PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is one of the biggest gaming stories in the world. It has sold more than 10 million copies since debuting in March. It recently surpassed more than 1 million concurrent players on Steam. And it has caught on as one of the top games in the United States, China, and South Korea.
Bluehole Studio has not finished Battlegrounds, and the game is only available as part of Steam’s Early Access program. It sells for $30 on Steam. It’s in the new last-player-standing shooter or Battle Royale genre, which gets its name from the Japanese Battle Royale books and films about a group of students who are forced to hunt each other.
The premise is that up to 100 people jump onto an island with nothing but their clothes. Over the course of the next half-hour, these players gather armor, medical supplies, and weapons from abandoned houses, schools, and military bases so that they can survive any encounter with competing players. To force everyone closer together and to keep them from hiding in one spot, an ever-shrinking safe zone appears on the map after the first couple of minutes. If you end up outside of that circle, you will take damage until you die. The winner is the last person, duo, or four-person team left alive.
It’s simple to explain, to start, and to enjoy — and it is a seismic shift for a style of game that Call of Duty has dominated for a decade.
What you’ll like (so far)
Adrenaline and emergent narratives
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is the most thrilling game I’ve ever played. I’ve won around a dozen times out of the hundreds of matches that I’ve started, and that’s a good thing. For most people, winning in PUBG is rare enough that getting a “chicken dinner” (as the community calls it due to the “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” line you see if you get first place) is special and exhilarating.
I played mostly solo for the first 70 or so hours of Battlegrounds, because I was determined to get a win without any help. That proved difficult, because any time I would get into the top five, my hands would start to shake. After finishing No. 3 and No. 2 multiple times, I finally won — and I could feel my brain release the adrenaline into my chest.
My hope at the time was that I would get that win and move on. And I did for a few weeks. I went to E3, I played through Wolfenstein: The New Order, and then … I got hungry for more.
You see, that chicken dinner adrenaline is addictive, and I’m still chasing it.
Luck lessens the pain of learning
PUBG wouldn’t work if it was only about chasing a rare win. The moment-to-moment action is also satisfying. I love the feeling of parachuting down onto a map and having a chance of getting an advantage of over better players because I lucked out and stumbled across a Scar-L or an M4 and a pile of ‘tachies (which is what everyone calls weapon attachments). It does this thing where it tricks my mind into thinking that PUBG is more about random numbers than skill, and this somehow convinces me that I have a better chance than I do in other games of outlasting more skilled players.
This isn’t true, though. Skill is still king in Battlegrounds, and you can watch some of the top players on Twitch if you need proof. But the point is that Bluehole’s game gives me mental cover for justifying the irrational notion that I could do better than some esports pro could.
But while I may sometimes convince myself that I have a chance of winning, PUBG can turn into a terrifying horror game in an instant.
During the looting phase, it’s easy to go a couple of minutes without seeing another player. This can make you cold and complacent. You may find yourself hiding from the action under the guise of continued looting even though you don’t really need anything else. I do this because it is horrifying to walk out a door with no real information about who might be outside. But it’s even worse when you know someone is close. I’ve felt my heartbeat reverberate up into my throat because I entered a house and heard the unmistakeable sound of footsteps on the floor above me.
In those situations, it’s so easy to retreat into a bathroom or hide in a corner and wait. The answer to these situations, however, is almost always to take the initiative. But either way, as long as you are the last person standing, you will come out high on excitement. That will take you from a scared animal to a murderous barbarian, and it feels amazing.
PUBG is also incredible because of the stories you come away with, and I think this is why so many people stick around even when they struggle to win for days or weeks at a time. Sure, you’re not supposed to get a chicken dinner every other game, but it still sucks to lose over and over. And you can only put your faith in getting good luck for so long before you lose faith. But you will come away with a story in almost every match of Battlegrounds, and that does a lot to lessen the sting of losing.
Sometimes those stories come out of nowhere. Like the one time I stole a helmet from my teammate before he could equip it. I could also tell you all about the time I got 14 kills and a win and the different story arcs of that single match. It started with me landing on the school and scrambling to get a handgun. I was able to kill four people, including one who I shot in the head with my last round of ammunition.
After killing that fourth person on the roof, someone shot at me from the apartments across the street so I jumped off the roof to get to safety. But again, I was out of ammo, so I quietly re-entered the school in an attempt to find a better weapon with more rounds. I found an M16 and the left the school with six kills and went to go get a care package (a special drop that lands randomly around the map and contains powerful weapons that don’t spawn on the map) that landed out in the field. Someone had already ransacked it and was running from the crate, so I drove after them in a buggy. I jumped out while still in motion and took damage, but I did collect kill No. 7.
