and Arma 3. He then went on to consult with the H1Z1 team to help them make their Battle Royale mode H1Z1: King of the Kill. Additionally, before Greene's work, there were mods on Minecraft that were inspired by The Hunger Games, which was in turn inspired by the Japanese novel and film Battle Royale.
What Makes PUBG So Appealing?
So what makes PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds so popular where other mods and games featuring the same style of gameplay haven't caught on (except for Fortnite: Battle Royale). It's all subjective as to what makes PUBG so special, but I think there's a bunch of small things that come together to make the game incredibly appealing.
When you drop into one of the two maps, either Erangel (a forested island, based on Russia) or Miramar (a desert, based on Central America), you're given the simple objective to stay alive until you're the only player left. The item, gear, weapon, and vehicle spawns are randomized each time, so you can never depend on knowing exactly where everything is. There are areas in which more powerful equipment appears, but they're also typically hotly contested by players.
You have to make a ton of split-second decisions each time you play PUBG. You have to choose where to land. Do you go for an area with military-grade hardware where 10-15 other players will likely land or a more secluded area where you might be lucky to get a shotgun? Once the first safe zone appears, are you in it? If not, how are you going to make it there? Will you look for a vehicle or try to gather what you can and run there? All these little questions run through your mind in a match of PUBG, and even though the game gives you little prompting, each time you play you make your own little self-contained adventure. Players create the stories in PUBG, and there's no triggers or outside forces except the forcefield that cause you to do anything.
Guns, Gear, and Glory
Because it's 1 vs. 100 (or 2 vs. 98 in Duos, or 4 vs. 96 in Squads), you typically are looking at much poorer odds of survival than most FPS games. In PUBG you naturally want to be first, but the competition aspect changes somewhat given the playstyle. When I play a match, I'm incredibly happy if I just make it in the top 10. Each time I encounter another player and come out the victor, I'm more ecstatic than any time I win a round of Battlefield or Call of Duty. The combat in PUBG is usually quick and messy, and it always feels great to take someone down. On the other hand, defeat stings a lot less for me in this game. Since you know how bad the odds are going in, it's easy to set realistic expectations for your performance which results in a much more fun experience.
PUBG has a way of making you excited over and over with gear as well. I'm usually whatever about unlocking a new gun in most FPS games, but no matter how many times I find a level 3 helmet or a Kar 98k with an 8x scope I'll always be just as enthusiastic. Guns aren't just a choice in this game, they're a necessity, so you'll end up using all of them instead of just picking a select few for your inventory. You have to be resourceful, so being skilled with weapons you hate is just as important as knowing how to use the ones you love. Each firearm has attachments that can enhance their capabilities as well. Adding a holographic or red-dot scope to your rifle can make it much more potent, as these guns don't have the out of proportion, huge iron sights that a lot of games do.
The big drag of the gear though is the inventory interface. It's serviceable, but it has a real ARMA/DayZ feel about it and can be cumbersome. Being able to access items quicker, or custom assign quick keys from the inventory would be great and would make grenades more useful, but short of a full redesign it's about as good as can be expected. Another irritant when it comes to inventory management is the way you pick up items. I wish instead of having to hover the crosshairs over what you want to pick up and hope you get the prompt to pick up what you want or going into the inventory to pick it up, there was some sort of contextual menu that popped up so you can select what you want to interact with quickly and with precision. I've accidentally swapped out a gun I didn't want to, then had to pick it up and reload it more times than I'd like to count.
One thing that might turn players off of PUBG, especially those that are big fans of team-based online shooters, is that the game doesn't really have a progression system. After each map, you earn a currency called BP which you can use to buy loot crates. These crates contain cosmetic items like clothes and hats that you can equip to your avatar, but that's about all you get as a reward for being good at the game. I personally think it's fun enough that just playing is a good enough reward in itself, but for those who like visual indicators of their success, there's not anything currently in the game to mark any significant milestones.
Territory Gets a Little Too Familiar
The maps, especially the older one Erangel, can be a bit repetitive. There are a limited number of building types, and they're copied and pasted many times throughout each map. Miramar, the new desert map feels like it has a bit more variety, but that might be because I've played Erangel so often that any change in scenery feels great. There's a third map in production right now, and I assume that the team will go back and give Erangel some polishing to bring it up to par with Miramar.
Version 1.0 of PUBG removed some variety that was in the maps. Erangel used to have a chance to have foggy or rainy weather conditions, and maps used to start with different times of day which affected the lighting conditions. For some reason, though they removed rain and fog, and every map I've played since 1.0 came out has been just the same sunny afternoon lighting. I really enjoyed the different playstyles that weather and the change in illumination brought and I'm sad to see that Bluehole took a big step back when it came to making the maps have dynamic conditions.
Loot Crates and You
As far as loot crates go, they're only available for BP right now, and you can't purchase any premium currency to buy them. There are plans to implement a microtransaction system, for cosmetics only, sometime in the near future, but for now, you have to earn crates in-game normally. When the microtransaction system is implemented, it'll take the form of a crate and key system.
There were a crate and key created for Gamescom that laid the foundations for the system, but this game has about the least obtrusive microtransaction series I've seen. It's entirely optional, and your better off just wearing whatever clothes camouflage you the best. In fact, some of the cosmetics actually make you an easier target since they stand out more against the background.
Luck of the Draw
There are some balance issues with PUBG that may be unavoidable. Many times whether you live and make it to the top 10 or are among the first to die depends on what kind of loot you can grab first. There are times that even when dropping into an area that usually contains higher end equipment it seems like all I could find were SMG Flash Hiders and an over-and-under shotgun.
