So, some of you might remember the rosy-cheeked, bright eyes First Impressions of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (or PUBG because no one wants to say that mouthful every time) that I wrote back in August. I waxed poetical about the excellent execution of a great idea and looked to the future of the game with unbridled optimism. The development period wore on, and I was content with the way things were going until the official release arrived and threw a spanner into my sunny disposition. Add to this some questionable decisions about how the online community should be handled, as well as the behaviour of said online community, and there are more than a few things that could make one hesitate. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny the success of the game, or my own interest in it after a collective 90 hours of play, so let’s take a closer look at what makes PUBG good and what’s holding it back from being great.
Let’s get through this so I can go back to playing, I’ve got people waiting.
PUBG has no story, you’re merely flown over an island with 99 other strangers in a Battle Royale to the death. Weapons, armour, and other items are scattered randomly around the map, and over time a giant, shrinking circle of death ensures that players are herded to the same area for the end-game. PUBG has been described as a “thriller shooter,” and I think that’s an accurate term. It’s never guaranteed that you’ll find high-level gear, or any gear at all. Every moment is filled with the threat of an enemy attack, and every firefight can feel like a desperate struggle. For a game that frequently has long stretches of doing nothing but running, there can be a lot of excitement to be found in this concept.
The game’s design isn’t overly complicated, and that’s one of its core strengths. There’s no crafting, base building, or any other extra mechanics tacked on to distract from the core concept of “hunt and be hunted.” There’s some nuance in the gameplay, such as making sure your sights are correctly zeroed when aiming, knowing the specific areas that tend to have better gear than others, etc. However, none of it becomes so involved that you’ll be prioritising anything above the overarching goal of not being gunned down while trying to shoot others in the face. It’s not often that I’ll praise a game for having a relative lack of content, but this is definitely one of those occasions. For the simple formula that PUBG has going for it, less really is more.
It allows for more time to really take in the scenery.
That’s not to say that the game is without fault in this regard, however. I can state with no uncertainty that hiding in a building for minutes at a time with nothing happening loses its novelty rather quickly. Whatever tension these moments hold quickly becomes frustration when leaving a building can result in being gunned down in seconds with no idea of where it came from. There’s a point where this “thriller” aspect of PUBG’s design becomes a boring way to pass the time. Unless you want to be gunned down because you’re just standing around in the open, or otherwise running through the sights of dozens of other players, this part of the game is unavoidable.
The dynamic changes, however, when you pack lots of players into a densely built-up town, where ambushes and shoot-outs become commonplace. These moments are easily the most exciting that PUBG has to offer and while they definitely should be tempered with periods of quiet tension, they shouldn’t be as rare as they are. In contrast is the end-game, when the barrier closes into a tiny speck of open field and players are forced to rush out into the open. It’s almost always an open field as well, never a town, and the resulting fight is invariably an absolute clusterf***. Survival in these moments often feels like a test of luck, not skill, as evidenced by my regular survival to the top ten and only a meagre two wins to my name. Again, this would be great as a “sometimes” thing, and not the way every single match ends.
There is no chicken dinner for me, only shame.
These problems largely stem from the map being too damned big, with ridiculously vast open spaces that take forever to cross making up a majority of playtime on both maps. This is somewhat addressed in the new desert map, which is much smaller and vehicles are more abundant; however, it’s still a slog to reach the safe zone if you’re forced to do it on foot. The original island map still has this problem, and nothing has been introduced by the development team to alleviate the issue. From my own experience, the player base feels the same given that the island map has a consistently high drop-out rate while queueing in the lobby.
This leads to another problem, which is that the game looks like crap for the purposes of watching your surroundings. I’m not exactly rocking crap hardware, and trying to figure out if that black bit in the middle-distance is a player or a shrub is an exercise in frustrating paranoia. The problem isn’t that the models or textures are indistinguishable but that they look rough-as-guts, and the overall art direction can be described as “Unreal Asset – Standard.” Nevermind that the graphics can be intentionally turned down by players to gain an advantage, literally rendering plants and other obscuring scenery useless to others.
A ghillie suit isn’t really useful when your character model is more dense than the foliage around you.
On a technical level there are still a lot of issues, and to PUBG Corp’s credit, they’ve worked hard to fix a lot during a time of the year you wouldn’t expect the developers to be working at all. The 1.0 release was woefully broken in so many ways, but it was only about a week before a patch was released which fixed a majority of the problems. What remains is occasional rubber-banding, frequent connection timeouts and errors, and oddly specific moments of unresponsive controls. There’ve been so many times that I’ve jumped from the plane to find that I suddenly cannot move, I’m just doomed to land wherever I jumped at the time. More often is the game deciding that you need to land fifty meters from where you actually cut your chute, dropping fall damage on you right from the get-go.
These are problems that in a release version of a game, I would expect to see either completely gone or so infrequent as to not be worth mentioning. As it stands right now, at least one of these problems crops up every single match, and it shouldn’t be necessary to explain how that ruins an online experience. There’re also plenty of cheaters, PUBG Corp announcing just this week that they’ve banned 1.5 million cheaters to date, with no apparent end in sight. Being killed by a “magic bullet” is a fairly common experience right now. That said, you don’t have to have cheated in order to have been banned from the game. Whether it’s the very public spat between streamer Dr DisRespect and PUBG creator Brendan Greene, or the forums of people claiming to have been erroneously banned for stream-hunting, there’s something dicky going on with the admin team. These are all fixable problems, but they’re problems that still exist for the time being.
So, if you’re wondering why I’ve been playing the game as long as I have despite my numerous complaints, then my only answer is that we can all very critical of that which we love the most. There are many problems besides that I’ve not mentioned for fear of this becoming a short essay, yet I still pour hours and hours of my spare time into the game. Playing with friends, for starters, completely changes the vibe of the game, as it will for most online experiences. When the game does deign to work correctly, the process of searching for better gear and fighting other players is a compelling one and the constant movement that the game “encourages” only enhances that feeling. With the fixes, improvements, and tweaks that PUBG sorely needs right now, it will be an undeniably excellent game, if only because it will have been the first of its kind to really nail the genre.
It should be noted that everything said above is about the PC version of PUBG. There is also a version in what counts for Early Access on Xbox, and it is downright terrible. PUBG struggles on most computers that aren’t running hardware released outside of the last twelve months, so what made them decide that releasing a console version was a good idea is beyond me. It has a draw distance that can be measured in centimetres, a framerate that hurts to gaze upon, and every single texture is as smooth as a bowling ball. This is also the kind of twitch-shooter that just doesn’t work with a controller and makes the entire experience feel clunky.
The screenshot app on the xbox is also awful, so here’s more graffiti from the PC version.
In all honesty, I think PUBG Corp should have delayed the official release of the game until early this year so that the significant problems of the game could be ironed out. Connection problems, lag, rubber-banding and a rash of cheaters are the ingredients for an online game’s death-sentence if left unchecked. They have shown a fair amount of diligence in working on these issues post-release, however, and the future of the game could still be promising. At its core, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable experience, especially if you’re playing with friends, and I think it could be the best example of a “Battle Royale” game to date. It just needs a bit more work and polish to get it far away from the “Early Access” state its currently in. If you are interested in trying PUBG, do yourself the favour of getting on PC, so you’re not playing an interactive slideshow.