Republished on Wednesday 26th August 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of September's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
While not the first battle royale game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (also known as PUBG to its friends) managed to kick-off a genre land grab in the wake of its massively successful appearance on PC in 2017. Since then Fortnite has surpassed it in terms of raw popularity, and every developer and his dog has tried to shoehorn a battle royale mode into their online shooter. Close to two years in the making, PUBG’s arrival on PlayStation 4 ultimately raises one massive question though: has it missed the battle royale boat with the PlayStation faithful?
One hundred players, three massive maps to explore, and a slowly shrinking circle forcing players into increasing frantic fights. There’s not much more to be said about the premise at the heart of PUBG, since there’s a very good chance that you’ll have tested the battle royale waters before, be it in Fortnite, H1Z1, or the Blackout mode in the latest Call of Duty.
As a result, whether you’ll be on-board will largely depend on where your tastes fall on the battle royale spectrum. If you were to place Fortnite at one end of said spectrum – with its colourful stylings and building mechanics - then PUBG would be at the opposite end completely. This is a tactical shooter through-and-through with everything about it designed to ground the experience as much as possible.
This is most evident in the ballistic modelling that makes moving and shooting at the same time with its range of contemporary weaponry a largely futile affair – unless it’s at extremely short range that is. As a result, engagements can become a tense battle of wills as you and your opponents vie for a better firing positioning and try to outflank each other. Shooting at medium or long range also requires you to become deft at leading your target, and with very little feedback as to when you’ve landed a successful shot – you might just be able to make out a blood spray from the impact point – means that when you do pull off a kill shot it’s immensely satisfying.
You won’t have your own way all the time, though, and for every tense back-and-forth gunfight, you’ll probably be unceremoniously gunned down without getting off a shot a few times – this will especially the case if you’re spending most of your time playing solo rather than in the duo or squad matches where you’ll have teammates also keeping an eye out for trouble.
While getting shot doesn’t result in a swift death all the time, the fact it takes a few seconds while remaining stationary to use any of the lifesaving consumables – many of which will only heal you back up to seventy-five percent of your total health – means that dishing out or taking damage is cause for either celebration or despair.
This fragility – as well as the speed at which the circle closes in – ends up making each match extremely tense, and you’ll constantly be at war with yourself as you try to keep on the move so you can stay within the circle's safe area, while also staying on the lookout for a good hole-up position so you can be ready for when the inevitable gunfights kick-off. This constant tactical decision-making is a treat for anyone looking for a more methodical experience that has a distinct absence of bunny-hopping, fort-building, or grappling hooks.
While the core gameplay is definitely onto a winner, the more technical aspects of PUBG are, however, on much shakier ground. This is by no means the technical travesty that arrived on Xbox Game Preview a year ago – its rock solid in terms of stability, and runs at a decent framerate – but it’s still a far cry from its higher profile competitors in terms of polish.
Frequent detail pop-in – especially when in a vehicle – drab environments across its three different maps, unimpressive animations, and some odd control scheme choices, all make for a poor first impression. This lack of polish will move to the back of your mind as you become more and more absorbed in the life and death battles on offer, but you’ll keep butting up against the same annoyances again and again. Whether it’s fighting the third-person camera anytime you enter a small building, or having to pull the left trigger twice in quick succession if you want to aim through your gun’s sights, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never come to terms completely with some of the all too obvious idiosyncrasies.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds manages to differentiate itself from its battle royale progeny with its more tactical spin on the formula, even with its obvious lack of presentational prowess. While its grounded approach can be brutal at first, if you take the time to immerse yourself in its stress inducing battles, you’ll find yourself involved in epic engagements that will have you sharing your successes – and failures – with anyone willing to listen. It may not be the king anymore, but PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds still more than deserves a place at the top table.