Once you leave the initial area you land in, you're going to be statistically more likely to run into another player, so you've got to keep on the move. If you get terrible gear starting out though you have to waste precious time you can be heading towards the next safe area or making sure no one is sneaking up on you looking for better stuff. If someone managed to get an M416 assault rifle or a submachine gun, it doesn't matter your skill. You take them on with an over-and-under shotgun from anywhere that isn't incredibly close range then they're going to kill you.
The same issue happens with vehicles. Getting a vehicle in PUBG can be incredibly beneficial. If you happen to have picked a spot far from where the first safe zone appears, there's a good chance you might die before you can make it there. With a vehicle, making it to the safe zone is no longer a worry, but depending on whether you find a randomly spawning item to determine whether you die quickly or not is sometimes frustrating.
I also feel like the forcefield, and safe zones need to be tweaked. The fun part of this game is the hide-and-seek aspect and the thrill of combat with other players. I get that the forcefield is a way to push people together, but it seems like more emphasis is placed on running to the safe zone than actually encountering other players. If the forcefield triggers were spaced further apart, I think it'd accomplish the same goal and allow players a chance to worry more about each other than about rushing to the safe zone. Of course, there'd have to be some changes to compensate, and I think maybe slightly less high-grade weapons and vehicles spawns would keep things exciting and frantic.
A View to a Kill
Version 1.0 of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds adds new replay and killcam features. This is going to be a huge boon to this game. Since so much of the hype for PUBG is player generated, Bluehole basically just made it even easier to market the game. The replay feature is especially outstanding. It saves everything within 1 kilometer of the player for an entire match. That means not only can you replay what you were doing the whole time you played, but you can also see what everyone else within a large area around you was doing.
One of the most frustrating issues I had with the game previously was that when you died, there was no way of knowing exactly where the player who killed you was or how they did it. It makes it hard to learn from your mistakes without that information. The killcam will give you an instant playback of your death from your killer's point of view, and if you want to get a better view, you can just load up the replay and fast forward till whatever event you want to see. This is going to be a huge new feature for players who want to edit together cool stuff that happened in their matches and potentially eSports involving PUBG.
Less Than Primely Optimized
I've avoided getting into the technical aspects of the game until now because of how bipolar it would sound mixed in with all the praise above. PUBG is a good game, but it's held down considerably by its visual and mechanical flaws the biggest being poor optimization. For this review, I played the game on two different computers. My main gaming computer has a i7 7700K and a GTX 1080, so it's an entry-level high-range computer. The second machine I played it on is significantly less potent with an FX-6300 CPU and an AMD HD 7950 graphics card.
On my main gaming computer, performance wasn't too bad. It kept over 60 fps on ultra at 1080p. However, on my older computer, the game chugs even at the lowest settings. Given that PUBG isn't a graphical masterpiece, there's no reason that lower-end PCs with a dedicated graphics card made in the last five years shouldn't be able to run it acceptably. From what I've read it's one of those games that's all over the place when it comes to how it runs on different PCs. Some people with five-year-old computers are running it just fine, while some people with the latest high-end components are having framerate issues.
The most significant issue with the graphics, which isn't nearly as apparent in the PC version as it is on the Xbox One, is texture drawing and pop-up. Each map is pretty big, but that doesn't excuse the fact that sometimes textures can take up to 20 or 30 seconds to load correctly. If I'm using an M.2 SSD with a GTX 1080 and plenty of system RAM, textures just shouldn't have that weird delay. This is an issue I've had almost exclusively with PUBG, and it can be irritating.
Pop-in also can be not only annoying but deadly. Especially when you're traveling over land, it's sometimes hard to tell in the distance if a shrub or tree has popped up, or if it's a player taking aim for you. Additionally, there's tall grass in the game that ideally provides you with some visual cover if you go prone. However, from a distance, you can't even see the grass, so anyone prone in it just looks like some idiot laying on the ground.
Both of these issues, especially the pop-in, might be caused by the network issues the game has. While it runs leaps and bounds better than it did when it entered early access, PUBG has an issue with rubberbanding. Rubberbanding is when you're playing an online game and when moving it looks like you're warping back to where you were a moment ago.
I checked and made sure my ping was low, and I was playing with a wired connection, so I know the issues weren't on my end, but even in version 1.0, there were times that for 15-20 seconds I would just be moving forward and snapping back over and over. Additionally, I believe this is interfering with the operation of the killcam (and possibly the replay system) because several times I viewed it only to see that the player who killed me appeared to be shooting 20 feet to the left of me when I died.
Good, But Needs More Time in the Oven to be Great
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is a game that's captured the attention of a vast chunk of the gaming community worldwide. Unfortunately, it's also a game that is full of network and graphical issues. There are few things that feel better than getting that perfect headshot in PUBG or facing down another player in a close range gun battle and surviving, but that fun is tempered by the rubberbanding, graphical issues, and lack of environmental variety.
The strangest thing about reviewing PUBG is that this doesn't feel like a full release at all. It just feels like another patch, albeit a major one. I know that there was pressure on Bluehole to release a 1.0 version of the game, but given the issues still in the game, it might have been best to continue hammering away at it for a few more months. I have faith that with such a large following (and cash flow) the PUBG team will eventually get things squared away, but for now, this game still feels like it's in early access. However, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is an absolute blast to play and has a broad appeal that few other games can match. As long as you temper your expectations (and make sure you have a decent PC), then this is one of the top games of 2017 to check out.