Newcomers who don’t religiously monitor video game trends can grok the beginning, middle and end of their first match. Players float onto an island, raid vaguely Eastern European towns or dusty ramshackle forts for randomized gear, and stay within the confines of an electric blue circle that slowly shrinks the map from miles of open terrain to a single square foot, forcing all survivors into the limited safe space.
PUBG wastes no time putting you right in the middle of the action as you and up to 99 other players airdrop onto one of its two 8×8 km maps from the back of a large aircraft. Part of the genius of each match’s arc is how heavily it weighs every move you make, and it begins with the critical decision of where to land. Jumping early along the plane’s randomized flight path lets you hit the ground first, giving you a jump on the competition, but risks placing you farther from the parts of the arena where the fighting will likely funnel as the boundaries contract.PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds finds itself in a weird place. In many ways the game has never been stronger, with new modes, more maps and a growing eSports following – July’s 2018 Berlin Invitational was widely acclaimed as a huge success. Yet there’s an argument that the game’s popularity has peaked, with concurrent players on Steam down from 3.2 million in January to 1.75 million in July, and that there’s more momentum behind its free-to-play rival, Fortnite. Is PUBG on the way down?
The core game was brilliant long-before PUBG launched, but the team has made considerable strides in improving stability and performance (not always strengths) and just making it better. The added maps, for example, don’t merely vary the scenery but change the way you play. The original pseudo-Soviet island, Erangel, gives you the classic PUBG experience, while Miramar, the Central American desert map, has more challenging terrain, denser urban areas and lots of large, empty spaces where you’re at the mercy of snipers. It’s a map where you learn to move quickly and decisively then hole up a while to scavenge, always looking nervously at where the circle’s moving to.The incentives to stay on the move no matter your chosen pace forces ever more dangerous encounters with increasingly skilled (or lucky) survivors, condensing the action and ending a match after around 20 minutes, before it can get bogged down by campers or other distractions. Action isn’t hard to find if you’re looking for it, and impossible to avoid for long when you’re not, but PUBG manages to put enough space between encounters to keep those quiet, tense moments of cautious exploration intact.
Battlegrounds are the refinement of a new language of play, but what may earn it a spot in the video game canon is that conceptual efficiency. It isn’t accessible for every player, but it’s understandable. Anybody can easily learn to read this game, to watch it, to spot the tension and excitement and drama. Critics and fans have speculated on how PUBG will operate as an escort, whether or not its pacing works for competitive play. But that ignores the obvious fact: Battlegrounds work as entertainment. Sport or not, it has found its audience of players and viewers alike. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has taken the military-sim gameplay popularized by games like ARMA and DayZ, boiled it down to its most exciting parts, and streamlined it into quick and accessible rounds of pure, hassle-free, survival-based action. Even though each game starts the same way, its remarkable ability to feel like a new, tense adventure each and every round has kept me coming back for hours on end.