Update – 5/4/2017
After forty hours, I’ve finally secured my first win with a fellow I met on Steam and play with frequently (shout out to Luke.) The game has stabilized dramatically in terms of stability. Lag spikes are now rare, the game has been balanced pretty well for only being two months old, and new content is being added regularly. The game still has a fair amount of charming jank around the edges, but I’m OK with that.
Each match in PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS starts with a cargo plane flying over a massive, remote, Eastern European-flavored island.
The cargo plane is packed with exactly 100 people. Most will die in the first five minutes, and needless to say, you only have one life. As it flies over the sprawling island full of decrepit houses, military installations, and apartments, it’s up to the player to decide when to jump.
I figured the best way to start would be to get as far away from other players as possible. I would need as much time as I could get to gather supplies. To plan. So in my free fall I point my body away from the others dropping in. I zero in on what looks like a small farm – a large home and an adjacent shed. As I near the ground I pull my parachute and immediately look around to make sure nobody else is landing nearby. No such luck.
Seconds before touchdown I see another figure landing on the opposite end of the farmstead – he enters the farmhouse proper. No doubt he saw me coming down. And while a few seconds doesn’t sound like a lot, he has a head start in the hunt for weaponry. The instant my feet touch the ground I sprint to the shed. It’s walls aren’t much more than planks, their paint peeling. On the ground lies an old revolver and five rounds. Not great. I slowly begin feeding in bullets and rack my brain for the appropriate course of action. I pause. Dead silence. Then the cackle of automatic weapon fire from I don’t know where.
None of it hits me but I immediately take cover. Whoever fired those shots will come after me. I am surely outgunned, dead on arrival. In a last ditch effort before the inevitable, I drop to my stomach and face my revolver towards the door, the only entrance to the shed. Then I wait. 30 seconds pass. 60 seconds pass. It may as well have been several eons. Still nothing.
I pop up into a crouch. Looking for a line of sight to the farmhouse. I see a man in dirty jeans and white t-shirt rifling through a dead man’s belongings on the front porch. As it turns out, neither my recently deceased friend or myself were alone to begin with. Somebody landed here before us. The hail of gunfire was not intended for me, so now I have a choice. The man standing in my reticule is unaware of my presence, his back to me. If I shoot and miss, I’ll be out of rounds before he faces me and returns fire. If I don’t shoot, there is a good chance he’s going to check the shed in which I lay for supplies. I could run while he has his back turned, but if I don’t find an automatic weapon soon, I’m as good as dead anyway. And he’s got one.
My palms are cold and wet with perspiration, loosening my grip on my mouse and keyboard. I take a deep breath, and empty my revolver. Only two rounds connect, but it was enough. I receive a message “only 65 players remain.”
I have fond memories of being 14 years old, curled up on the couch in my parent’s living room and tearing through Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale.
This would have been about 14 years ago. Well before The Hunger Games was a rough draft, and anime, or at least anything adjacent to Japanese pop-culture had penetrated our cultural lexicon.
If you’re not familiar with Battle Royale, It’s premise is quite simple. A large class of high school students are abducted en-route to what they assume is a field trip. They wake up on a remote island, shackles around their necks. They’re each given a bag of supplies and weapons of variable quality and sent on their way. They have to kill each other until only one survives. If they break the rules or attempt to escape, their shackles will explode. If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s essentially the same premise as Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular Hunger Games. Collins claims that she had never read or heard of Battle Royale before writing The Hunger Games, but that’s neither here nor there.
It felt a gargantuan task to wrap my 14 year old brain around the dire circumstances of Battle Royale. That every character you were introduced to would die, with an absolute certainty. The rules were so simple and without compromise. Part of what makes Battle Royale so tasty is that in reading it, it’s easy to project yourself in that scenario. Would you have run to the farthest part of the island and hide? Would you have stalked whoever had the best weapon and, hopefully, take it? Would you just lay down and die?
I’ve always loved the idea of the unforgiving nature of Survival games like Day Z, The Long Dark, Rust, etc. But I’ve never found one that clicked for me. Too often they stay in Early Access purgatory indefinitely, are fundamentally broken in one way or another, or are simply not much fun in practice. On a drunken whim I picked up PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (yes, all caps…) after hearing about it on a podcast. It was described as a Battle Royale simulator and that’s all I needed to know.
PUBG eschews essentially all of the trappings of other Survival games. There isn’t really a stamina meter, sickness, warmth, or any metrics aside from your player’s health. There is no crafting, no persistent world, no character progression. You, and 99 other live players have only one goal, and that is to survive.
Much like Battle Royale, PUBG encourages combat and prevents players from just sitting in a shack for 45 minutes by making the play space smaller every few minutes. You’ll see a large circle designated on your map, and you have X amount of time to be within that circle, or die. And of course, that circle gets smaller and smaller, funneling players from a Just Cause 3 size island into a play space no larger than the smallest Call of Duty multiplayer map.
The sensation of playing PUBG is sheer, white knuckle anxiety. Probably 97% of the game is spent in total silence, creeping through buildings, making a mad dash from point A to B, and collecting gear. That sense of solitude is perforated by the other 3% of gameplay — brief spurts of extreme violence. Guns are loud as fuck but so infrequently heard up close, that the sound of nearby gunfire induces an absolutely instinctual fight or flight response in the player. I have never won a round, but have made it down to the last three people and it’s as close to a panic attack as I’ve ever had playing a video game. My chest was tight, my breathing staggered.
I can’t fully recommend PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS in good conscience though. It’s very much an Early Access game and is rough around the edges to say the least. Lag spikes are common, but not game breaking in my experience. Re-used assets abound. Trying to get your avatar to jump over debris or a low wall is often akin to the mire of early Nintendo 64 physics. The shooting feels wonky. That being said, it seems to be rapidly garnering a Twitch/YouTube-centric fanbase (suprise) and the dev team is constantly rolling out patches, including new content. Assuming PUBG doesn’t fall into the aforementioned Early Access purgatory, it’s shaping up to be a gem.