PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds - Early Access Impressions
We've been trying to thrive and survive in this intriguing take on the Battle Royale formula.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was born on the servers of Arma 2. Design lead Brendan Greene (the titular PlayerUnknown) created a Battle Royale mode for Bohemia's moddable military sim that resonated strongly with the community, and now he's working with Bluehole Studio to realise that vision in standalone form. It's a game that follows hot on the heels of another survival-infused arena battler, thus it has arrived with competition already in place. On top of that, for an Early Access title it also comes with a pretty hefty pricetag, one that's certainly steep enough to put off a number of potential customers, even more so when you consider that it's still very early days for the project and there's a lot of unpolished elements. Having said all that, it's already proving very popular over on Steam, and with good reason.
After having recently played another Early Access release set in the same genre, namely The Culling, we have to admit that we weren't overly excited about getting our hands on PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. There are certain games that, while they benefit somewhat from public testing, it's disappointing that their impact is diluted, spread out to include months where the game is nowhere near as polished as it one day will be. That's true for The Culling as much as it for Battlegrounds; the buzz surrounding these games can wash over them like a tidal wave, but they're just not polished nor balanced enough during this initial launch, and their moment in the spotlight is almost wasted on a scrappy, work-in-progress build.
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However, in these days where paying players are taking on the role of beta testers, we're starting to get used to the practice. And in particular, the huge community that supports these open-world survival games, from DayZ to Conan Exiles via everything in-between, is, more than any other group of gamers, used to playing through the pain and enduring buggy and unrefined experiences as they chug through early access in its various forms. In that sense, their dedication is admirable.
It was with this in mind that we sat down to play Battlegrounds, a game with an oh-so-simple premise: kill or be killed. Based on the same themes as the movie Battle Royale, nearly 100 players are dropped into a massive island and are tasked with nothing more than murderous survival. It's not an original concept, granted, yet the devs have still managed to keep things feeling fresh thanks to some clever features.
The action starts in the air, aboard a plane, flying over a spacious island. You get to pick your moment to parachute down to the ground floor, and it's quite a sight to see your future enemies gliding down to the surface all around you, each person knowing that following the fall, everyone will be trying to kill everyone else. It's very much the quiet before the storm, a serene moment before the killing commences.
Once you land you have to arm yourself, at first with whatever comes to hand. In their placement of weapons and gear, they've been very generous. It sets the tone for each match, and it won't take long before you're armed to the teeth, with weapons ranging from frying pans to assault rifles. As such there's less desperate scavenging than you might expect, and players can turn their attention to aggressively challenging their opponents sooner rather than later.
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There are melee weapons, but the focus here is very much on firearms, and it's imperative that you find a decent gun as early as possible. Gear, armour, and weapons are never in short supply, and even the punchier weapons can be upgraded and modified using the items that are sprinkled all over the map. Inventory management is a key part of the experience, but it's a risk versus reward arrangement, because every second spent applying bandages or upgrading rifles is a second where an unknown enemy might stumble upon you at your most vulnerable.
The island where the action takes place is big, but not so big that you'll be waiting too long before you see another player. There's actually a lot of nice detail built into the environment, with enterable buildings, towns, natural bottlenecks, and tactically tempting locations to try and hold. Get a good spot and a decent gun and you're stacking the odds in your favour, but always with the kicker that there'll be someone coming for you at some point, seeking that which you now have.
The devs keep the action moving along by shrinking the playable area; it's like a noose that tightens around the stragglers as they make their way to the centre of the map. It can pay to drop near the middle of the island at the start of the game, to save you from a risky migration, but there'll be other people thinking the same thing and therefore it can get a little congested sooner. There are also bombs that drop in different areas at certain times; another incentive to keep players moving towards the middle of the map and closer to a near-certain death.
The free-for-all mode was fun, but it was actually playing in co-op that we enjoyed ourselves the most (there is a squad mode, but we didn't venture into that particular arena). Two-player combat adds a tactical edge to proceedings, and plotting moves together with a partner made for some truly engaging moments. It also stops you feeling isolated and alone, and while we're aware that in solo mode that's kinda the point, having company in co-op was certainly welcome, and we can see ourselves returning to this mode again and again in the future.
After a few rounds spent acclimatising to our new surroundings, we found ourselves having a good time. Sure, it's very rough around the edges, with frequent clipping, bugs galore, muddy textures, and unpolished audio, but it does the most important thing right: it's fun. There's a long road ahead for this particular project, and if it's going to live up to its potential, a lot needs to be fixed and refined. However, the basic foundations are in place, and they seem to be solid. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is shaping up to be good game, and after our first look, we're eager for more.