Welcome back, DayZ, it’s certainly been a while. Oh come on, don’t be shy, we all know it’s you. It’s impossible to hide all the things that made you memorable (for better and worse), whether it’s the rolling hills dotted with identical houses, the long expanses of sod-all with distant gunfire rattling in the background, the desperate need that players have to scavenge every bit of junk in the hope it makes them last 0.3 seconds longer than their opponent in the next firefight, or just the really terrible quality standards that made my copy of the game shut down three times in two hours. I know a reincarnated DayZ when I see it, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is definitely that. It’s even managed to think of a clunkier name for the product, which is pretty impressive in its own right.
And more importantly, there’s a really interesting gimmick this time. Like DayZ, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds started off as a mod for the Arma games, none of which I’ve ever bothered to play owing to looking rather dry and unengaging. But whereas DayZ was just big servers full of zombies and foaming-mouthed players with very little purpose to any of it, this new creation is a multiplayer game that’s taken inspiration from Japanese movie Battle Royale, of all things. One hundred players get airdropped into a vast map with no equipment or weapons except for those that they can find for themselves, and get told that if they want to survive then they’d better get a Predator mindset going. One hundred men enter, but only one man leaves. Colour me intrigued, and slightly impressed by how jubilant the tone is in spite of such a grim core concept.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is currently in Early Access, available on Steam for £26.99.
So I booted up PUBG, and it crashed. Then I tried it again, and it froze. Then my mouse got offset and I couldn’t select anything. Then it crashed my whole computer in a fit of spite. Then it started a small fire and widdled on the ashes of my dead dog for good measure. I stopped a playthrough of Dark Souls for this? I can’t believe I’m saying it, but this might be more annoying than those rooftop archers in Anor Londo.
But eventually I managed to coax a blue moon into rising, and therefore got through just long enough that I could get into the settings menu and put all the sliders down as far as they could go, which meant I could play for periods of up to half an hour. OK, the textures were ghastly and the frame rate was a mess, and any sound made by a vehicle sounded like the tortured, hellbound souls of long-dead combustion engines, but it least the damn thing worked. Sort of. A bit. If you lowered your standards for functionality further down than the Mariana Trench.
So without any more ado I leapt into a random game, and was immediately thrown out of an airplane for my insolence. Each match starts by having the players organically parachute out of a cargo plane to the island below, which I have to admit is rather a clever way of settling the whole matter of respawn zones. Swoop down to wherever you like and get some idea of your enemies’ location by watching the little canvas bags bob downwards in the distance. Or maybe you feel confident enough to land next to a crowd of people for an impromptu punch-up, like an expensive stag night in night-time Glasgow.
And you’ll certainly see a lot of people falling in all different directions, because each match holds about a hundred people at the start, though those numbers tend to dwindle pretty damn quick in the first few minutes. Luckily I survived my descent and landed in a green field beside a few wrecked houses, wearing nothing but a pair of underpants and Deadpool’s ammo belt. I had no weapons, no clothes and no equipment, and the little I knew about the game suggested that right now I could be considered as “easy pickin’s.”
My inner coward took over, and I dropped into a prone position in the dirt, belly-crawling towards the nearest house in hope of some gear to protect myself with, or at least a cleaner pair of knickers. It didn’t help that I could already hear the popping of machine gun fire over the horizon. We were only a couple of minutes in, and our lobby of one hundred people had been mercilessly reduced to about half that. It didn’t help that the constant updates telling me about kills happening god-knows-where weren’t doing anything for my nerves. How the hell has “xXxEp1c_W33d_5m0k3rxXx” ratcheted up three kills with a sniper rifle when I haven’t even found socks that match my boxers?
Thankfully, it wasn’t too long before I snuffled up a pistol and a couple of clips of ammo, which made me feel slightly more confident. And by this time I’d seen a couple of gunfights going on, watching from the far distance like a nervous voyeur. Firearms and equipment are only found inside buildings and open ground tends to get you spotted pretty easily, so your best bet for getting armoured up is to head to the nearest block of flats, provided that nobody gets the same idea – though they will, sooner or later. That’s when things get interesting.
Mind you, inventory space is limited according to what sort of backpack you're holding, so it’s also all too easy to get ambushed whilst you rummage around in your bag of holding, attaching silencers to pistols and trying on various helmets. It really does have the feel of guerrilla warfare (certainly more so than exaggerated, non-stop games like Call of Duty) as you watch a brutal exchange of bullets from the cover of the undergrowth and warily try to weigh your options. Do you have the cahones to sprint towards the victor with your shotgun cocked, or will you err on the side of caution and let him enjoy the spoils of war?
It’s a game about paranoid tension, not bombastic action or elaborate set-pieces, and Battlegrounds does everything it can to keep you feeling antsy and uncertain. Airstrikes get dropped on random locations just for the sheer hell of it, and as more people are killed the map begins to shrink, represented by a blue circle of energy that slowly tightens to a point, killing anybody too slow to outrun it. It’s like watching the antimatter wall from Crisis On Infinite Earths, but with more Eastern-European countryside and less Supergirl headbands. May Spectre bless the three people who got that reference without having to Google anything.
