Every week we dump Brendan out the back of a plane and into the hotbed of gunfire that veterans know only as ‘early access’. This week, the competitive murderfields of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds [official site].
I’m halfway across the river when the net starts closing in. A huge electric field looms up behind me, sparkling and fizzing and nipping at my heels as I swim for my life. Having just dodged a player driving by in his jeep, I was now going to die of wounds slowly inflicted over time by the game itself, simply for not being in the right place. I kicked and swam, even as the electric field overtook me and my screen started to slowly bleed. If I didn’t reach the safe zone soon – marked by a white circle on the mini-map, I’d be dead. Oh well, I figured, there are less interesting ways to go.
This is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the new ‘Battle Royale’ game from Bluehole and Brendan Greene, the developer behind Arma’s battle royale and H1Z1’s King of the Hill. But if you’re hoping for something a little fresh from one of the format’s experienced progenitors, turn now and walk sadly away. There’s absolutely nothing here of novelty. It’s just another shooter on a big map.
As such, there isn’t much to explain. After a gathering screen, you are thrust onto a plane with 99 other players, where you’ll skydive out onto the 8km x 8km island below. Depending on what you’ve picked on the menu screen, you’re all either fighting solo or murdering it out in groups of two or four. Seeing where people drop and picking your own safe and uncrowded landing spot is the first major challenge. Actually, strike that. The first major challenge is making it through the airplane ride.
The trademark title of the game puts everything in capitals – PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS – as if the game itself is shouting at you, a fitting moniker for a game in which all players spend the first 30-60 seconds in the plane screaming at each other like a bus full of children on their way to a borstal. There’s bad singing, racial slurs, meaningless squealing. It is like some chemistry genius filtered and distilled all the toxicity from online gaming into a single aluminium cylinder. You can mute the whole place as soon as you appear, and I suggest that you do.
Once you’re out and soaring through the air, the desire is to find a place with equipment and supplies. Guns, in other words. There are first aid kits and grenades of differing types, as well as clothes and the obligatory motorcycle helmets, but what you really want is a good old-fashioned AK, or an M16. The rush for these weapons isn’t as frantic as in H1Z1, I found. If you drop into a peaceful area with no other ‘contestants’ you’ll easily survive long enough to find a good firearm, and possibly even a scope, special magazine, or some other kind of attachment. Backpacks and helmets have different levels, clearly stated when you stand by them, allowing you to hold more or withstand more damage if you get shot in the bonce, something that’d otherwise straight-up kill you.
Within minutes, the game starts warning you to move. A circle on your map denotes the next safe zone (and a red area denotes a place about to be bombed by planes). In this case, “safe zone” means somewhere you can exist where the game won’t zap you for standing around, as opposed to an actual place of safety. Like its older brothers, Battlegrounds wastes no energy or thought by leaving it up to you whether to team up or kill people you meet. The aim is always to kill. This isn’t DayZ or the Division’s dark zone, where there are advantages and disadvantages to attacking another player. This is vanilla, kill-em-all elimination. This has always been a sad thing for the genre, I’ve found, since it makes no new demands of the players and introduces nothing to the “game” of survival that we have not seen before. Battle royales done in this way will always tend towards, or simply be, a deathmatch without the benefit of concise level design.
But there’s plenty of people who are up for that, clearly. The loud swarms of players in Battlegrounds must be at least partly composed of those fed up with H1Z1. But what they expect to find here of note, I’m not sure. Maybe the appeal is that this is more or less the same thing, but with a new map? Maybe everyone just thinks that this time - this time – the game will actually be finished. I don’t know. I joined up expecting something a little fresher or different. I should have expected the game's narrow-mindedness the moment it wouldn't accept my nickname.
There are times of tension and excitement, like in any hunger game. The reason I was swimming for my life, for example, was because a flashed warning informed me that in 30 seconds the noose would tighten. But there was a bay to cross. The only way over was a steel bridge some 500 meters or so away, and just reaching that bridge would actually take me back towards the edge of the now-closing circle of death. I had to make a choice – run for the bridge and pray, or jump in the water and swim.
As it turned out, you swim verrrryy sloooowllyyyy. But it was still enough of a head start. I made it to the next safe zone, hurt but alive, and just in time to see the next warning flash up and start running for my life all over again. There were 18 people left alive at this point, and I hadn’t even been in a shootout with anyone yet.
That would change within a few minutes, as the sound of an unseen car came from a nearby compound. The engine stopped and I saw the vehicle (empty, quiet) before I saw the driver (crouching, shooting). I was peppered with bullets and became the 13th-last person to die.
In squads I died much more quickly, a result of the over-confidence of groups and speed at which a gang of four can hoover up all the goodies in a house and move onto the next. There’s tension there too; you might be gathering up some new boots, just for kicks, when suddenly a shot rings out. This is something the game does well – the sound of distant gunfire. But how distant? A second flurry of shots ring out, this time closer. Everyone gets ready, looking at the horizon to the south. But then, out of the west, a jeeps zooms in and empties four angry men behind the cover of an old warehouse. Whoever it was that was shooting to the south will now hear, in the distance, the shots that spell your own death.
But even these life-by-life climaxes can’t really change what this is: another battle royale game with nothing original to say. Given the chance to inject some life into a genre that is fast losing all its novelty, Bluehole and PlayerUnknown have seemingly decided to shrug and just do “more of the same”. For many, that’s enough. But I’m looking for a more interesting way to die.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is out on Steam for £26.99/$29.99. These impressions are based on build 1710141