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.
H1Z1: King of the Kill
Launched: February 2016 (Early Access)
On the surface, King of the Kill and Battlegrounds are the same game. You drop onto a massive map, you look for gear, and you try to take everyone out while also trying to stay in a safe zone. Again, it makes sense that they are so similar, since they both spawned from the mind of PlayerUnknown. But anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with both can tell you, King of the Kill and Battlegrounds are miles apart.
PUBG is going for a military-sim style of play. It is closer to the Arma side of the spectrum, which is the Bohemia Interactive-developed infantry game that creator Dean Hall built the DayZ mod on top of. King of the Kill, on the other hand, is more of an action-arcade shooter. On the shooter spectrum, H1Z1’s take on this genre is closer to Call of Duty than it is to Arma.
King of the Kill’s matches are nonstop chaos. Up to 200 players enter a map and are randomly dropped in the sky to find a landing spot. Once they are on the ground, it is a mad dash for essential items: weapons, helmets, and vehicles. If you can get a decent rifle, a helmet, and a car, then you are set up for most of the rest of the match.
Where PUBG is about making tough choices regarding the use of a loud car in certain circumstances, you almost always want to use a car in King of the Kill. That way you can roll up on stragglers, jump out of the vehicle, kill them, and move on.
That style is going to appeal to some people more, but I think that it makes for a less interesting experience. King of the Kill doesn’t have a lot of downtime to go with its intense moments. You don’t have time to think because it is all go go go. When King of the Kill does pause, it’s so you can craft special items like armor or explosive arrows. And that distracts from what makes this genre special in the first place.
But King of the Kill does do some things better. It feels less janky. Its animations are smoother, its vehicles are more fun to drive, and loot is easier to spot in the environment.
Oh, and King of the Kill’s loot-box-opening sequence is a million times better than PUBG’s.
And while I appreciate the dedication to tactical clothing and gear in PUBG, I also love the wacky skins you can get in King of the Kill.
Finally, Daybreak Game Company nailed the audio design in King of the Kill. Everything sounds realistic, and the positional audio is crucial for pinpointing enemies around you.
How it’s broken
King of the Kill still has a ton of technical issues. Connecting to a server is occasionally a matter of getting lucky. It has wonky hit detection that doesn’t seem like the developers will have an easy time fixing.
King of the Kill’s real problem, however, is one of potential. Even once the game exits Early Access and gets a couple dozen more updates, it will probably have the same core action-packed loop. As broken as PUBG is, it has already surpassed the H1Z1 spinoff, and it still has a lot of room to grow and improve.
Daybreak has made some updates to King of the Kill to make it play more like PUBG. The studio made weapons more realistic, and it made changes to get players out of the looting phase and into the fight earlier. But that’s just spackling on a foundation that is much more arcadey and forgiving than PUBG.
That doesn’t mean no one should choose King of the Kill over PUBG. You just need to decide if you want the emotional up and down of Bluehole’s game or the relentless shootathon that is Daybreak’s version.
Fortnite: Battle Royale
Launched: July 2017 (Early Access … kinda? You can buy a physical copy at retail right now)
Price: $40 (free-to-play in September 26)
In early September, Epic Games revealed that it was adding a new mode to its building-defense game Fortnite called Battle Royale. This add-on comes with Fortnite, and it lifts most of its concept directly from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It is so close to PUBG, that Bluehole has even said it is considering taking action against the game.
But until PlayerUnknown himself shows up at Epic to delete their servers, Fortnite: Battle Royale is still available. And the experience of playing it is relatively solid. Like H1Z1 and PUBG, it has dozens of players landing on an island to find weapons and to outlast everyone else. But it sticks closest to Bluehole’s game. For example, you ride on an aerial vehicle until you choose to drop (where H1Z1 randomly drops you from the sky), and Fortnite has a 100-player limit.
That doesn’t mean that Battle Royale doesn’t have some key differences. The biggest change is that you can use the core Fortnite game’s structural crafting tools. At any time, as long as you have the resources, you can build shacks, towers, or even stairs. I’ve seen multiple people building stairs in front of themselves as they run to unreachable mountain tops. Building also means you can place a shack in the middle of a field where no natural cover exists. H1Z1 or PUBG don’t care if you can’t find cover — that’s your problem.
Fortnite also puts a lot more emphasis on finding rare loot. You can find a shotgun or rifle rather easily, but you’ll always want to keep looking for a more powerful shotgun and rifle.
But despite those changes, most matches will end up feeling a lot like PUBG. You’ll drop from the flying school bus, look for loot, try to get geared up, and then head to the safe zone. Along the way, you’ll try to kill anyone you come across and hope that you can get a strong position to take on the last remaining players.
How it’s broken
Fortnite: Battle Royale is even more unfinished than PUBG. It doesn’t have vehicles yet, and Epic hasn’t introduced squads yet either (squads are coming with the free-to-play release on September 26) But its biggest issue isn’t what’s missing, it’s that what’s there isn’t as enticing as the competition.
Fortnite’s physics are a lot more forgiving and arcadey, and this fits with its animated aesthetic — but it makes your character and weapon feel like they exist in two different realities. Your hero can do a massive hop off of a bounce pad, but your rifle still has somewhat realistic bullet drop.
And the idea of bringing structural crafting into a Battle Royale game is fun, but it doesn’t really work in Fortnite. Other than using the stairs tool, no one really builds early in the match because you don’t want to waste your resources only to have to move when the safe zone forces you to. And in the final circle, if you’re building, someone else is probably going to kill you before you can get your gun out.
Finally, I don’t play the main Fortnite mode, but Janine Hawkins over at Waypoint points out how this isn’t great for people who do. It is another time-consuming game type where the building doesn’t matter as much and the characters don’t carry any of their special abilities over from the PVE mode
As people play the game more, the building could make a bigger difference as the best players figure out how to use it. Even in that case, however, Fortnite may give players more tools to survive, but I still don’t think that is as interesting as the limitations PUBG forces upon its players.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is still the game to get. It is special even if it is broke in certain ways. Every match is a learning experience, and you can apply each death’s lesson to your next round by hitting that play button one more time. It’s also found the magic in putting limitations on players, and that has unlocked the potential the concept in a way the other games have not.
You may also want to get into Battlegrounds right now because this is still its moment in time. It’s like playing Quake or Super Mario Bros. when they first came out, and you’ll probably share memories from this time with other gaming fans for the rest of your life. It’s that big and important.
Fortnite and H1Z1 aren’t bad games, and I think some people might find those games more appealing for specific reasons. Fortnite is more visually alluring and H1Z1 has a faster pace and focus on action.
But it’s PUBG that I would tell anyone who asks me to get because I think once you try it, you’ll see why everyone is so nuts for it.
Correction: I originally wrote that Fortnite is going free-to-play in 2018 and getting squads at that time. It is actually going free-to-play on September 26, and Epic is adding squad matches at the same time. I apologize for the error.