A hundred people sit shoulder to shoulder in the back of a repurposed military aeroplane. Dressed in combat fatigues, tank tops and punk boots, the motley assortment looks fit to audition for John Rambo’s stunt team, but they’re not in this plane to act. They’re here to kill.
The atmosphere is civil now – discounting whatever is being screamed over local chat at any given moment – but in mere seconds this centuria of sadists will be at each other’s throats with whatever they can find, Battle Royale style. The door opens, and one by one the survivalists throw themselves out to parachute down into a desolate post-Soviet island.
This is PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS, and its appeal is as hard to explain as it is undeniable. Currently in early access and constantly undergoing refinements, meta changes and additions, the game follows the success of recent open world survival sims such as DayZ and ARMA 3. Indeed, the enigmatic PlayerUnknown (Brendan Greene) himself is a veteran of the genre, having worked on the DayZ offshoot Battle Royale, and PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS follows in the spirit of his past work.
In mere seconds this centuria of sadists will be at each other’s throats with whatever they can find, Battle Royale style.
After you find a match (which can be done in squads of up to four, in pairs, or – for the exceptionally brave – solo) you’re dropped into a lobby and then shortly thereafter a plane. From here, you pick a time to eject and parachute down to wherever your strategy dictates – a military base for instance, where high-grade weapon spawns are guaranteed but fighting over them is inevitable, or a tiny hamlet where you’re less likely to find exceptional loot but equally unlikely to be contested for whatever there is to take.
There’s another dynamic working against you besides the horde of bloodthirsty opponents scattered across the island, though. On the map, a white circle encloses a large area, with a larger blue circle around it. This blue circle represents an ambiguously electrical and definitely lethal barrier, a common trope in battle royale games designed to force the contestants closer together, and will tighten towards the white circle. Sure enough, when it does, a new, smaller safe zone will appear, and you have to hurry towards it before the death wall beats you there.
Combat is fast and frantic, if not frequent, and veterans of DayZ and Arma will find themselves on familiar ground here: weapons are designed realistically, with bullet drop accounted for and little required to take an enemy (and, of course, yourself) down. You’ll find yourself taking to favourite weapons before long, hunting for them in eerily abandoned hospitals, as well as the best mods to complement them.
The ever-present threat of running into enemy players keeps the game unbelievably tense even when nothing seems to be happening. You can spend half an hour roaming the island and run into no-one, but the distant gunshots heard from a nearby town or the sound of a motor somewhere are guaranteed to make you seize up like a startled goat. And when you do get hit, you’ll feel the blood pumping as you desperately try to seek cover with as many of your organs left inside you as possible.
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS has an utterly idiosyncratic charm about it, despite the games it otherwise seems to imitate
You can have fun with this game alone, undeniably, but its real appeal lies in the squad mode. There’s an extraordinary sense of intimacy when searching and clearing a cluster of buildings together, or laying down covering fire so your friend can get to higher ground and flank a troublesome rival squad. As with every multiplayer game, there’s also the inevitable hilarity that ensues – my friend knocking me out cold from the backseat of a jeep with a frying pan whilst I was driving, for instance. Admittedly, that was funnier to him than me.
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS has an utterly idiosyncratic charm about it, despite the games it otherwise seems to imitate. Despite its early-access status, the gameplay feels very refined, and Greene’s abundant experience in the genre is apparent. Thanks to the crucial time factor, PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS never feels the slowdown that inhibits DayZ and Arma so much. In those games, you lack an ultimate objective beyond survival for survival’s sake, and there’s never any situation even approaching the high-stakes, chest-tightening shootout when the safe zone reaches its minimum size: as small as a circle a few metres across.
As a multiplayer experience, PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS represents the absolute best of what cooperative PvP can be. The game is still in development, with even more huge maps across a variety of environments reportedly in the works (apparently you can set these games somewhere other than not-quite-Russia; who knew?), and the teething difficulties many people have reported with framerate and memory consumption will hopefully be ironed out in time.
For the time being, £26 can get you a fantastically well thought-out and completely absorbing tactical survival shooter, and if you can ignore some technical hitches, your patience will be rewarded with a wealth of promised future content. Even so, it stands on its own right now, and you’ll really want to buy into the hype in the early stages before everyone else masters the meta. As for me, I’ll see you on the island – but you’d better hope you see me first.
This copy of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS was purchased in early access on Steam by contributor James McCoull. He has so far spent 9 hours cowering in cornfields amidst grenade blasts and gunfire as his dead squadmates screamed in his ear for vengeance.