PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is on the cusp of defining the future of shooters for the next few years, but it’s not the only name in the emerging Battle Royale-shooter genre. PUBG is a massive hit with more than 11 million copies sold and the record for the most concurrent players at any one time on Steam, but it is attracting imitators like Fortnite: Battle Royale and its creator previously created H1Z1: King of the Kill.
I’m going to compare all three of these games as a primer for anyone new to the space. I did this once already back in July, and GamesBeat has done similar comparisons for multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) and digital card games. My previous comparison, however, came out before Fortnite got its Battle Royale mode, so it’s time for an update. Let’s start with the basics.
All of these games borrow their premise from the Japanese book and film Battle Royale, which is about a class of students who must fight and kill one another until only one person is left. This is a concept that is also seen in The Hunger Games. Now, however, the term “Battle Royale” is transforming into the shorthand term for any game where dozens of players drop onto a game map to gather resources and battle to the death.
But if you could choose only one, which one should it be? Well, I have an answer to that question.
Launched: March 2017 (Early Access)
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is the reigning champ of the last-player-standing space, and that makes sense because it is the first standalone release from the person who helped establish this game mode in the first place, Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene. Along with developer Bluehole, Greene released PUBG (as many call it) earlier this year. PlayerUnknown had worked on the Battlegrounds mod that spun off from the zombie Arma mod DayZ. Greene then went to Daybreak Games where he helped that publisher build its own Battlegrounds mode for H1Z1 called King of the Kill.
After all of that experience, Battlegrounds is the purest expression of the last-player-standing genre yet, and that has attracted a massive audience. I’ve even called it the most important shooter since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare due to its broad appeal.
PUBG is popular, both in general as well as relative to the rest of the games in this comparison, for a few reasons. It has an understandable and straightforward order of operations. You can watch or play a single match, and you’ll instantly pick up the basics. In each match, you’re supposed to drop from the plane, look for gear, find out where the safe zone is, and move to get set up in the safe zone to give yourself the best chance of getting the drop on someone else.
Other games have many of those elements, but PUBG is more streamlined. But this doesn’t mean you can ditch good tactics — you still need to play smart.
The key thing to PUBG is that it frees up players to put all of their thoughts into processing and planning their actions. For example, planes drop care packages filled with powerful weapons and armor. They draw a lot of attention, so you have a ton of options about how to handle them when one falls near you. If you want to take your chances, you can rush after it and hope you get to it before anyone else (or while everyone else is playing conservatively). You could get set up with eyes on the package and then take out anyone who approaches it. In that case, you’d get the airdrop gear and anything the player was carrying. You could also run away from it or use the sound of the plane to cover the noise from your car engine as you drive off to another point deeper in the safe zone.
The point is that these are the decisions that you are always considering in PUBG instead of thinking about crafting and “should I go look for the right stones to build this bow-and-arrow.”
Streamlining is really about limiting what players can do so that they have time to think tactically. Another example is how your inventory works. You can only carry one helmet, which is not the case in something like King of the Kill. This means you can’t just rush into a fight, take a headshot, and then pop on the next helmet in your bag.
The result of those limitations is a plodding, deliberate game where you have to think through your actions. You can play aggressively, but that works best when you do so in short bursts in situations where your opponent might expect you to try to hide in a bathroom.
And that’s why PUBG is the best of the bunch. The other games in this space either bog you down with distractions that take you out of tactical thinking, or they are nonstop action with no time to consider your actions.
PUBG is taut. Thanks to the evershrinking safe zones, matches will never take much longer than 30 minutes. And having that hard limit, along with the ebb and flow of the matches, frees you up to take chances and experiment with each match. That makes each round unique and keeps you coming back.
Bluehole has also introduced some major new features with updates like a foggy weather effect that intensifies an already-intense experience.
How it’s broken
PUBG is still in the Steam Early Access portal for unfinished games. Bluehole is promising to finish it this year, but for now, it is buggy and janky. It crashes. It sometimes fails to reload your weapon even when it’s empty. And the spectator mode is often useless. It’s also missing basic functionality — a small fence could cause your death because mantling isn’t in PUBG yet.
Even when you can’t stop playing the game, it’s not uncommon to come away cursing it as a broken turd.