Early Access is a term that has become ever more prevalent in the video games world. The intent as I see it is to allow smaller studios to fund games during development by offering discounts to those willing to persist with an incomplete, and often unstable, experience. The reality however feels much more like a mechanism for developers to cash out early and move on to other, newer, things seldom delivering a complete product. It has however become the spawning grounds for some innovative and refreshing gameplay experiences. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds certainly fits into that category, a PC title that has risen from through the early access soup to now stand atop all else, notably dethroning DOTA as the Steam title with the largest concurrent playerbase by quite some margin. It’s popularity meant that it was only a matter of time before it appeared on console in some form or another, and it’s Microsoft – who arguably are in need of some compelling exclusives – who are first to bring PC gaming’s trending experience to the TV, albeit still under the Early Access (Game Preview) umbrella.
The game itself is essentially the video game of the film Battle Royale, a superb yet disturbing Japanese film chronicling a last man standing fight between school pupils on an island – if you’ve not seen the film then I highly recommend it. The premise is simple, 100 players are air dropped onto an island littered with weapons and must battle until only one remains. It’s very much a survival game, distilled into 20-30 minute long matches that pits you not against the environment, but each other. Make no mistake, the learning curve is steep. As it stands there is no tutorial, and other than a short 1 minute sandbox to experiment with prior to matches starting the only real assistance is the occasional on-screen text hinting at how to interact with certain objects. As such, your initial experience will be a frustrating and possibly un-fun journey of trial and error as you steadily learn the intricacies of the game. Weapons need to reloaded when picked up, vehicles fuelled and the different audio sounds that distinguish distant fire vs bullets heading your way. Persevere and gradually you’ll learn whats required to survive in the game, and once you’ve broken through that threshold your focus can shift to trying to win a match.
Winning a game requires you to engage other players, and as matches progress the large play-space presents it’s own issues particularly as the heard is steadily thinned. Rather than simply limit each match with a count down timer, as each game progresses the available play-space is reduced by the means of a shrinking damage field. As the field shrinks, you’ll have a limited amount of time to move to the new play area as marked on your map. Depending on your position relative to the new area – which is always a sub-region of the current play area – you might have to travel a quite significant distance where as other times you might not need to move at all. Find yourself on the wrong side of the field, and you’ll start to suffer damage. Eventually, the play area will have shrunk to nothing more than a 20 or so square metres setting things up for one final close quarters firefight between everyone who is still left, and this is where things can get very tense and tactical, reaching heart pounding levels as your 20 or so minutes of investment will shortly end in either failure or success.
The game offers both solo and team play modes , with the latter supporting either 2 or 4 man squads. Each mode follows the same rules, but manages to feel somewhat different. Alone, matches feel less pressured, affording you more time to experiment and enjoy yourself. In a squad however, the dynamic shifts to teamwork and ensuring that together you operate as an effective unit. Team play is more strategic, and effective voice communication is key as there is no means in game to spot or highlight enemies. It’s on you to succinctly communicate whats happening in the environment, and your effectiveness at this will often be difference between living and dying. It’s superb fun, even more so if you have a regular group of friends that you can squad up with.
(Hello dear readers, EIC Ben here. The following paragraphs have been left in as Joel has written them, though his lambasting of PUBG due to performance issues has already been addressed in its first patch. While the game is still not perfect, significant improvements have already been made, this is the nature of games in Game Preview, they change, improve and evolve!)
Performance however is the games primary issue, failing to hit consistent smooth frame rates and at times feeling clunky and un-responsive. Xbox One X users gain high resolution textures and a full 4K resolution, however the game is hardly a looker with mediocre geometry and textures that fail to convey a ‘high resolution’ appearance. The game is generally responsive, although at times it can feel somewhat unresponsive to your actions. Things get worse on the Xbox One and Xbox One S platforms, frame-rate fluctuations are exacerbated and significant drops in both texture resolution and draw distance seriously impacting your ability to compete. Frame-rates plummet in close proximity to other players and vehicles, landmarks are harder to distinguish during you initial drop onto the island and some bad pop-in means that you can’t see things until it’s almost too late. It’s not completely unplayable, however the delta between the platforms is massive and as far as multiplayer competitive shooters go, a complete disaster. As it stands, it’s a showcase for exactly what players are concerned about with multiple hardware profiles for consoles, and both the developer and Microsoft need to put in some hours in here to reduce the delta to ensure that the competitive advantages are reduced to an absolute minimum.
Overall, and putting performance issues to one side, the majority of things that matter work well. I’ve had no issues with partying up, match making takes no longer than 10-20 seconds nor have I had any real issues once matches have started. I’ve suffered a single disconnect whilst in game, but the game affords you the option to rejoin and pick up where you left off if you so wish. For me, it feels like the best elements of Day Z condensed down into 20-30 minute matches, keeping the skill and emotion and compressing it into a more accessible time-frame. It’s a pure game, un-encumbered with achievements, leaderboards, stats comparison or any item unlocks. Hard work is it’s own reward, and the more you play the easier it becomes to reach the closing stages of matches. The game doesn’t make a song and dance when you win, or reward you with a unique hat, badge or skin. All you’ll get – and frankly all you need – is your own sense of pride and accomplishment and the game over screen augmented with the message ‘Winner Winner Chicken Dinner’. This is a game where your accomplishments and failures are shared through stories. Can you remember that time when so and so did that, or that time where X did that. I’ve only completed a dozen or so matches so far, yet I’ve enough material to entertain my friends for an evening in the pub – mostly about my calamitous failings prior to death that could be easily avoided with a little more skill.
To conclude, Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds offers a refreshing and unique experience. On the surface it’s very rough, but underneath there is enough structurally and mechanically to sample the promise this genre has. Non Xbox One X users will find things tough, and I’d advise you to consider holding fire to see if things do improve. But as it stands If your willing to put in the time, stomach it’s flaws and work around it’s quirks then this is hands down the best multiplayer game this year.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was provided to us by Xbox/Bluehole for Xbox One. It was looked at on an Xbox One S and X.