BATTLEGROUNDS First Impressions — Frying Pans and Rubber Bands
If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past month, you’ve probably heard whispers of this hot new game called Battlegrounds. Well, maybe not whispers so much as echoing guttural howls, which I believe is the correct way to pronounce the game’s official title: PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS. After playing the game for a week straight I’m confidant enough to say that this unprovoked disregard for proper capitalization isn’t tongue-in-cheek in the slightest, this game will make you scream.
Before I get down to the gritty truth of this popular fad in PC gaming, let it be known that this is an early access title, with all of the disclaimers that go along with it. And not just the usual: “This game’s author takes no responsibility if said game requires a $10,000 computer to run properly”, I’m talking about the far more insidious “May cause severe cases of MAD, if MAD persists for longer than 4 hours, you should probably stop playing, seriously you’ve been awake for 2 days, your boss is wondering where you are and your kids need food or they might die” type of warning. It’s that kind of game.
Even though some fundamental aspects of this online PvP FPS game are laughably broken, I keep coming back for more. It’s like crack except addictive. You see, when you pit 100 players against each other in a massive 8x8 Km map, and only one player or squad can emerge victorious, there’s going to be lots of losers. By definition every match will see 96–99 players losing, and only 1–4 winners. If you thought that maintaining a neutral win/loss ratio was decent, prepare to temper your expectations with this game. Constantly chasing the win has triggered the collective OCD of a million PC gamers and counting, as BlueHole’s winning (losing) formula has been dominating the Steam top 10 charts for weeks. Once again we see that games with tough-as-nails gameplay and a hopelessly low chance of player success are all the rage (pun intended). “Nintendo Hard” doesn’t even do it justice, this game is like the hypercar race on level 3 of BattleToads hard.
Now this formula isn’t entirely new, as H1Z1’s King of the Hill standalone brandishes a similar game mode. Going back even further there’s the Battle Royale mod for Arma 3, built by none other than playerunknown, oh, excuse me, PLAYERUNKNOWN. It seems clear that PUBG marks the dawning of the next hyper-popular gaming genre since MOBAs swept the gaming scene, both of which were conceived as mods.
In this age of half baked beta/EA open-world survival games never getting a final stable release *coughDayZcough*, it’s nice to see that PUBG is at least playable in it’s current form from beginning to end. That being said, BlueHole is aiming to leave EA for the final release in 6 months, tops. Big words considering the state of some the finer points of the game as it currently stands, but certainly within the realm of of possibility. I don’t think I can stomach another promising genre-defining game spending years in beta. So it’s plausible to be release-worthy in 6 months, but these are no minor bugs to squash. The major issues are graphical optimization and server latency, but I’ll touch on these in a bit. We all saw the 11th hour miracle of Final Fantasy XV somehow optimizing the decade-long development in the closing months before shipping, so I have hope.
The #1 defining element in PUBG is the masterful feeling of tension. When done right, your inner musical score is screeching the suspenseful strings from the Psycho soundtrack, bringing you to full-blown panic attack anytime you hear the crack of a bullet through the air. I often feel like a squirrel with severe anxiety problems, scurrying around trying to make sense of this world where everything that moves is trying to kill me. You become very in-touch with your character’s squishy mortality, with the creeping sense of dread following you around every corner, through every building, and what I call the “dead man’s dash” across so many many open fields.
The map is massive, it really is, and can feel sparse even with 100 players running around. To combat this, PUBG employs a familiar mechanic in the genre in the form of a giant blue “doom bubble” that shrinks every few minutes as the game progresses. This forces the players to migrate towards a more and more densely packed area of the map as time goes on. Occasionally a circular red zone will appear on the map, indicating that the area is about to get blown up real good, best to be avoided. The final bubble is only about 15m in diameter, forcing some truly nail-biting encounters late game, if you’re one of the lucky few to have survived that long. Here’s a handy protip: remember that grenade you were thinking of picking up in that house 15 minutes earlier but you thought you probably wouldn’t have a use for it? If you’re in the final 10, you should have picked it up.
A successful PUBG player uses their grey matter for more than just an enemy bullet repository. You’ll be estimating probabilities of where it’s safe to move, where to set up an ambush, and balancing the precise timing required to escape the doom bubble. For example, at the beginning of every round all 100 players cram into a jet aircraft soaring over the map, giving everyone the opportunity to choose when to eject, deploy their parachute, and land on their own special corner of the battlefield, err, battleground, sorry BATTLEGROUND. If you’ve got a working brain, you’ll be taking mental notes of where the bulk of the players dropped at the beginning of the round. You’ll then cross-reference that with the path of the encroaching doom bubble to deduce where the majority of other players probably are, and what direction they’re probably heading. This can give you a leg up when trying to plan your route to maximize the chances of your head being bullet-free for the next few minutes.
I’ve died plenty in this game, make no mistake about it, you will too. It can be frustrating at times when you’ve taken the time to loot houses for 10 minutes straight, only to get headshotted from a suspicious-looking shrub while you stupidly thought it was safe to check your inventory for 2 seconds. This is part of the experience though, every action in the game needs to be considered carefully. Do you close the door behind you after going into a house? Or do you leave it open to signal to others that this house has already been looted? What inventory do you need to take with you at any given time? Does any one human really need to carry 7 energy drinks? Do you have time to check out that supply drop 100m from your location, or is there probably a squad camping it from the treeline? What colour would my pee become after the 5th energy drink? These are the questions that keep me engaged and coming back for more.
