There's a strange dissonance to the opening of PlayerUnkown's Battlegrounds that the series has never managed to adequately explain away or contextualise. Despite depicting a life or death struggle whereby dozens of people fight to the death, instead of 100 nervous combatants huddled around, waiting, stressed, about to jump to their near-certain doom on an island filled with deadly weapons, players instead run around like headless chickens, punching each other and jumping from absurd heights. This juxtaposition between absurdity and death defines the whole genre in one way or another, but PUBG's position as an elder in the battle royale space, along with the game's straight-faced take on the last-player-standing formula, leaves it vulnerable to feeling like a Groundhog Day of death from which there is no respite.
PUBG might not have been the very first battle royale shooter, but it was the first big one, and since it took off it has inspired a wave of devs to take on the concept and try and make it their own. We've had a number of success stories follow suit, most famously Fortnite, with Epic irking their old friends at Bluehole by basically lifting the concept and giving it their own cartoony twist. Throw in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout mode and Apex Legends (as well as dozens of other games that either explore some part of the formula, or that borrow fundamental elements and use them in entirely new ways, like Tetris 99), and you've got an over-saturated market filled with big-name players.
Despite being a bit rickety at launch, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds got the battle royale formula pretty much spot on. While we couldn't have predicted the behemoth the genre would go on to become after our first introduction to PUBG, it was clear that the game had something special about it, and that essence is what has carried the formula out and helped it to cross-pollinate countless spin-offs.
And that essence is still there in PUBG as it stands in July 2019, with the game's fourth season in full swing and the developer - now called PUBG Corp. - still bringing fresh content to the table in order to maintain engagement with the game's still huge following of players. Over the years since launch, one map became two maps became three maps became four, but for the latest season of content, it's actually the first island that launched with the game, Erangel, that's getting some love, via an update that brings fresh life to an arena that was looking increasingly tired.
And that's as good a place as any to start. As you can see in the before and after shots above, Erangel is has gone from looking like the ropiest of the four maps to being the pick of the bunch, and the fresh lick of paint certainly helps elevate the experience, even if it doesn't alter it in a fundamental way. The textures are crisper and more detailed, and the whole thing looks more like a game of its stature should. There are even new details to be found here and there, with little pieces of environmental storytelling littered across the map to give players a hint as to what happened to bring them to the island in the first place. If you're deeply invested in the game, you're likely to get something out of these changes. The rest of us will have a nicer-looking island to battle over and that's fine too.
The new-look Erangel is now available alongside three more maps - Miramar, Sanhok, and Vikendi - which means a fair amount of environmental variety. There's a nice mix, with the familiar features of Erangel complemented by the dust of Miramar, the lush vegetation of Sanhok, and the inhospitable ice of Vikendi. Then there's the growing range of ways to play the game, and it's here that PUBG Corp. has put in a lot of time into trying to differentiate the battle royale experience for its players. There's an argument to say that the community is being split by having the option to play deathmatch and conquest modes, zombies, and more. There's also the chance to play in first- and third-person, further dividing up the player-base. Happily, thanks to the game's substantial community, the wait between matches is typically pretty short (unless you're wedded to the idea of playing something relatively unpopular), so it's not a terminal issue, however, it's something to keep an eye on if/when the number of active players begins to wane significantly.
To stop that happening, the developers will have to keep on iterating and evolving the game. To that effect, last year we saw the Event Pass system (similar to the one used in Fortnite) come over to PUBG, giving people a new way to earn cosmetic items while they play. Progress didn't feel particularly fast, but at least there are both individual goals to complete and new co-op missions where everyone is in it together and working towards a common objective. It's also worth mentioning the mobile game, which initially launched in China and then followed elsewhere, as it's another way that the publisher is trying to plug people into the wider ecosystem and keep them hooked.
One of the more prominent ways of maintaining the game's profile has been esports, and we've seen a decent uptake from pro players and there's a healthy competitive scene building around the game in no less than nine different territories (and with a five year plan in place, the developers are obviously thinking long-term). With competitive gaming comes hackers, however, and PUBG has had its fair share of issues in this department, but with new anti-cheating measures regularly introduced the developer has tried to keep the experience fair for all its players.
Beyond those changes, there have been a number of quality of life improvements made to the game, including significant tweaks to the Blue Zone and the way that it impacts each round. Now the shrinking circle of doom is a bit smaller and the action more confined, forcing players together a little sooner than before. It's a subtle change in the grand scheme of things, but along with the steady introduction of new items, weapons, and vehicles, it has helped keep PUBG feeling fresh. These additions also include UI changes and improvements to the matchmaking that have together made for a more stable and accessible experience for players (more on the latest batch of changes can be found here).
To sum up, PUBG is ticking along at a fairly steady pace. The studio isn't able to match the rapid iteration we're seeing at Epic with Fortnite, but what they lack in speed they at least offer in map variety. Moreover, there's a respectable range of ways to play the game available from the dash, from the new coop missions to the custom matches that are currently in open beta. Perhaps the most important thing, however, is that there's a continued evolution of the gameplay, and we've seen with the introduction of smoother jumping and mantle mechanics that these quality of life improvements really do make a huge difference to the overall experience. PUBG needs to continue to refine the way it feels because the studio is in the mix with some seriously accomplished studios.
It's going to take something special to muscle in on the top table of battle royale gaming, and for the time being PlayerUnknown and his four Battlegrounds are still doing the business and staying relevant. Its long-term prognosis rests on a steady stream of new content, but also a continued and concerted effort to improve the experience on a granular level. We'd also like to see more story brought to the fore, to combat the dissonance that we mentioned earlier, and we welcome the introduction of more narrative elements in Erangel. What's more, with former Call of Duty and Dead Space developer Glen Schofield joining the company to work on a single-player story-driven experience set in the PUBG universe, that's clearly on the minds of the game's makers too.