Black Ops 4: Blackout has polish. Fortnite has the entire teenage population of North America playing it. In the past, I've said that what's been leaving PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) behind in the dust is one particular sticking point: it didn't have a unique perk. It was a pure experience, for better and for worse. And yet, I've been blind to something key about it in all the hundreds of hours I've sunk into it over the past almost-two years: its multiple, rich maps.
At the Game Awards last week, developers PUBG Corp. revealed the newest map to join Sanhok, Erangel, and Miramar in PUBG. It's the long-anticipated snow map, a map we've known about since Miramar was first teased as the "desert map" what feels like a lifetime ago. On Friday, PUBG also came to PS4, nearly one year after its timed exclusive debut on Xbox One consoles. Nevertheless, the wider response around the web on this corner of the Earth has been muted as it coincided with Fortnite entering its seventh season, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout being on the cusp of a new update this week, and more. It's made me wonder: has PUBG's time passed?
One Year Ago
Let's rewind to one year ago, when PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was on top of the world. At The Game Awards, it revealed that it was finally exiting Early Access, entering 1.0, and getting its new map immediately in test servers to widespread applause. Little did PUBG Corp. know, it was the beginning of a long and trying year.
Ever since that fall, Fortnite was following close behind. If you were to play a game of PUBG and Fortnite back to back, you'd probably scoff at the idea of them being considered in the same breath—they feel totally different, with one sole thing in common: it's last person standing takes all. PUBG is for the more serious-minded, shooter-concerned gamer, whereas Fortnite is seen as for casuals and teens, or the people who really liked building stuff in Minecraft. In late 2017, Fortnite began to explode. Then in the beginning of 2018, rapper Drake streamed Fortnite, and it seemed to quadruple in popularity; it was like a wake up call for the rest of the world with the collective thought of oh, this is the game everyone's playing.
And what was PUBG up to at this time? Miramar released, and was panned by fans. The map was too hard to drive across, it didn't have enough shelter; it was too different from the core PUBG experience that made it such a hit across most of 2017. The newer maps have been subsequently patched into unrecognizable shells of what they were at launch: once rough around the edges and notably different from the forested euro-landscape of Erangel. Now they're closer to Erangel, the platonic ideal PUBG map for most fans. PUBG also released its Xbox One version in December 2017 in very rough shape, lagging behind its PC counterpart. The Xbox One version has since hit 1.0 too, and is now at sorta-parity with PC, its previously rough controls now much-improved.
Still, PUBG was plagued with issues, from cheating to matchmaking to everything in-between. In August 2018, PUBG Corp. kicked off its "Fix PUBG" campaign in an effort to address all the issues players had—from character optimization to improving the server tick rate. It was so prominent of a campaign, that whenever I logged into PUBG during that time there was a banner on the lobby screen with "Fix PUBG" emblazoned on it. PUBG Corp. meant business.
Three months later, the campaign sorta-ended (at least through the timeline set), though some of the changes promised were left unfulfilled. On the Fix PUBG website, a lot of promises for the three-month timespan remain greyed out, marked as in-progress. In all likelihood, all these "fixes" were too much to accomplish in a short, three month timespan. And it's not like it's all a lost cause either; the long anticipated parachute rework launched yesterday, December 10, on a Test Server. While Fix PUBG as a campaign itself was a half-bust, it encouraged its developers to be more transparent with its players about what was changing with PUBG, which it should have been all along.
With its new PS4 release, I was curious if it would repeat the same mistakes as it did on Xbox One, or learn from them. The result is a mix of both: PUBG feels fine on PS4. It's not a disaster as it was with the Xbox One launch, even if it's still not the ideal way to play. Yes, textures take awhile to load in; and while the inventory management and control layout is considerably better, it's still cumbersome. Some animations look almost last-last-gen, beckoning to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox era. Still, there's something satisfying about racking up kills on the players who seemingly aren't in tune with the console version; I snuck up on one person who was sniping people with a VSS (oh, honey). But on a console where I can easily pop into Fortnite or Blackout, two battle royales that are far better tuned to a console audience, PUBG still feels unfit and unoptimized for console; PC remains its rightful and only home.
To Vikendi, And Beyond
And that brings us to PUBG's new map, Vikendi. Vikendi is the long-awaited "snow" map, and snowy it damn well is. (And luckily, it's not all coated in snow either!) It even has its own exclusive ghillie suit straight out of the gate—something that took months to come to Miramar's desert. Vikendi's a much more intricate map than any of its predecessors. Its size rests between most of the maps at 6x6, making it not too big nor too small. Walking or driving (such as in a new snowmobile) in the snow leaves tracks, but they disappear after awhile. Traveling through snow regardless is a crunchy, loud sound, making the eerie still of PUBG even harder to come by—and thus more interesting. Playing Vikendi on Test Servers over the weekend brought to mind how I felt when I dropped into Miramar for the first time, before it was patched into oblivion. This feels like a new PUBG experience. It's exciting.
Early reactions to Vikendi seem largely positive too. On PUBG's subreddit, people excitedly have been posting about the new ability to look at your weapons (press J, and you pull it in close), as well as the best thing about it: it's a good map. Sanhok and Miramar were both hit with criticism almost immediately out of the gate, and Vikendi's shaping up to almost be the exception to the rule. It's a map that's hard to dislike.
PUBG Corp., at last, seems to be listening to its audience, fixing what needs to be fixed (and taking its time where it needs to). That extends to the design of Vikendi, too, a map that's bigger than Sanhok yet smaller than the other two, which makes for an experience that blends intensity with strategy. The snow itself even adds more depth to the usual traversal with footprints and vehicle tracks thrown into the mix.
But even with PUBG's chief success—a wide variety of maps—there is something sterile about them. They never shift, except for when players have complaints about a lack of buildings or something. Surprises are never dropped in, just for the sake of surprises. The maps, as they are when they enter the Test Servers, remain conceptually intact through and through. PUBG is not one for funny business like its battle royale brethren Fortnite and Call of Duty.
It's a shame, too, because despite the nice medley of maps, I wish there were some surprise awaiting me in PUBG. I think that's one of the big reasons why it's slowly fallen out of my regular rotation, even after being my most-played game of last year. While PUBG will always be easy to go back to, like a comfort food almost, it's maybe a bit too cozy, a bit too safe. At least for now, there are surprises awaiting me in the mysterious map that is Vikendi. And I'm sure eventually, people will find problems with it, buildings will be dropped in aplenty, and soon it will become another Erangel skin. In the meantime, I'll brave this sparse blizzard while it lasts.