But regardless, sooner or later I had found an SMG and even a hand grenade to call my own, though still no trousers, which did ruin the image slightly. We were down to the last twenty people and the accessible area of Murderer’s Isle had shrunk to a single postcode, the energy wall hungrily waiting for the bell that would signal its permission to start retracting again.
And as I was traipsing across a field with grass-whipped thighs, I happened to see two people shooting at each other about a hundred feet away, until one of them went down in a pixelated spray of blood.
Right then. Time to nut up or shut up. The A-Team theme music started playing in my head as I sprinted across the dirt barefoot, hip-firing at the survivor and venting all the stress that had built up for the last ten minutes. He saw me immediately and dove behind a tree, popping out to take a couple of shots that merely kicked up the dust at my feet. Undeterred, I pulled the pin on my grenade and lobbed it over to him. When he ran out of cover to escape the blast, I put a bullet in his skull, dropping him like a bag of kittens being dropped into a river.
Yes, yes, yes. Full of adrenaline and cocky swagger, I walked over to his body and began to pick through the splatter for some new equipment… Whereupon a sniper I never even saw turned my head into Bolognese sauce with a well-aimed shot. God damn it.
I guess that’s where a lot of the tension derives from, but there’s something very frustrating about how much of an advantage the snipers seem to get. When you’ve spent twenty minutes carefully acquiring scraps of loot for the next gunfight and carefully staying one step ahead of the Deathwall, it’s all very annoying to see it go to waste on the whim of some rooftop-dwelling git in the next town over. Same thing goes for shotguns in tight corners, when I walked into a bathroom that somebody had claimed dibs on already and was forcibly evicted, sans brain matter. In fact, spending any more than ten minutes of effort only to lose all that progress to a wanton bullet is usually pretty infuriating. I suppose it’s moderated by the fact that your chances of actually winning are literally a hundred to one, and that any progress at all nets you coins that can go towards some meaningless cosmetic gear, but PUBG treads a dangerous line between annoying and exciting at all times, and it’s all too easy for that line to get crossed.
I guess that overall, the gameplay of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is solid, in a simple-but-effective way. I’m not entirely sure how much longevity it can have without some meaty content updates, but it does work as both a disorganised battlefield simulator, and as a glimpse of some terrifying future where Trump gets a second term in office (obligatory topical joke). It’s just a shame that it comes across as having been programmed by somebody who’s used to working with simpler coding tools – such as Gutenberg's hand-operated printing press.
Nothing much good to say here, I’m afraid. Sound design is virtually non-existent, with no music except some generic stuff in the main menu, and where it does exist during gameplay, it’s often glitchy, cutting in and out in the most awful-sounding way. I don’t mind the lack of a soundtrack during matches – making everything deathly quiet is a good way to keep people twitchy and ridden with paranoia – but I wouldn’t have minded some bits of birdsong or the occasional static-ridden radio in the buildings, something to help build atmosphere rather than just neglecting to do much at all. As it was, I usually just had episodes of Yes, Minister playing quietly in the background for something to listen to. After all, who doesn’t love the machiavellian antics of Sir Humphrey?
The visuals weren’t much to write home about either, though mainly because of how poorly optimised the game is at time of writing. Apparently, the engine that PUBG uses tends to prioritise graphics over performance, which basically means that anybody who can’t run their computer on Deep Thought is going to have to send all those sliders in the options menu as far down as they’ll go, provided they don’t just want a slideshow of all the best small-town Soviet locales. The environment design is fine enough, if a little uncreative and with a lot of repeated assets, but on the technical level it’s messy and as much in need of a tune-up as anything else here.
I'll bet you're wondering what happened to the story section of this review, but again – no story to be found here. I suppose one isn't really needed, considering that when somebody puts a gun up your nose and threatens to turn your brains into a fine mist, then you don't really need context to wanna am-scray outta there. Doesn't mean I wouldn't appreciate it, though. Good stories are too few-and-far-between already to have half the industry just give up on them altogether.
You know what I’d really like? I'd like if PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was an idea that’d been conceived of by a bigger company with some more people in their QA department. When it works it’s pretty fun, but it’s rare that everything achieves functionality at the same time, and as a result you’re not just fighting the players, you’re fighting the game itself – something that regularly threatens to kill the experience. I’m also not entirely sure that this’ll be like Overwatch or Team Fortress 2, that I’ll still be playing it often more than six months after it comes out. I’ll certainly admit that I can see the appeal – I just can’t see the effort.
|+ Interesting core concept.|
– Glitchy, bug-ridden and poorly-optimised.
|+ Produces tension organically.||– Not much sense of progression overall.|
|+ Supports various gameplay styles.||– Presentation is lacking.|