The tension & elation of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

‘I don’t get it, it’s just a big deathmatch, right?’ is pretty much how I reacted to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds [official site] on first viewing. Following the route of other Hunger Royale and online survival games it seemingly arrived from nowhere, with a marketing campaign focused on partnerships with popular Twitch streamers to quickly build up a huge word of mouth following. PUBG (an inelegant but much required acronym) surged to the top of the Steam charts, where it has remained since entering early-access, racking up over 2 million sales in the process.

On a surface level it’s hard to grasp exactly why it’s so popular. This is a game people are purposefully running on minimum graphics settings for an all important FPS boost and as a result is fairly plain looking, if not ugly, while its collection of guns, pans and painkillers are standard enough fare. I understand the appeal now though. In more than 100 hours with the game, it has made me feel terrified more than any horror game, hands shaking as I cling to the scant cover provided by a lone tree. The flip-side of that intensity comes from a feeling of real satisfaction when you meet with success, squeals of elation have punctured the dawn as the game’s hooks drag me repeatedly past respectable hours.

One of the key things PUBG offers you is freedom, the freedom to make choices at every turn, rarely directed towards a goal other than ‘go near this place’ as you’re set loose on the large 8x8km map. All the while, the cleverly designed ring of doom mechanic and tempting care packages push players inexorably towards conflict. As such, it’s a game of decision making and tactics just as much as it is a game of shooting people with guns. The joy of PUBG is seeing how those decisions play out as they collide with the plans of other players. A seemingly innocuous choice can confine you to a deadly siege as the house you choose to loot, rest and recuperate in becomes an important strategic location on an ever-shrinking battlefield.

Rapid shifts in intensity are a hallmark of the game. You can be complacently looting a quiet hamlet one moment, only to find yourself besieged from all sides moments later. As the first bullet fired draws in combatants from every side, chaotic, multi-sided battles erupt to shatter your nerves as the player-count plummets. A single match can be twenty minutes of peaceful looting, abruptly ended by a shotgun blast to the face, or it can be chaos and carnage from beginning to end as you catapult from one crisis to the next. As such, you never know what to expect. As tension creeps, you start to second-guess your senses: is that a bush swaying in the breeze or a deadly sniper lining up a shot, and did I really just hear footsteps outside the door?

There are only two games I’ve ever played that have made me both want to hide in a cupboard and still keep playing. The first is System Shock 2. After triggering my first alarm while the tormented cries of the Hybrid echoed in my ear, begging me to kill them as they hunted for my flesh, the safety of that chemical storage cupboard will forever hold a place in my memory. The second is PUBG and an unassuming bungalow resting at the bottom of a valley offering much needed shelter. My time in that two-room bungalow saw it transformed from a well-placed refuge with decent sight-lines into what seemed like an ugly yellow coffin. Time and time again, teams (my co-op partner has been called away by the allure of pizza) attempted to breach my pitiful walls only to be struck down by snipers, or shot in the back, as I cowered in the bathroom waiting for a doom that never came. Eventually, I emerged into the daylight to steal victory at the last.

Played solo the tension can be almost unbearable at times, knowing that any tree could shelter a mean boy intent on taking what’s yours, that any minuscule hut could house a coward with a shotgun. Played with friends, PUBG is slightly more forgiving and takes on new elements as you adapt and create plans on the fly, with cross country road trips, ill-advised ambushes and desperate flights from the circle that land you smack bang in the middle of a running battle. If you’re particularly uninspired, you can even steal me and my duo partner’s ill-conceived plan which sees us attempting to stare out the men or women opposite us in the plane before the fight begins, then stalking them down to the surface in our parachutes for a particularly personal fistfight.

Even after so many hours with the game, I’m still encountering new situations and scenarios, and this is especially true when playing alongside others. A recent squad match saw us calmly staking out a beach while a team-mate was retrieving a distant boat to carry us to the map’s southern island. The noise of a car engine drew panicked shouts as we realised the vehicle was headed toward us. The car then flew over the crest of the hilltop I was standing on at full speed, almost flattening a team-mate as the bullets started to fly. It then screeched into a handbrake turn on the beach in front of us, I ran for a tree as four people exited the bullet-strewn vehicle, and my allies beside me fell to the onslaught of hot-lead that ensued.

