Battle Royale was initially a Japanese manga turned into a movie which served as an inspiration for a bestseller book trilogy and some questionably successful western movies. The same concept stands as the base for an ARMA 2 mod which carried on to ARMA 3 evolving into a wide phenomenon as a sub-genre of its own. Brendan Greene, the mastermind behind this gaming trend, is now returning with a standalone game with an uninspired name. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is the highly anticipated child born out of ARMA’s complex gameplay, Unreal Engine’s 4 versatility and a touch of arcadyness from a distant cousin.
Battlegrounds is a pretty straight forward game. There is no story involved, no evil corporation tests the limit of humans and no totalitarian leader is forcing people into a game of life and death. One hundred players are gathered into a lobby where a human centipede isn’t an uncommon sight. These players are packed into an airplane and thrown into a sandbox arena, alone or in teams of between two and four players, to battle for supremacy in a deadly competition.
Jumping out of that airplane puts the first pressure on the players, time. With each second wasted other players are getting ahead, looting and gaining a more advantageous position on the map. A map that’s unforgiving by nature, constantly narrowing the playzone with a damaging shield that becomes increasingly more deadly as the time goes by. A mechanic meant to bring players into unavoidable slaughter zones.
Despite the pressure, there is a certain level of fairness in the gameplay as all players start without gear. Yet fair play won’t be found in this game as everyone will use any means necessary to kill you. The randomness of some gameplay elements favors those capable of adapting to any situation. The loot is inconsistent and you’ll rarely see the same item in the same spot twice, meaning that you have to constantly be prepared for the unexpected. Luck is a factor and overcoming its negative influence while adjusting to the good fortune of other players is part of getting better at the game. Taking good decisions is the first step to victory and it starts by choosing a good, yet secluded, spot to parachute out of the airplane. Learning the layout of each area and how to efficiently move around and loot is step two. But in the end everything comes down to fighting and that’s when things get intense.
The battles are rather tricky since Battlegrounds is currently a 3rd person only game which means everyone can peek over cover and behind corners giving the defender (camper) a rather big advantage. Movement and positioning are key and taking risks should be a calculated endeavor if not forced by bad circumstances. But while the 3rd person camera grants such vision advantages shooting from it has been deliberately made unreliable to force players into aiming down sight to deliver exact shots. The gunplay has inherited a few mechanics from ARMA 3 and therefore is much more complex than many have expected it to be. Each gun has different stats and behaves rather differently from short to long range engagements. The bullet’s drop and the zeroing on scopes have to be estimated and properly adjusted for damaging effects while shots have to be lead forward on moving targets. Even weapon sway has made it into this game and controlling it with short bursts of breath holding is crucial in almost any engagement. The shots aren’t as lethal as they are in ARMA 3, an intentional design fueling the game’s competitive aspect, but have a powerful impact which can be seen as a blood splatter marker that varies based on the caliber used.
The weapon options are plenty, varying from more than enough handguns to popular assault rifle choices like M16, SCAR L or AKM to obliterating shotguns and powerful bolt-action rifles capable of headshots at long range. And the loot also provides enough weapon customizations and other tools to get tactical. The damage model has an almost mathematical quality allowing players to learn the number of shots required for each gun against targets with various levels of armor or without armor at all. But taking damage isn’t final. The lost health can be healed by multiple medical items which make the looting phase and resupplying from killed players so important.
The combat as a whole is a multitude of small gameplay elements that come together as a complex mechanism that’s at the crossroad between skill, action and tactics, adding great replay value through unexpected and unique situations with each new match.
The intensity at which battles are conducted make for a bitter-sweet contrast between terrible mistakes and incredible plays in a crazy swirl of adrenaline that sometimes favors guts and instinct over planning. The level of focus required during a match is unparallel with most of today’s shooters and players have to use everything at their disposal being the gimmicky 3rd person camera, camping, cheesy tactics or even camouflaging in the tall grass. The learning curve might seem flat at first but gets increasingly steeper as you really get into the game. There are so many mechanics to master and so many tricks to learn that even at the 200 hours mark I still discover new things.
Battlegrounds sustains a constant feeling of unease, having its source in Battle Royale’s hardcore gameplay based on gain and loss. Getting good gear makes you more hopeful in the match but also a more valuable target to other players and there is this ever present danger of losing edge-giving loot and having to start over. The adrenaline generated by these moments can be quite insane and it’s not easily controlled. But getting over this anxiety and winning battles is a feeling that nowadays I get from so few online games.
On the technical part, Battlegrounds is visually pleasing without setting on impressing. The Unreal Engine 4 proved to be a good choice for a sandbox map that stands as the battlefield for one hundred players. But the optimization isn’t quite there yet and most players, including myself, are forced to use the lowest settings for a more stable frame-rate that’s not taking a toll on the gameplay performance (hence the low visual quality screenshots). The optimization is an ongoing work with visible results in the latest update, but there is still a long way to go until the game will run smoothly and I would suggest for the players with less potent rigs to avoid Battlegrounds for a while.
The sound design is on the same boat with the graphics. The sound effects are immersively good with an intensity based on distance and location. Each gun has distinctive sound effects and the supersonic bullets are followed by the booming gunshot, the echoing and the impact sounds. But while the audio is appealing the technical part is quite sketchy for a competitive game. Directional sounds play a crucial role in the gameplay and in the current state aren’t always reliable, misleading players into their deaths.
As an Early Access game that’s continuously worked on, Battlegrounds has seen many technical improvements. But in its current state it is a game for those willing to take risks and have their gameplay experience diminished by potential problems.
Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds has quite a few features under its Early Access belt. The spectator’s camera has already been introduced for team game modes. Each player’s performance is tracked on a leaderboard meant to keep the competitive spirit alive until the season ranked system is added to the game. There’s even a cosmetic progression based on the now popular loot crates which can be bought with the points earned by playing the game. The cosmetic items are few in number but more are gradually added with a planned explosion of (realistic) cosmetic items after the game’s full release.
The roadmap for Battlegrounds is packed with content including new guns and vehicles, better animations, visual improvements, modding support and many other cool features. For the skeptics born out of the many Early Access disappointments this seems unlikely, but as I look at the game evolving through weekly and monthly updates, I know that Battlegrounds is in the right hands. The developer’s commitment to their game can be seen not only in the first major update which is part of a six updates plan meant to bring Battlegrounds into a final state, but through their constant communication keeping players up to date on both improvements and unexpected problems.
Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds seems to be a game with a bright future selling over 1.3 million copies in just one month of Early Access. An impressive feat that puts a huge weight on the shoulders of Brendan Greene and the Korean studio, Bluehole.
The reason behind this success isn’t only the creator’s name. The game has an addictive gameplay formula that’s mixing in an almost perfect manner skill, tactics and chance into a package that’s both competitive and frustratingly entertaining, but not without its problems. With the funds behind it, a team that’s dedicated towards their craft and a flair for esports, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds might be the Battle Royale game the fans have been waiting for.