For a game that seemingly has little action going on, trust me, I’m constantly firing on all cylinders when I play, and I’m sure that the feeling is shared. I often feel utterly drained after some matches, my body is tense, my breathing is shallow and quickened, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There’s a palpable intensity knowing that there’s 99 other people out there trying to kill you. When I’m playing with friends, at the familiar juncture of “okay, what are we doing now?” there’s always a plethora of options in how you approach your next move. Often this results in the feeling of paralysis, knowing one wrong decision will get your whole squad killed.
I’ve won 4 matches so far, 2 solo and 2 with squads. Yawn, I know right? Chicken for dinner again? Ugh, so tired of winning. Clinching these victories was a mix of skill and luck. It’s skill when it comes to plotting your moves with surgical precision, being patient when setting up an ambush, or being aggressive when pushing. And it’s luck when it comes to how many other players drop at your starting location all fighting over the first guns, in the loot you find, and where the death bubble chooses to constrict the map.
Having thoroughly trounced the default game modes available, I’d like to see some different modes added, as I think larger teams might prove to be interesting. Well, captivating social experiments at the very least, I mentioned FF is on by default right? If you already have a pool of 100 players to pick from, why not 10-man teams? 25-man teams? This could really add some variety for long-term appeal, and short-term hilarity.
While I’m writing my wishlist, I would also love to see a separate mode where I’m allowed to bring in weapons and attachments into the game at spawn. The current rewards system sees you earning credits to unlock crates of questionably fashionable aesthetic gear for your character, so maybe add a gun or two? Perhaps a few bullets why not? Your mother would be be so ashamed if she saw you leaving the house without bullets. This pipedream would obviously draw from an entirely separate pool of players than the classic game mode, but after 3x 20 minute rounds in a row of not finding a scope or a decent gun, the experience swims dangerously close to ragequit territory.
Now let’s get to the problems that PUBG suffers from in it’s current state. I’ll preface this section by saying that PU has explicitly said that the team is focusing on daily server stability patches, weekly optimization patches, and monthly content/balance patches. After playing a few rounds, you’ll probably agree with way BlueHole has triaged these issues.
The server lag is very hit and miss, and when it comes to my weapon accuracy in clutch moments, it’s more miss than hit. Here’s a little story to warm your heart: Last week the devs discovered an issue that was causing unreasonable amounts of rubber-banding. Apparently, the Unreal Engine 4 thought that 100 players connected at the same time was actually a DDoS attack on the game’s server, so the server would enter a very-low resource mode to stave off the “attack”. And speaking of “very-low”, most gamers (myself included) have been running strictly on the “very-low” graphical settings in-game. This is due to the ridiculous amount of optimization the game still needs in order to be playable in the large towns.
When your character turns to face one of the several large towns, I’m 99% confident that the engine is trying to render the interior of every room in every building. Not good. Running on poo graphics settings with a GTX 1080 is embarrassing enough, but seeing your frames dip to 10–15 FPS while using the aforementioned poo settings would make someone so mad they’d do something they’d probably regret, like writing in all caps for no apparent reason. Really though, it’s pretty rough, It’s as if millions of PC master race gamers cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced… probably mulling over the idea of buying a console where games “just work”.
“But it’s an EA game, cut it some slack” I hear you say, and you’re right, thanks for the timely interjection. This shouldn’t be indicative of performance on launch, but it’s important to relay to the potential consumer the state that it’s currently in. When the entire focus of the game revolves these 2-second encounters that decide life and death, it can’t just shit the bed at this most important juncture. When you empty a clip into a player point-blank, and they teleport 5 feet to the left, and then somehow you’re dead, people get angry. I get angry.
This game captures the essence of what I assume real combat feels like, long stretches of tension punctuated by moments of sheer terror. However, all of that flies out the window when that moment of terror slaps the control away from you. These engagements are so anti-climactic, they make the series finale of the Sopranos look positively cathartic in comparison.
The gun balance is feels right, the attachments and mods are good, the healing is fair, and there’s a frying pan as a melee weapon. Overall the balance is surprisingly fine-tuned at this stage in development. If they iron out the inconsistencies with finding loot in some scenarios, then I’d sign off on the core game mechanics being good enough to ship.
Since I’m back to fawning praise on PUBG, let me say that the audio engine is also done remarkably well. There’s 3 phases to each bullet being shot. The first is seeing the muzzle flash. Next, the player being shot at will hear either a bullet whiz by their head, indicating a trajectory that passed within 10m from their head. If this noise is a crack instead of a whiz, this telltale mini sonic boom indicates that the round passed within 2m of their location. There are also bullet impacts that can be distinctly heard hitting terrain, alongside accurate bullet impact decals. The third phase in this sequence is the player finally hearing the shot being fired, since sound travels between 2–3 times slower than muzzle velocities of fired rounds. Breaking down these 3 distinct phases of one event can help the player detect where shot came from, what caliber of bullet it was, the type of gun used, and the accuracy of the shooter. The sound design and programming of guns being fired in this game is nothing short of simulation-grade awesomium.
So as you can plainly see, the game is amazing, but it sucks. My feelings are very bi-polar when it comes to PUBG. On one hand it gets the tension and dynamics just right, on the other hand it’s failing miserably on crucial aspects of technical execution. If you’re the adventurous type who wants to see what all of the fuss is about, then there are worse ways you can spend $30. If you’re not comfortable with the early access experience, and would rather wait for the final polish, then this is definitely one to keep on your radar, just stay out of the red zone.