PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is straightforward. Dump 100 players onto a map, tell them that only one person can win, and watch them tear each other apart. It is brutal and base, violent and wonderful. It’s a game that could only be made in 2017, for better or worse.
Battlegrounds, which officially launched on PC this week after a year in early access, is a mutt, shaped together from clumsy pieces into something greater than the sum of its parts. Developer Brendan Greene first tested the waters of battle royale with 2013’s Dayz Battle Royale. DayZ itself was an Arma 2 mod, turning Battle Royale into a heap of mechanics and experimentation. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is the end result, inheriting all of the freewheeling excitement and technical troubles of its forebears. But greatness often comes from humble beginnings: Within Battlegrounds’ tangle of adventure and roughness is a game that rightfully defines on of the year’s fastest-growing genres.
At the start of every Battlegrounds’ match, 100 players (either fighting in a free-for-all, teamed up in pairs, or assembled in four person squads) leap from the cargo hold of an airplane and parachute down into a massive map of cities, ruins, camps, and wilderness. All they need to do to win is survive. Surviving colours everything that follows. As players gather weapons and loot from around the map, they start killing each other. Some choose to hide in lone shacks or rush off into the wasteland. Some take to major cities and immediately open fire on whoever they see. To ensure players face off, a circle forms on the map. Players outside the circle take damage, and the circle shrinks at regular intervals until it is smaller and smaller. There is no hiding in Battlegrounds, not forever. If you are playing, you will be forced to meet another player. You will have to decide what to do in order to survive.
There is no wrong way to play Battlegrounds as long as you survive. Each new match is an invitation to experiment and find the best way to end up on top. Sometimes, luck forces your hand. You drop into an apartment complex that you believe is teeming with loot only to end up with a pistol and some bandages. In these moments, you will either adapt to the occasion or perish. In the moments when you do find yourself with a selection of weapons or other items, you’re free to explore the possibilities, like a mad dash towards the safest areas, mowing down those in your path. Or you can keep to the fringe and take potshots on the survivors of recent firefights. Both the wolf and the vulture can find victory in Battlegrounds; it’s up to the player to discover which they are and what tactics work best for them.
Gunplay in Battlegrounds models itself after hardcore military simulation games. Each weapon has a unique shot pattern, recoil, reload time, and potential modifications. Combat demands focus; controlling your bursts, leading your aim, and taking time to find the right position are essential to success. While it is initially daunting, time and experience turn players into hardened e-warriors who react naturally to the needs of each new gunfight.
Battlegrounds’ more realistic aspirations never come to pass. It has the veneer of simulation but the sensibilities of an arcade. Scopes, magazines, and attachments feel more like powerups than pieces of tactical gear, and the raw chaos of each fight means that Battlegrounds feels less like 100-man SOCOM and more like a Contra deathmatch, with swathes of bullets pinging the landscape. It never quite feels right to pull a trigger in Battlegrounds-guns are always a little lighter to control than the beefy sound design implies-and while that sense of unpredictability is crucial to creating tension, it occasionally robs the experience of focus. Battlegrounds is always on the edge of live-fire exercise and a child’s game of cops and robbers, and it never reconciles those disparate halves into a cohesive whole.
The true secret to Battlegrounds success rest outside of the firefights, in the game world itself. Knowing where to be and how to get there is far more important than understanding how to properly fire a weapon. Learning each map means understanding exactly what stands between two cities, knowing the densest forest to find cover in, and deciding the best direction to push an encamped position. The game’s default map of Erangel is a mix of dilapidated Eastern European houses and forest glades. It requires slow, methodical movement. Play long enough and you’ll know which divot is the best to hide in outside of Mylta power plant or which the trees south of Pochinki cast the perfect shadows. Conversely, the newly-added desert map of Miramar demands a faster pace. You’ll learn that slightly to the south of the cemetery is a ridge that overlooks the city of Pecado that is perfect for scouting before you move in and that some of the best loot in city isn’t in the gym but actually in the gutters. The appeal of Battlegrounds’ maps isn’t just that they offer diverse battlefields to fight on, but that they also offer land and space to know just as comfortably as your neighbourhood.
As you understand the world around you, you become aware of the various changes that signal another player’s passing. Hand-emptied piles of loot, a door left open, a smattering of boxes that showcase where dead bodies left their gear, and—most importantly—a footfall sounding in your ear. Battlegrounds demands a intimate sense of place, and while the thrill of surviving a gunfight is intoxicating, examination reveals that map knowledge and awareness win fights long before the first bullet is even fired. The real beauty comes from the long game and its devious sequence of leap-frogging movement, pauses to identify the direction of distant gunfire, and strategic placement within or even outside the dreaded player-damaging circle. Battlegrounds’ maps are not as bright or vibrant as other game worlds’, but they demand a player’s attention unlike any other.
The combination of slightly clumsy gunplay and engrossing, attentive navigation combine into a powerful experience. Refining one or the other allows players to survive longer. The sheer number of combatants makes any victory feel like a massive triumph, and the joy of coming in first place to win a “chicken dinner” is unlike any other experience across video games. Getting into the final handful of players causes the heart to race and hands to shake; winning is an astounding release of built up pressure, a catharsis so profound that I’ve heard squadmates scream with orgasmic glee. Battlegrounds is a game about wrestling accomplishment from the grips of chaos. No two matches are ever the same; there are too many variables to track and swerves the action can take. Players return not only for the chance to win but also simply to see what unthinkable, random nonsense will happen.
Battlegrounds is a tremendous game, but its technical problems threaten to ruin the experience. Server stability remains a major issue, with players rubberbanding and teleporting back to their previous locations as their movements are not properly read by the server. Disconnections and lag spikes are common, separating squads and interrupting battle. In early access, these random bouts of technical absurdity could be written off as occasionally funny byproducts of a developing game. Now that the game is released they feel particularly invasive, popping up at the most inopportune moments to break the flow of gameplay. Sillier glitches like cars launching into the air are charming, but it’s another matter altogether when it takes multiple attempts for a team to join a match without one of them getting lost in the ether. In the most dramatic cases, servers shut off entirely or are taken offline for unscheduled maintenance, prompting yet another apology from the game’s official Twitter account. Throughout development, Battlegrounds has added numerous features. There is a robust replay mode, the ability to climb and vault over obstacles, and more. The one thing that hasn’t materialised is a game that can be played reliably.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is the most 2017 game of 2017. It is an anxious event where conflict can explode at any moment, a terrifying spectacle where unstoppable and indifferent factors conspire to push us ever closer to destruction. We enter this world with the hope of conquering it, and we find some sense of control and stability among the confusion. To play Battlegrounds is to be party to a few unfortunate forms of fetishization, chief among them the fetishisation of military hardware—it’s a strange thing when your leisure activity leads to a casual discussion about the merits of different bullet calibers. None of this is a point against Battlegrounds, but it’s telling that 2017’s most impactful game is a playable version of the fascist bloodsport from a 1999 Japanese horror novel.
And yet, in spite of technical flaws and the dreary mirror it holds up to us, Battlegrounds in consistently enjoyable and surprising. There is a reason why it is the battle royale game. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds isn’t the most technically capable or mechanically complex game, but it is laser focused on delivering excitement. My coworker Gita Jackson called Battlegrounds “the video game that your aunt has always imagined you play when you say that you play video games.” It’s as perfect a summation as any. Battlegrounds is exactly what it wants to be and, love it or hate it, that honesty makes for a remarkable game that changed multiplayer forever.