The tree and my trusty Kar-98k sniper rifle turned out to be a particularly potent combination as adrenaline surged and I lined up two headshots, knocking half of the opposing squad to the ground. Yet I was pinned to my position and wounded, while the car provided the cover my adversaries needed to revive their fallen friends. My pulse quickened as I heard gunshots from the water and the two last foes fell. My last teammate was firing from the long-awaited boat in a ludicrously well-timed intervention and I breathed out again.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is of course not the only popular Hunger Royale game out there, but its combination of tactical gun-play and freedom of choice (particularly with the inspired parachute spawn mechanic Brendan has discussed set it apart from the more arcadey and fast-paced (but still wildly popular) H1Z1 King of the Kill and the faltering The Culling with its skill trees and viable melee. All three games offer something different to your standard shooter, taking aspects of what made DayZ such a breakout hit and combining them with the focus of Minecraft’s Hunger Games mods and, of course, PlayerUnknown’s own Arma 3 mod.

The loose goals, large sandbox and variety of play-styles used to earn victory help PUBG become more than the sum of its parts. It’s a tactical shooting sandbox, a story generator, and a horror game all in one, providing some of the highest highs in multiplayer gaming when the stars align and victory is earned. For me the only online gaming experience that comes close to the satisfaction and relief of winning a round in PUBG is a 50 minute MOBA victory. As a genre, Hunger Royale seems to be following in the footsteps of MOBAs from modification to gaming sensation, and PUBG may be the best example yet of why, making for a surprisingly enjoyable spectator sport too.

Korean developers Bluehole Inc. have so far shown themselves to be responsive to player feedback, with planned features involving a variety of custom modes and mod support as well as much needed bug-fixing and optimization. The only major criticism I have is that the circle of doom, while a clever mechanic, feels a little too random at the end-game, pushing players into taking ludicrous risks instead of allowing the time and space to play tactically. But at this stage Bluehole and PlayerUnknown have earned the benefit of the doubt that they know what they’re doing, and have indicated that they’re working on a solution.

The answer to the question at the top of this article then is “no”. This isn’t just deathmatch. It’s a clever hybrid that allows for creativity and complex tactics, for cowardice and cunning, sacrifice and bravery. Most of all though it’s the feelings it can elicit that set it apart, that rising tension building in your chest, that moment of zen calm as you line up the perfect shot, and the sense of real camaraderie gained from working in unison with a team of like-minded allies.

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29 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I feel like stories of this sort of game genre are about the same as stories from EVE.

    They’re fun, interesting, cool-sounding stories, but I know that if I actually tried to play the game they’re from, I’d be bored or frustrated in five minutes.

    I reckon it’s roughly how people regard my stories when I blather about Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft mods.

    • batraz says:

      That must be because it all happens inside your head. The game itself is only polygons, colors, geometry, physics, the stories we do tell ourselves, depending on the tastes and creativity we can put in this activity. Well, it all sounds so pretentious but it helps me understand how people would enjoy an elder scroll game for instance : because they manage to get stories out of this generic fantasy mess. Some games are almost movies, others are mere toy boxes, I came to understand.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      It sounds a lot like that yeah. Exceptionally dull, tedious, work occasionally paid off by some euphoric triumph. It’s another Skinner box.

    • Chewbacca says:

      The difference is in EVE you need to farm and grind for days/weeks/months before you can actually take part in one of these epic stories while in PUBG, each story takes at max. 20 minutes or so. Some stories may end shortly after you landed but at least you can immediately start again. There is basically no downtime and very little just getting from A to B like in DayZ (thankfully there is an AutoRun-Button though).

  2. TeePee says:

    I’ve literally picked this up today, and despite a preference for co-op over PvP, the lure of hunter-being-hunted gameplay appeals to my inner mountain man, and in the games I’ve played so far, my tendency to grab enough gear to defend myself and then run as far away from civilization as possible for as long as the circles of doom will allow me to has paid off pretty well.
    I do feel I’d enjoy it a lot more with friends, although sadly not many on my friends list have it, and without wishing to be disrespectful to fans of the genre, I’m a little reluctant to run the gauntlet of looking for randoms to play with bearing in mind what I’ve seen of the fanbase so far and my past experiences with DayZ.

