PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds - Xbox One Impressions
This year's most popular game comes to console.
If you didn't know about the intense hype that has built up around PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds before making your first leap from the plane as it flies over Erangel, then you'd be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss has been about. Almost a year after the game launched on Steam Early Access, the Battle Royale-inspired shooter is now available on Xbox One via Game Preview. However, just as was the case back in March, PUBG has made the jump to console in a work-in-progress state. Straight away we're greeted with better-late-than-never texture pop-in, frame-rate drops, and occasionally fiddly controls. Seasoned players will know that this is par for the course, and might even argue that those rough edges are part of the charm, but to us, it feels very much like deja vu.
There has been no escaping PUBG. 2017 has seen this unheralded and unfinished game catapulted into the limelight, and there it has most certainly stayed. With around 25 million copies already sold, it has become an undeniable sensation, and in doing so has muscled its way into many a GOTY discussion; you simply can't argue with those numbers. The question is, then, whether the game makes the transition to Xbox One in good shape, and whether it's worth an investment.
If you're contemplating joining in the fun, or even if you're asking Santa to buy you a ticket to Erangel, it's clear that Battlegrounds has that certain special something that draws you in and keeps ahold of you. Despite a buggy launch on both platforms, plus some less-than-stellar production values, it remains an utterly compelling experience. After the first couple of hours, once we'd gotten into the swing of things, that delicious knot of tension returned to our stomach as we attempted to stay alive as long as possible and take out anyone who crossed our path in the process.
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Straight away we were ducking in and out of buildings, grabbing weapons and ammo, suiting up with new gear, and generally trying to stay out of harm's way while we gathered our strength. Sometimes it works out well and you make it through that initial hurdle, other times you lose the first race and an opponent gets the drop on you quite fortuitously, sending you back to the loading screen for another bite at the apple. But right from the start of each round - and this is perhaps PUBG's greatest strength - you're being asked to make meaningful decisions.
When do you bail from the plane? What kind of building are you aiming for as you descend to earth? When you get there how long do you stick around? What kind of gear will you leave lying on the ground and what kind of build are you hoping to craft for this attempt? If you see an opponent moving in a different direction do you make after them or retreat and therefore guarantee your immediate safety? Do you leave the doors open to the buildings you scavenge and move with greater haste, or meticulously remove all traces of your entrances and exits? Do you grab a bike and enjoy the added speed they offer, or keep a low profile and proceed on foot?
The questions just keep on coming, and as the game evolves and players are ushered from zone to zone, avoiding bombardments and life-leeching waves of crackling energy that wouldn't feel out of place in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, the meta is constantly shifting. We've seen similar tricks pulled before (and since) in other titles, but none of these pretenders has produced an experience that resonates as strongly as the formula does here.
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However, despite the undoubted allure of going up against 99 other players (or 49 pairs, or even squads up to four-players strong) and the richly detailed island that has been built to facilitate a constantly evolving online experience, it's still hard not to wish it wasn't a bit more polished in places. The audio is inconsistent, we've noticed some server lag, the frame-rate drops are quite noticeable when they happen, and distant enemies are, at times, too obscure. There's plenty of optimisation still to do because we played primarily on an Xbox One X and it doesn't feel like a silky smooth experience yet. While of course it's an early access release, certainly from the X at least, we expected more.
It's not helped by the transition from keyboard to controller. It took us a while to get used to aiming because the seeming lack of aim assist does make things trickier. We'd also recommend anyone jumping in for the first time to check out the controller mapping as soon as possible, because we spent far too long trying to work out how to load our first gun, and even once we'd sussed it, holding the X button down doesn't feel like a satisfying way of executing that particular action. After a while, though, it did start to feel more natural, and eventually, once we'd died a few times due to poor aim and bad map positioning, we started to find our groove, surviving longer and longer into each game. Having fun. It helps that some of the PC improvements from the last few months have made it into this new version at launch, and PUBG on Xbox is certainly in a much healthier state than the PC version was at launch.
Even with the PC build (which we think is still the best way to experience PUBG, for now at least) so close to full release, there's much to do with regards to the console version. We'd argue that both versions could do with a bit more finesse, and the beginning part of each round is something that could really do with freshening up; at the moment the lack of polish around the loading screen and plane journey is really noticeable and could do with a touch more style and substance. That said, the opening also succinctly symbolises what PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is; a rough around the edges work-in-progress that culminates in a jump into the unknown. PUBG offers a battlefield of constantly evolving challenges, and despite its relatively limited scope, it also gives us something distinct and endlessly replayable. If you can forgive the technical hiccups and some performance dips, that compelling essence has remained intact as the game makes the transition from PC to Xbox One, and we see no reason that this juggernaut of a game will slow down anytime soon.