It's interesting how arbitrary this line is. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) has finally launched into its 1.0 release, leaving Steam Early Access behind. The game is not done. It not done in the same way Final Fantasy XV isn't done, getting an entire year's worth of additions and tweaks with still more on the horizon. It's an ongoing project like last year's wunderkind game Overwatch, which continues to get new characters, new maps, and endless balance changes. A lot of games these days are never done. They can be played and enjoyed, but developers can always add more, change this, remove that.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds sold 30 million copies before leaving Steam Early Access. From the March launch until now, 30 million people have purchased the game on Steam and Xbox One. They paid money and enjoyed a game that was not done, is not done, and will not be done. It is modern game development; an endlessly changing scaffold around a rough gameplay core. The game you play today will be different from the one you play a year from now and years beyond.
So this review is a snapshot in time, as modern game reviews have to be.
PUBG is a battle royale game. 100 players parachute down to an island with no weapons other than their bare fists. Once on the island, they have to scavenge whatever weapons they can pick up and use those weapons to kill anyone else they come across. The goal is to be the last man standing. Killing others is helpful, but the real goal is to survive. PUBG has defined this genre.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds works because it keeps a player operating at a low-level of tension for a match's entire run time. (Around 20-30 minutes.) In the beginning of a match, you're worried about other players landing near you; it's a mad scramble to arm yourself before you see anybody else coming through a door or around a corner. "The Circle" focuses each match, shrinking the available area of play. Stay outside of the circle and you die. The battlefield gets smaller as players gain more resources; generally, the folks you run into at the end are the most skilled, well armed, and luckiest ones in your match. Die and you're dropped back into the lobby to do it all again. Win and you're rewarded with the trademark "Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner" line.
It's a pretty simple system. PUBG isn't even the first game to have a version of it. Creator Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene made his first Battle Royale game—so named because of the inspiration taken from Kinji Fukusaku's film adaptation of the novel Battle Royale—as a mod for ArmA 2 and DayZ. He updated the mod for ArmA 3 and acted as a consultant for Daybreak's H1Z1: King of the Kill. That's just the battle royale-style games Greene was involved in. Minecraft had a mod inspired by the Hunger Games in 2012 that worked in a similar manner.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds isn't the first battle royal game and it won't be the last. You don't have to be first to leave your mark on the industry though. World of Warcraft borrowed from the reigning massively multiplayer online game of its day, Everquest. League of Legends is based heavily on the Defense of the Ancients mod for Warcraft 3. Neither was the first, but they defined their genres for an industry. They became the benchmarks, a part of the shareed lexicon when we talk about games. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is the battle royale benchmark.
PUBG doesn't have a ton of content. There are around 32 weapons in the game and a good third of those most players won't see. The list of armor is pretty small and most clothing is cosmetic. At launch, the game has two maps. (It did have weather, but that system was removed for 1.0.)
It doesn't matter though. The maps are huge and unless you've spent hundreds of hours in the game, you probably don't know every inch of them. PUBG is a game that teaches players to adapt to whatever they see in front of them or hear nearby. Something as simple as a door being open or closed creates a sense of dread. You can run across a field and then immediately go prone because you hear the crack of a far off rifle. Even when you've found a good spot to hide, you never feel safe. That's why you can spend minutes seeing no one, but never feel bored. And tension ramps up until that moment when you meet another player and—pop, pop, BOOM—one of you survives the encounter. Even then, the noise of your fight probably gave someone your position, so you feel the need to loot the body and run.
There's a weird dichotomy in PUBG that you never feel a deep sense of loss and frustation in dying, but you feel a large amount of joy from winning. Dying tends to lead to you going, "Damn, that was a good run" and trying again. Winning leads to you going, "DAMN, that was a great run!" and trying again. Failure or success, PUBG lends itself to trying again. It doesn't have a lot in the terms of content, but everything it does have adds up to every match being wildly different. The lack of tons of maps, different character types, and hundreds or weapons actually works for PUBG. It feels pure, with a very low barrier to entry.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds isn't perfect though. Aesthetically, it feels like ArmA, the game Greene was originally modding for. It's a bit too realistic to really be interesting. The performance can vary at times. You'll see rubberbanding, with players snapping back to earlier locations, especially in the new desert map of Miramar. There are physics glitches, with players and vehicles flying through the air because of a bad clip. PUBG can occasionally crash, though it's only happened to me twice. It feels janky in terms of movement, especially when it comes to the relatively-new vaulting mechanic.
I also dislike the game's specific method of doling out cosmetic gear. I'm not completely down on the idea of loot boxes, but I feel like I get less out of PUBG's crates than most games. That's probably because opening one of your earned crates to get a black t-shirt of a pair of khakis just isn't exciting. The special crates are more interesting, but require paid keys in order to open. I tried to dive into the system a bit during the Gamescom Invitational, but generally, I just avoid the whole system altogether.
So PUBG has problems. I acknowledge this. I think it'll always feel a little bit janky. Despite all that, I've played this game since April 4, 2017 and had a blast for most of that time. Even if PUBG is eventually surpassed—I'm still waiting on a Japanese developer to game a battle royale game with an interesting aesthetic—the game will still retain its spot in gaming history. It might not be the game that established the battle royale genre, but it is the game that codified and popularized it.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is easy to get into, but hard to master. It's tense without feeling like a pitched, high-speed battle all the time. Even just watching someone else play is entertaining and brings up the same feelings as you playing yourself.
Which brings us back to the arbitrary nature of it all. I could've written this review yesterday or last month and it would've been mostly the same. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is the most consistent fun I've had all year and that doesn't change whether the patch number is 1.0 or 0.9.
PUBG is such a pure and fun experience that it overcomes its many flaws. There are glitches, there are crashes, there is jank. The game will probably never be fully done. But parachuting down onto that island feels new and exciting every time. A number of simple ideas comes together to make a great game and establish a great genre.
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