    • Premium User Badge

      Otamono says:

      I thought so aswell, but tou should really check out the discord server! You’ll find a group formyour region in no time, and all encounters were at the very least interesting. And I normaly dont like to socialize, especially over games in the internet. Give it a try!

    • ColonelFailure says:

      I prefer co-op over PVP every day of the week, but when playing with friends the game takes on a co-op feel most definitely. Despite being absolutely hopeless at the game, every group adventure we go on is great fun.

      I offer exhibit A (YouTube) which while shameless self promotion is very much a demonstration of this effect.

      (Hey mod friends, I don’t mind if you gank the link. It’s at least on topic…)

    • Chewbacca says:

      I personally wouldn’t play with randoms. The communication is key here and usually doesn’t work with randoms. But also keep in mind that Solo, Duo and Group Matches play out completely differently! There is a huge difference in winning a Solo 1v1 and winning a Duo or especially Team 1v1. Completely different tactics are valid for each mode. So far I enjoyed all of them while Solo and Duo are my favorites as I feel that they reward good shooting the most. In Team you can win a 1vs2 but then get killed by the 3rd or 4th in their team.

  3. LewdPenguin says:

    Circle pacing is something I’ve heard discussed a few times, and from my limited exposure to the game it does seem that for squad games at least it may benefit from a slight slowdown to allow a little extra time for some more of the tactical team fights to play out, before some/all of those involved have to leg it from the circle.
    That said it’s such a fundamental part of the game I understand a reluctance to to start tinkering with it too soon, especially when so much else is still being changed/fixed, plus a more hectic feel to each round is also I think a very deliberate choice, PUBG sits a long way towards H1Z1 from A3BR, simply because that’s where the mass market is.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Maybe replace it with an ever marching army of zombies (or deathbots or whatever), so if you were well armed you could survive on the edge for a while, but you’d be in a tough spot if you were pinned down by another player at the same time.

  4. Vegas says:

    This is a great write-up, you’ve captured everything I love about this game.

    Though “hunger royale?” Come on, it was Battle Royale first and it was still Battle Royale when it was adapted for the YA crowd. There’s not even a love triangle!

  5. Flopper says:

    This game does terrify the crap out of me. I’ve been playing shooters since the 90s. I’ve played them all. Nothing has ever made my mouse hand shake. This game does. haha I love it.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Syt says:

    I saw the streams of this game and wanted to try it, too, because it looked great fun. However, after struggling with the sluggish controls for 90 minutes I decided to refund it. I’ll rather watch other people play it. :)

  7. allthingslive says:

    “The flip-side of that intensity comes from a feeling of real satisfaction when you meet with success, squeals of elation have punctured the dawn as the game’s hooks drag me repeatedly past respectable hours.”

    … did a man write that?

  8. Jabberslops says:

    On a scale of CoD to Arma, where does the gun-play sit for PUBG? I’ve been thinking about buying it but I’m reluctant because I hate how the Arma series plays and controls. If it’s more similar to Battlefield 3 then I’d probably buy it.

    • ZALPLAYS says:

      @Jabberslops Twitch and Youtube videos is your best friend here. But id say its a semi realistic shooter. Not as complex and advanced as Arma, not as arcadey as COD. Id say its close, not the same but close to BF3. Go into Twitch and see how the bullet drops and recoil works.

    • cheese lol says:

      It really sits at the midpoint between the two. The controls have about as much complexity as a standard shooter, but the game simulates body awareness to a degree which gives it a clumsy feeling. It does simulate ballistics and bullet drop, but it’s only important to the point that your weapons aren’t hit-scan. The shooting feels more similar to STALKER than anything else I’ve played (which precludes BF as a point of comparison), or perhaps arcade-ARMA.

