It's not our game of the year, but in many respects PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is the game of 2017. Despite the fact that it spent the vast majority of its time in an unfinished state on early access, it still shifted berjillions of copies, first on PC and then more recently on Xbox One. We hopped on board the good ship PUBG right at the beginning and resolved to return when a bit more spit and polish had been applied. Well, that time is now, and it's time to slap a number on the 1.0 version and get on with our Xmas holiday.
We put it like that because we get the feeling that like so many online games these days, especially the popular ones, the support is going to be constant even though it's out of early access. This newly formed juggernaut isn't slowing down anytime soon, and who knows what shape it'll be in this time next year? This newly released version contains a more polished version of the island map Erangel, and the new desert map Miramar. There's at least one more map that we know about on the way, and the future looks assured.
PUBG, at its beating heart, offers a very simple experience. Jump from a plane, and head for the target. It's you against the world. Kill or be killed. When distilled down to that essence it's easier to see the shared heritage between this and DayZ. Survival games that riffed on that same general idea popped up everywhere, all chasing the same growing crowd of online adventures, those who enjoyed scratching a living out of the dust and fighting to stay alive. But while the subgenre of sandbox survival started to first bloat and then stagnate (ironically before the finished version of DayZ even saw release), PUBG exploded onto the scene and took the gaming world by storm.
But where DayZ and its disciples explored depth and detail, PUBG went for explosive accessibility. The dynamic of each game is constantly changing as the noose tightens around the action, funnelling players towards a common target and inevitable conflict, with the action moving around the map with every fresh attempt. You're not scavenging here, instead, you just head for the nearest building and grab the weapons you find. There's enough variety and the weapons are distanced far enough away from each other to ensure that repeat attempts don't feel too samey. There are weapon mods to further enhance the gear you find in the buildings, meaning you're not grabbing the same build every time and instead you need to adapt to what you find.
Find a shotgun and pistol, for example, and you're playing a different game than one where you find and a rifle and scope. If all you find is a frying pan, well, you're probably screwed. Further enhancing variety are the maps, which are absolutely huge. We were just getting to know Erangel when Miramar dropped, and both of the maps are overflowing with detail. It's not all particularly interesting detail, and many of the assets are a touch overused, but these are big levels that you can experience time and time again and still find new things. This is magnified further by the initial parachute in at the start of the mission, when everyone hurls themselves from a plane as it proceeds to cross the map (again, every match sees a new angle of approach).
The opening jump and the build up around it is one area where we feel PUBG could be a bit slicker. It's true that the base game itself is in a much better place than it was in March, but the whole process of loading up a match could be better executed. At least many of the audio issues that plagued the game during those early months have nearly all been fixed, and while we still see clipping, some odd quirks, long distance pop-up is still an issue, and the servers can lag from time to time, overall you've gotta say that PUBG is in much better shape. There's still much work to be done, though.
The character animations are pretty decent for the most part, but mantle could still be better executed in a lot of cases. There's a rigidity to movement over scenery that hasn't been completely smoothed out yet, and there's room for PUBG Corp. to improve this side of the game. For example, during one match we made a running jump to try and land on a metal walkway, but instead of mantling over the railing we just bounced off it and down to the ground. Again, we've come along way since March, but it's still not perfect, and we think there could be a more tactile relationship between player and environment.
Nearly everything else we tested felt great, though. The waiting times between matches aren't too offensive (the benefit of having 30 million fellow players), and it never takes long to get back in the thick of it, especially if you parachute down near another player. The descent is now nice and smooth, and the opening part of each mission always involves landing safely and then quickly securing a weapon. If you jumped out the plane around the same time as another player and they landed nearby, there's going to be a battle and one of you are likely to die. If your number's up then it's back in the queue for the next fight.
However, if you can win the inevitable first duel, find a decent weapon and some body armour, and maybe grab some wheels, then you're in business and you can embark on a run to genuinely contest the game, and it's then that PUBG starts getting brilliantly tense. Players flock in the same direction, avoiding bombing runs from overhead and a shrinking line on the map that damages those on the wrong side of it. After an initial flutter of activity things can quieten down, but the dwindling playing area ensures that it's only a matter of time before people start bumping into each other around the objective. The one-life setup ensures that the stakes couldn't be much higher, and it's that marriage of intensity and conceptual simplicity that makes the game compulsive and engaging.
There are different modes pertaining to squad size and perspective (we actually liked the first-person mode, although we tend to default to third-person most of the time), and playing in co-op with a friend or two (which is surely recommended over playing with randoms) certainly changes the dynamic of a match, but ultimately PUBG is very simple in terms of structure: kill them all and get to the objective.
Overall it feels like progression is overly-slow, and there's a loot box system in place for cosmetic gear, although we largely ignored it. If you want to get all dressed up there are garments dotted all over each of the maps, and you can customise yourself (and your weapons) in-game, but these aren't persistent unlocks and you're back to square one once you bite the proverbial bullet. If there's a specific item of clothing you want to wear every time, you can either get ripped off over on the Steam marketplace or keep opening crates until you strike gold. Otherwise, this part of the game felt like a grind-fest just waiting to happen, and given the rising price of loot crates over the course of a week and the variable quality of the cosmetics found therein, we didn't spend too much time worrying about this part of the game.
What we did worry about was staying alive, and PUBG, despite one or two technical failings, manages to brilliantly capture the tension of survival multiplayer. It's punchy and immediate thanks to generous weapon drops and accessible mechanics, and the moving objectives and aerial bombardments keep the action moving. Still, almost a year after launch, there are bugs and glitches and server quirks, and that's something you'll have to tolerate to get at the good stuff. It's certainly in a much more polished state than when it launched in early access, but it still feels like the game could do with more polish and greater stability across the board. The addition of the new map spices things up, and there's clearly much more to come from PUBG Corp. and Brendan Greene. Their game is ostensibly finished, but it also feels like we're at the beginning of this particular journey, and we're really interested to see where the game goes next. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is beautiful, rickety, and full of promise; you've got to take the rough with the smooth, but when it clicks it not only works, it's glorious.