Jump. Die. Repeat.
Let’s not beat around the bush: I like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. I like it quite a lot. In fact, I feel a little bit of gratitude towards it, or more accurately, towards Bluehole and Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene for coming up with it. Why? It is, in short, the game that helped me realize what I want from the burgeoning survival genre right now.
But to get at why it had to be this game, and not any number of its similar competitors, I’ll need to tell you about the first two times I played a different game, a game called DayZ.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PC [tested])
Developer: Bluehole Games
Publisher: Bluehole Games
Released: March 23, 2017 (Steam Early Access)
I still feel a bit of hipster pride at having discovered DayZ – a mod for which is essentially the forebear to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – just before its popularity exploded, back during its days as an ArmA II mod. The first time I tried the mod, I ended up selecting a server that happened to be located on the other side of the world from me. Since the day-night cycle was locked to real time, I woke up in a pitch-black forest, unable to see anything for lack of light and unable to hear anything due to pouring rain. I thought the game had crashed. I ran for what seemed like quite a while, and eventually starved to death.
The second time I played DayZ, I found a daytime server. Dodging zombies, I looted the upper floors of a barn, finding a nice crossbow. While figuring out how to look down the sights, I stepped off a two-foot staircase and broke my leg, and was unable to do anything other than crawl. I eventually starved to death.
Now, I’ll tell the story about my first match of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
I jumped out of a plane filled with people (most of them half-naked or otherwise dressed like Mad Max happened in a thrift store), plummeting towards the ground, wearing nothing but a red t-shirt and a pair of sunglasses. As I deployed my chute, I noticed a stranger maneuvering his own chute at the same dockside apartment building I was angling toward. I pitched around to land nearby and pursued him into the building. He ducked into a room, and I was unable to follow, having forgotten how to open doors in my andrenaline-fueled haze. He emerged holding a shotgun. I threw a wild series of punches at the air, and by sheer luck, enough of them connected to take him down. I took the shotgun, and his pants, then moved on. I would later be shot in the back as I tried on a trench coat. This all took the better part of 12 minutes.
I make this slightly unfair comparison not to indict DayZ, but to illustrate how different it is from Battlegrounds and why I ended up gravitating to the latter over the former. By my lights, DayZ and similarly complex, “hardcore” survival titles tend to get a little lost in the weeds, adding crafting, hunger and thirst, disease, and all the elements one would expect from a post-apocalyptic camping simulator. This can be incredibly compelling in the right setting and for players in the right mindset, but folks looking for a quick hit of violence or excitement are left struggling to “find the fun.” PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has so far kept an admirable focus on a single goal: to get players to come together across its vast map to do nothing other than murder each other in pursuit of the #1 spot.
In essence, Battlegrounds is the kind of stripped-down, less-is-more, “diet DayZ” I didn’t realize I was looking for, a narrowly focused distillation of the most immediately appealing facet of DayZ‘s expansive vision. It is compact and streamlined where other games tend to sprawl and inflate, and it sprints where its peers tend to linger (though you shouldn’t sprint too much in the game, it makes you a standout target). Whereas a DayZ session could take hours or even days, depending on the server rules, I’ve yet to see a Battlegrounds match go on for longer than a lunch break.
This breathless pace is enforced by a series of carefully considered design choices. The most obvious one is the use of a “playzone,” a randomly determined circle on the map that players must get within the borders of, lest they be seared to death by a slowly contracting magic field. The circle is frankly a stroke of genius, as it allows the game to take advantage of its massive map while still forcing players to move into (eventual) contact with each other. There’s no camping for long in a typical Battlegrounds match, and it works for the better.
Another smart decision is the rejection of player levels, perks, and most common forms of progression or persistence. This prevents players from hoarding resources or playing too conservatively, and all of it goes away when the match is done, bar the “points” awarded for kills and ranking that can be used to buy blind boxes of clothing items. This encourages risky, daring play and a “use it or lose it” attitude towards supplies that can really up the experimentation. Any number of hilarious clips on YouTube and Twitter can attest to the freedom this allows.
Lastly, Battlegrounds just feels good to play. It’s not the most engaging moment-to-moment shooter I’ve played, but it’s a sight more enjoyable to shoot with than most of its competitors. The game doesn’t have to struggle with a thousand controls and context-sensitive menu options the way DayZ had to, and there are no crafting recipes to memorize or justify. Battlegrounds is all about movement and shooting, and in this sense it works. In fact, the long-range deadliness of many of the game’s weapons leads me to feel like if Battlegrounds had a higher concentration of marksman weaponry, it would be more of an heir to Ghost Recon‘s legacy than the games currently bearing the name.
Of course, while the game feels very pure, it’s hardly perfect. Though expansive and occasionally quite pretty, it’s not especially well-optimized, with chunky drops in framerate and network performance being common, even on powerful PCs. It’s also stylistically inert. Its dilapidated environs and Eastern European trappings are a dead ringer for DayZ‘s Chernarus, and if we’re being frank, the most creative thing about the game in an tonal sense is the way players jump out of a plane at the beginning. The clothing options also leave little room for creativity or self-expression, and even now I’m seeing players try to scalp each other on the Steam Marketplace selling clothes awarded by the game’s too-stingy “Pioneer crates.”
Potentially more concerning is how Battlegrounds‘ focused design might undermine it in the long run. Though the game is another free-form “story generator” in the same vein as DayZ, the structure of the competition excises virtually all possibility of impromptu cooperation or fun that doesn’t involve killing one’s opponents. While the punishing nature of death and the presence of zombies could make a player hesitate from pulling the trigger in DayZ, there’s no reason not to take a shot in Battlegrounds, so to speak. This subgenre of games is typically called “Battle Royale” after the famous film, but let’s not forget that Battle Royale had plenty of scenes of people interacting non-violently, teaming up after the game had started, and making the most of a strange situation. Battlegrounds is sort of like Battle Royale, but everyone participating is like Kiriyama, the mute sadist that signed up to kill for kicks.
Of course, these complaints are relatively minor and can be addressed with time. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds biggest achievement might be in providing a solidly-built platform to expand outward from, a foundation that will support whatever other crazy ideas Bluehole and Brendan Greene can come up with.
[This review is based on an early access build of of the game purchased by the reviewer]