    • PoulWrist says:

      The gunplay is somewhere around Battlefield 3, but with more arcady recoil. Bullets have a travel period and you need to lead shots. Weapons are also effective at different ranges because of damage dropoff.
      There’s also a substantial amount of recoil to most guns that makes it drastically less efficient to spray and pray. When the performance is increased and the netcode is sharpened, I’d say it has the potential to be quite good. Right now though performance issues drag it down a bit.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Minsc_N_Boo says:

    While I have no great desire to play this at the moment (I don’t “do” early access) I am really enjoying watching other people play it.

    Sips, Pyrion Flax and the Yogscast have all been getting my views. I might jump in when it actually gets a proper release.

    • dagnamit says:

      Then you might be waiting a while, though this game has serious legs and will be popular for a long time to come.

      For what it’s worth, this game doesn’t really need a proper release. In fact, I can’t think of any games anymore that don’t get patched. It’s perfectly playable as is and much functional than some $60 AAA games that get released, like Dishonored 2, The Division, and Batman, games that had a “proper” release. And this one is just $30. So I guess what I’m saying is that it’s worth your money right now in its current state. Which is, the core game play is super polished and fun. The performance is middling and the lag issues come and go. That said, the fun outweighs all of that by a fair margin. You should buy it. It’s really fun.

      • bobedylan says:

        Lol… Nah not even close sorry. The game looks awful and runs like total garbage for majority of people. A 1080 ti can barely get a stable 60 fps which is a joke, especially for what you’re claiming. It can be fun but needs serious work still

        • Chewbacca says:

          A 1080 Ti can’t get 60 fps stable? I have a 970 and get 60+ fps on High. Playing on Low though for better visibility (which is shame but common for these type of games on PC). I got a i7 4790k and I heard that the game is also very heavy on CPU so the bottle neck may not be the graphics card.

          • PoulWrist says:

            Changing settings didn’t do much for me. My framerate sits between 30ish and 60ish at 3440×1440 on a RX 480. I tried dropping the resolution, but it didn’t do anything noticable. So I’d say there’s something about optimisation that’s required here.

            Also, this game certainly will get better later down the line. Performance on both client and server is right now not very good.

      • Alternate says:

        “Its perfectly playable”
        Nah. It’s not. Needing a 1000$ PC to get them juicy 60fps is a bit too much to ask for, lots of optimisation needs to be done – also, my game just crashes randomly.
        “and much [more] functional than some $60 AAA games that get released”… and?
        Firstly: there are WAY much more AAA titles which are WAY better than this game. Secondly: Does that mean any developer is allowed to throw out unfinished games because some black sheep in the scene already do it?

        Yes, the game is loads of fun, but that’s due to the principle behind it, and one or two things it does better than H1Z1. Not because of its great netcode, incredible optimisation or awesome engine. It is not bad, but far away from a proper release. For that we need tons upon tons of bugfixes (flashes are somewhat broke, weird fps drops on higher settings when somebody shoots, etc etc), one or two maps more, maybe a bit more of loot, better vehicle mechanics (although they tweaked a lot, still laggy as fuck as a passenger – and handling just sucks) and so on and so on.

  10. Premium User Badge

    EasyStar says:

    Just wanted to chime in here quick to say: this article both made me feel significantly more interested in PUBG and similar games, and gave me a bit of an itch to do some games writing myself. So, thanks for that, Michael Johnson

  11. theirongiant says:

    Glad RPS took another look at PUBs, it is far too good of a game to be dismissed out of hand. One thing that stands out is the comment about running it on low settings, raising the settings moves some process from CPU to the graphics card, so a degree of tuning is required to get it running at the highest settings you can while maintaining a good fps.

    It’s a great game though, far more so with a group of friends than in solo, for me it takes everything I enjoyed about DayZ, removes the running simulator element and distills it down into a 20-30 minute rock of pure gaming crack. Protip: try landing near the West bridge between the two main islands, get geared up and set an ambush on the bridges, if the circle gods are kind to you, at some point you’ll get a steady flow of traffic racing to get to the safe zone. When it works out right it’s glorious.

    Special shoutout to the developers, this seems to be a case of early access done right, daily hotfixes, weekly patches and big monthly updates getting pushed out with regularity along with the urgency with which game affecting bugs are addressed is hugely impressive and give a lot of confidence in the 6 month release target.

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