I could go into the details of the rest of the match. I could talk about how I found another care package with a Groza (a hyperlethal and rare assault rifle), or how my excitement about having seven kills caused me to get nervous and hide. And then I could tell you about taking on waves of players trying to get in the circle, shooting a person who was trying to hide behind their car.
But let’s jump to the end. I had 13 kills with me and two others left. My whole body was tense. I could feel my heart beating. And I was desperately trying to hide behind a tree while also looking for the other players. Eventually, both ended up in my view, and I decided against making a move since they saw each other first. The player to my left was in a perfect position for me to take them out with a headshot, so I was rooting for them. Of course, the player to the right ended up getting the kill.
I cursed, but I didn’t wait. I switched to a stun grenade and threw it right on the tree where the only other player was standing. As soon as it exploded, I switched to my Groza and made run for my target. They stuck out and started firing. “Did my stun grenade not hit them,” I thought. But my enemy didn’t hit me and returned back to hide behind the tree. I kept sprinting up to their backside, saw their shoulder, and pulled the trigger to get the win.
All of that happened in a single match, and I don’t really have any stories like that from Call of Duty or Battlefield.
But stories can also come from stupid ideas. For example, I wanted to ride a motorcycle onto the roofs of the buildings in the central city of Pochinki, and I spent several matches just trying to get a damn bike up the stairs. Or how about this moment where Henry Mark IV, a murderbot that I play with (don’t ask), calculated a way to ruin his teammates match.
Most of these stories don’t have anything to do with winning. But they’re so shareable. Even people who don’t play PUBG can understand them, and they are the trophies that everyone comes away with even if they rarely win a chicken dinner.
These stories are what make PUBG so special. Its island feels like a real place, and its mechanics encourage you to get familiar with it. Bluehole had to actively make the decision to keep players grounded and to breathe life into each street, forest, and hill. I’ve played other Battle Royale shooters, and the maps in H1Z1: King of the Kill’s or GTA V’s Motor Wars feel like playgrounds. They serve their purpose, but you’ll have a harder time stumbling across stories in those games as you do in Battlegrounds.
What you won’t like (so far)
It’s buggy and bland
Here’s where an Early Access review is tricky. Battlegrounds is unfinished, and bugs are common for such games. But you should still know about them before you spend your $30. In my experience, PUBG is more likely to glitch or crash than other incomplete games I’ve tested like DayZ, Rust, or Ark: Survival Evolved.
The bugs will make your game stop working in the middle of a match. PUBG may fail to load architecture or other elements. Your guns may fail to reload. You may not have the option to heal yourself until you kill someone. All of these have happened to me, and until PUBG is out of Early Access, these are all issues that could happen to you as well.
PUBG’s character creation and customization options are half-baked. You only have a handful of choices for hair and faces, and that means everyone looks almost exactly the same. The clothing doesn’t help much. Even with the recent update to introduce skins inspired by the Battle Royale film, I don’t think any of the apparel is all the appealing.
Conclusion (so far)
I’m not going to give PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds a final score. We’ll save that for when it reaches a 1.0 “retail” version. But I have a recommendation that I want to give everyone reading this: You should play PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
This is a once-in-a-generation game. We’re already seeing major companies trying to copy it with their own games like the aforementioned GTA Online mode and Fortnite: Battle Royale. Bluehole’s last-player-standing shooter is already changing the gaming industry.
But this isn’t about some academic exercise in experiencing an influential game. You are cheating yourself if you miss out on making your own memories with this game even while it is still in Early Access. I know plenty of people who say, “I don’t play Early Access games.” You should play this one. I am confident it’s going to get better as Bluehole refines its mechanics and introduces new features. Yet PUBG is already magical … and this particular brand of magic is going to disappear forever soon.
In the next couple of weeks, Bluehole is going to launch a major update that brings vaulting into the game. I can’t wait, and I bet I won’t want to go back to the way things used to be — but I also won’t want to trade in those memories for anything. And if you end up playing with a bunch of PUBG vets talking about the “old days,” you’re going to feel left out.
Don’t get left out on this one. It’s too good. It’s too accessible and rewarding even for awful players. Give it a shot, and then get on Twitter and tell me your stories.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is on Steam for $30. Bluehole provided GamesBeat with downloadable Steam codes for the purpose of this review.
Register for GamesBeat's upcoming event: Driving Game Growth & Into the Metaverse