PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (2017, PC)

By Delor / May 15, 2017

Battlegrounds is by far my favorite entry into the battle royale genre so far.

   The shrinking-death-arena concept seems tailor made for videogame awesomeness, but my experience with these games has frequently been poor. Some issues are technical, like the extreme clunkiness of installation and control of the Arma mods. Sometimes the mechanics are poor, with too much hiding and too little action, and what action there is either consisting of a quick death at the barrel of a gun you weren’t aware was pointing at you or the sloppy, drawn-out melee combat of games like The Culling (nonetheless an on and off favorite of mine, although now out of favor). Sometimes there are infuriating design decisions, like H1Z1’s decision to include microtransactions to request equipment drops.
   Battlegrounds mostly avoids these issues. The technical aspects and controls of the game are generally competent. It installs, launches, and enters a game cleanly. The controls are pretty conventional and easy to learn. It smartly highlights what guns are compatible with which ammunitions and attachments. When in third-person mode, it also provides a clear indication of when the shot to your reticule is blocked by something in front of your gun but not your camera, which is a feature every third-person shooter should have. There are a few oversights like the unintuitive process of using a scope in third-person view and the lack of any sort of indication of what different attachments do for your gun, but for the most part the game is generally solid.
   My largest technical complaints with Battlegrounds are occasional crashes and semi-regular framerate hitching. I hope that these will be resolved by the end of early access, and they haven't significantly impacted my enjoyment of the game so far although I could imagine death by an inopportune framerate hitch being extremely frustrating.

   The real strength of Battlegrounds comes in terms of how the detectability, visibility, and lethality interact to produce exciting gunplay.
   In the clumps of buildings where you will spend most of your time looting and hiding, the walking noises are loud enough that you’ll generally hear other players well before you get a good shot on each other. This means that encounters frequently play out with both parties well aware that there is another player in the area, and each having to try to make decisions about hiding, relocating, hunting, or fleeing the other player while trying to anticipate what the other player is doing as well. Combine this with the time pressure of the shrinking arena walls and air-strike death zones that spawn, and the decision-making can be extremely tense.
   It can happen that you’ll open a door and be one-shotted by a player behind it you didn’t know was there, but the majority of my urban encounters in Battlegrounds have been exciting games of cat-and-mouse I can tell an interesting story about instead of a sucker punch.
   Outdoors, being ambushed is much more likely to occur but a combination of low weapon accuracy and abundant body armor means that being killed before you have a chance to respond is less common. This gives the player on the receiving end of the attack time to decide how they want to respond, balancing the need for flight, seeking cover, and locating the attacker and returning fire. While less common and less interesting than the close quarters aspect of Battlegrounds, the outdoors combat works and leaves me feeling like I had some agency as a player in the outcome of the fight as often as not.

   The other thing that impresses me about Battlegrounds is how the game evolves as the arena shrinks.
   At the start, you’re mostly worried about people who dropped near your starting location. You can see parachuting players descending near your location and need to make decisions about balancing your need to find loot versus avoid exposure. Your starting location itself is also a strategic decision — a plane flies over the battlefield and you choose when to parachute out, and you're forced to decide between dropping earlier (getting a head start on the looting) and towards larger clumps of buildings (giving you more loot) versus doing the opposite and likely getting a spawn position with fewer enemies around.
   One or two arena reductions later, and you’re closing in on the center of the map and probably still need loot, but now you’re risking walking into a complex where another player is already waiting silently. Situational awareness — listening, watching for open doors, looking in windows, looking for vehicles parked nearby — becomes key as you struggle to round out your equipment without opening a door and taking a shotgun blast to the face.
   As the arena shrinks further, your need for loot is probably less but now the area is small enough that with each reduction you want to carefully consider your approach to the safe zone to avoid getting picked off by people who got there first or are approaching from the same angle.
   If you make it to the finale, the game suddenly becomes a brutal elimination deathmatch where there’s not much place to hide. You’ll need to desperately try to keep track of where other players are and ideally pick them off from a surprising angle or while they’re fighting someone else, but as soon as you open fire everyone else in the area will hear your shots and you become a target.

   In terms of complaints about the mechanics, I have few. One thing I wish the game would do is more strongly have regions with good loot of specific types and to mark those locations on the map. This would create a stronger strategic variety of deciding where to spawn and where to loot next. I also hope the map continues to be refined — there's a bit too many regions featuring the same handful of buildings cut-n-pasted into a clump versus interesting, unique regions like a set of hilltop ruins or a flooded village. While the map is in the current state, it would also be nice if all of the interesting places of the map had good loot, to draw players to explore and have fights in them as opposed to the umpteenth generic house. Several of them, such as the aforementioned ruins or a plane crash site don't feature much in the way of drops.
   The progression system also seems weak at present. Five hours of play might get you a baseball cap and pants in a slightly different shade of brown, and with loot box cost doubling with each purchase so far it might be six-seven hours of play more after that before you get your next boring piece of loot (although it's unclear exactly how pricing works, because recently all prices reset to the first step of the exponential curve). Furthermore, most of that will be covered by helmets, body armor, and backpacks once the game starts anyway. I'd be tempted to dump the system entirely — loot that has mechanical benefits would be terrible for the game, and even with better art assets I'm not sure cosmetic items make a ton of sense given how little they'll be seen and how quickly they'll be covered in-game.
   Overall, Battlegrounds just works. Nothing in the technical execution is particularly exceptional, but the design of the combat mechanics, sound, and levels consistently produce compelling experiences. Most games give me one or two exciting encounters, and even in games that end with me being unceremoniously executed unawares I still find myself reaching for the button to start another game. It is, to date, the battle royale genre entry I’d most strongly recommend.