Editor’s note: I know it’s taboo to review Early Access games, but in this instance, I just don’t care.
I’ll never forget my first game.
The feeling of scrambling to find a weapon as I wandered around, confused and lost. The first time I saw another player, being frozen in place, my heart jackhammering as I missed every shot. Likewise, I’ll never forget my first win, after thirty hours of learning and growing, carved into my memory forever. The feeling of screaming into my microphone to my teammate, jumping out of my computer chair and letting out a primordial howl of victory, tears in my eyes, body shaking. The feeling of surviving at all costs, at the expense of my prey. An ancient feeling that I had never felt before.
100 players are dumped on an 8x8km island. They have to find weaponry and kill each other. That’s the game. There are no respawns. Firefights are imminently lethal, health must be restored through relatively rare curative items, most combat happens at extreme distance, and most of the game is spent in complete silence. All the while, the play space becomes progressively smaller, forcing players into conflict. PUBG is proof that complexity can be birthed from purity of design. Though a shooter on it’s face, PUBG is at heart a strategy game.
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is a masterpiece of restraint.
There are no goofy hats or rocket launchers. The rare instance of picking up a sniper rifle feels like your first kiss. A gunshot in the distance can spike your heart rate into physically uncomfortable levels. The sound of a door opening nearby triggers a release of adrenaline that readies you for battle, your hands become ice cold, calculated. Laying in the grass and seeing a tiny dot of another player crossing a ridge is the difference between life and death. 90% of the time, not firing is the prudent move. At times, the game is monolithic, deafening in its quiet, just the sound of the breeze, and the hushed chatter of your teammate(s). The only core principle of the game is “don’t die.”
This game is certainly not the first to thrive on the tension built from the lack of respawning. PUBG surpasses its peers in that regard because, by necessity, only one player or squad can be left alive. The sensation of building and releasing tension is successful precisely because the odds are never in your favor. Winning, as it were, is a rare occurrence.
Because of its reductive design philosophy, PUBG slowly unfolds itself into a webway of highly logical meta-strategy. What starts as a high-tension fight for survival evolves into a chess match the longer you play. For example: Every door of every building (with a few exceptions) starts closed. Doors open? Somebody has been there, or is in there currently. Doors closed? Either the building in question has not been looted, or somebody entered the building and closed the doors behind them, and this is an ambush. You carefully open the door to the house, there is a gun lying on the ground, so clearly this house is empty. Unless a person is hiding around the corner and left that weapon there as bait. The metagame forces you to be constantly vigilant, constantly suspicious.
Aside from the meta-level of strategy, the in-the-moment tactics feel highly organic. An example: The omnipresent threat that is the circle of death, constantly growing smaller, is closing in on your squad. Only 12 players remain–that’s two other squads of four people. The circle centers over a wheat field with very little cover. You don’t see any movement, so the rocks in the distance most certainly have people hiding behind them–a no go. The only answer is to crawl into the playzone using the slight elevation of a hill in front of you for cover. You coordinate with your squad to throw a handful of smoke grenades adjacent to your position, a ruse to hide your desperate dash into a handful of bushes. You stand perfectly still, a ghost. 8 remaining. 6 remaining. You see movement, relay it to your teammates, and synchronize your firing. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
Like all strategy games, information and coordination are your greatest assets.
Knowing what, where, and how the players around you are moving is key. As such, the most important item you can find is a long-range scope. Finding an 8x, or the elusive 16x scope, drastically changes your tactical playbook. All of a sudden that hill you suspect to be sheltering enemies becomes clear as day. In combination with a long-range rifle, you can reach out and interact with those people. By the same principle, finding an M16 is nice–it keeps you safe at close range, but it’s nothing without optics. Sound is also a key factor. Playing the game without headphones is like playing with a blindfold, as binaural input is necessary to gauge the position and proximity of gunfire or footsteps.
Likewise, playing without a microphone in squad-play is equally suicidal. In terms of coordination and positioning, the team with the strongest communication and tactics, with a bit of luck, should win nine times out of ten. The beauty is that there is no “winning” strategy in any given situation. Equally important is using terrain to your advantage. A single tree or rock is your new best friend once you’ve been spotted. Hiding in the shadows, dead still, is a viable strategy. The greatest currency in the game is cover.
And when it comes time to fight, and it always comes, the combat is brutish and short. Gunfire–your enemy’s or your own–is terrifying and loud. A close-range battle is over in seconds. A long range exchange, a few more. Very rarely do you find yourself in a protracted standoff, because the exclusionary zone always hovers behind you. Somebody has to move.
As a multiplayer shooter, PUBG bucks about every trend we’ve seen over the past decade. There is no persistent equipment or unlocks, except for a bunch of shitty clothes you get from loot crates. There are no other game modes. No wall-running, knee sliding, or regenerative health. No baked-in squad positions. As of this writing, there is only one map (though there are plans for two more). However, it’s so confident in it’s core design that it doesn’t need anything else. It’s comfortable in its own skin, and given its rampant popularity, that comfort has payed off.
Yes, this is an Early Access game, and as such has issues. Crashing to desktop is infrequent, but happens. There are lag spikes from time to time. The jumping is muddy–you have to train yourself how to effectively hop over a knee-high fence. The infrastructure surrounding the game, the lobby, the matchmaking, etc., is barebones.
Insofar as this review is my recommendation to purchase, you need to be aware that this game is the definition of “rough around the edges.” That said, while PUBG might not be the best game ever, or even this year, I have never felt such a guttural and emotional impact from a video game.
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is a remarkably simple game that exalts and respects human ingenuity and our will to survive. Not only is it the most fun I have ever had playing a multiplayer game, it made me feel things no video game has ever made me feel before.