Despite the unwieldy name, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds landed on Steam Early Access with a big splash. Borrowing mechanics from games that came before it, like DayZ and H1Z1, Battlegrounds focuses on what made those games fun while cutting out the dull downtime.
The result is a fast-paced competitive survival shooter with a heavy reliance on combat tactics that is sure to leave you with a good story or two to share with others.
From ARMA mod to stand-alone game
Battlegrounds lacks any story or single-player campaign because it has its roots in a multiplayer mod for ARMA 2, a meticulously realistic military shooter sim for PC. The mod was called DayZ and took place on a large island where players would have to survive against roaming zombies and the potential threat of other players.
Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene worked on versions of this popular mod and some standalone games that cropped up as a result of its popularity, eventually landing himself at developer Bluehole to create what would become PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.
A better battle royale
Battlegrounds is considered a "battle royale" game, which means it features survival and competitive multiplayer mechanics. In Battlegrounds, in each match 100 players parachute onto a large island from a plane that cuts across the map from a random direction. Your goal is to be the last person standing. Players choose when to jump from the plane, and immediately upon landing, begin the mad dash to find weapons and armor.
Whether you're running desperately toward the play space or in a firefight with another player, Battlegrounds never lowers the tension.
The map is tremendous and it's entirely possible for players to land in secluded areas, even with 99 other people in the game. But Battlegrounds forces confrontation by slowly shrinking the play space with a circular field of toxic gas that closes in on a random location of the map.
This simple premise cuts out the excessive downtime of crafting items, worrying about hunger or thirst meters, and the need to hunt down players found in earlier battle royale games by herding players closer and closer together.
The game quickly picks up pace as the play space continues to shrink. The safe zone, marked by a white circle, will show up around a random location in each match while a wider blue circle will tighten around the white circle. Then it starts over again as the white circle shrinks and the blue circle follows, picking up speed as the match goes on. Any players caught outside the blue circle will take continuous damage.
You'll need to keep a constant on your position relative to this danger zone, so no place is ever safe for long. Whether you're running desperately toward the play space, or you're in a firefight with another player, Battlegrounds never lowers the tension.
Cars and motorcycles can be found for quick transit, helpful for outrunning a quickly encroaching blue field of death or for getting out of a shootout. But by the end of the match, the play space will be small enough to see end-to-end. That means when things get down to the wire, hiding ceases to be an option and whoever keeps cool under fire will prevail.
Your match ends when you're the last one alive, or as soon as you die, but getting to the top 10 can take 25 to 30 minutes. When playing on teams, you'll enter a downed state from which you can be revived with minimal health. A match can be painfully short if you're unlucky, but the formula works so well that I never felt discouraged from just jumping back into another match and trying again.
Winning and participating net you points that currently only unlock randomized cosmetic apparel, but I suspect more will be seen in this space as the game continues to develop.
Ready for combat
Battlegrounds' combat still has signs of its military sim heritage, so paying attention to your surroundings is key. The game is primarily a third-person shooter, but you can switch to first-person at any time, even if it's just to aim down the iron sights of your gun. Maintaining visual awareness will be as important as keeping an ear out for player footsteps, especially indoors -- so a gaming headset is highly recommended. It's in the quietest moments where this game leaves its lasting impressions.
When scavenging with the map, you'll find various armaments in the abandoned buildings, including pistols, shotguns and assault rifles. You'll also find snipers. In addition, you'll find armor and health items, backpacks for holding more guns and ammo, and weapon parts for attaching red-dot and magnified scopes. Items only spawn indoors, so landing among buildings will be lucrative but also a hotspot for other players looking to do the same thing.
Players can choose to queue up solo, with a friend, or with a team of players, and team size separates you into different matchmaking servers -- meaning, solo players only play with solo players, doubles with doubles, and teams with teams.
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Proximity voice chat is on by default, even in solo mode, but I recommend using something else to communicate unless you're teaming up with a random player. Speaking with the game's voice chat can be a great way to give your position away in a tense moment midmatch.
The game has a habit of doing strange things for people playing with minimum-spec PCs
Private servers with modified rule sets already exist, but can be a little tough to queue up for. So far, most of the modified servers include rules regarding weapon availability, like snipers-only, pistols-only and so on. The most interesting ones I've seen were a frying pan-only server and a server that forced first-person mode at all times, which had a much more profound effect on gameplay than I had originally considered -- no peeking around corners safely and much more reliance on the sound of enemy movements.
Early access done right
Battlegrounds is a Steam Early Access title, but the game is in a very stable state. The development team has also pledged weekly balance updates on top of monthly additions to the game.
But the game isn't without signs of early development. It's a very CPU-heavy game to run, even at low settings, and the game has a habit of doing strange things for people playing with minimum-spec PCs. The game's visuals are up to par with 2017 standards, but nothing that should warrant as beefy a system as it needs. Turning settings to low helps only so much as the game bombards your CPU at the beginning of each match when it tries to load the entire island.
Buildings may fail to be visible, getting in or near vehicles may cause games to crash, and sound may cut in or out. There are also some memory-leak issues, which mean loading between matches can sometimes result in an unceremonious exit to desktop.
The phrase "unoptimized" gets thrown around a lot, but it really fits the bill for this game. If you have the specs to run game, however, much of this boils down to occasional frame hitching and nothing more.
Already we've seen meaningful balance changes and additions, such asnew melee weapons and changes to how footsteps sound coming from different floors of a building. There's a lot being promised for this game in the coming year, but with a foundation this addicting, it's already worth the price of entry.
Credit: Bluehole Studio