I came third in my first game of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), which is notable because I’ve never returned to those lofty peaks since. I’d seen some video of people playing, so I knew the basic gameplay loop. Drop from a plane onto an abandoned Soviet-era landscape, complete with brutalist apartments and windswept plains. Scrounge around for the weaponry and medical equipment scattered through farmhouses, lumber mills and bars, all the while dodging an ever-incroaching blue wall of death that drove me, and the other 99 players I was playing against, into the middle of the map. I met my end cowering the side of a small shack, with zero kills to my name.
I jumped back in after that and resolved to drop somewhere with more excitement. Really sink my teeth into how it felt to shoot a gun and respond to fire. I dropped on the roof of “the school”, a popular landmark that’s always a popular landing zone for players due to its density of lootable items.
I made it all of three metres before a shot rang out and I dropped. Alright, well, I’d been prepared for that. I hadn’t been prepared for it the next three times, however, which nearly led to me chucking my computer monitor out the window.
PUBG is often an exercise in frustration; the annoyance that your killer just happened to be looking in the right direction, or the sinking feeling of dropping in the building next to somebody and realising the house contains no way for you to fight back. The nature of the blue circle adds yet another spin of randomness, particularly when you’re forced to leave the place you anticipated you’d be able to hole up for the rest of the match and run across four-hundred metres of open field, due to no fault of your own. But that randomness is also part of its hook. Truly no fight is the same, which is a welcome change from the recent shooters I’ve been playing. Too often in Battlefield 1 will I die to the same person five times over, because they’ve got an excellent angle and a superior position. In PUBG, you die, and you’re done – you head back to the lobby to get back in the plane to drop somewhere else, likely kilometres away from the last place you died.
Frustration also comes from the early-access nature of PUBG. There are bugs aplenty, and a recent update rendered the game unplayable for over 48 hours before the developer, Bluehole, issued a bugfix. Many a run has been ruined by hitting a slight bump in terrain and watching my car spiral into the air, gracefully flip, and explode, with me inside, or simply leaving me stranded with an encroaching blue circle and nowhere else to run. The game lacks some fundamental elements of FPS/3PS gameplay, most notably some sort of contextual climb to get over the low fences that populate PUBGs map. Such a system is forthcoming. But the game’s jankiness often falls into the background because of my engagement with the gameplay itself.
The game is equal parts mundanity and terror. The initial drop gives you some semblance of who you’ll be surrounded by, enemy players visible in the distance, or circling underneath you, already with the time advantage when it comes to snatching that first (and likely, only) gun that spawns in the village below. After about three minutes, however, even that vague certainty disappears. Any building you approach could have somebody hiding in it, who knows that a shotgun, a bathroom, and patience is an easier way of gathering equipment than sprinting from house to house. The sound of a car in the distance, and its slow increase in volume as it gets closer and closer, is intimidating, and each gunshot in your direction is disorienting. However, there are often long moments of silence, broken only by the distant noise of gunfire or the sound of the air-drop plane that contains extremely deadly weaponry if you can fight through the stream of people heading towards it. I’ve had minutes of running or driving across fields and mountains, but that travel time doesn’t feel wasted like it does in an MMO. Every second I live, I get closer to winning, as the player count dwindles in the top-right corner.
The best way to punctuate those moments of silence is to play with friends. PUBG can be played solo, as a pair against other pairs, or in squad play, where people could be playing alone, or with up to three others. The game changes with cooperative partners – a knockdown mechanic means it’s easier to risk your life to reveal a final enemy of another squad, as long as you have the resources to get up and running again. More eyes can be pointed in more directions, so ambushes are less likely, provided everyone is paying attention.
There’s a sense of whimsy to multiplayer PUBG, a different mindset that I enter, where everything has slightly lower stakes. Until the endgame, however. Those last frantic moments where the circle begins shrinking to mere metres are much more tense with three others watching your every move. But that just makes it all the sweeter when you manage to pull off a win, with the whoops and cheers of your teammates filling your ears. The relatively short gameplay time compared to other competitive games with friends (looking at you, Dota 2) means a victory never feels like a slog It’s the same thrilling sensation of winning a game of sport. It’s true that most games are more fun with friends, but PUBG with people is almost a completely different game.
Both those games – individual play, tense 1v1 battles, free-for-all skirmishes, or cooperative gunslinging, re-enacting the best parts of Saving Private Ryan or other war movies – are extremely compelling. I’ve put over 150 hours into PUBG, and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. As long as the developers continue to fix the rampant bugs and develop the game’s fledgeling systems, I can see it being around for years to come.