'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.