PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds Preview
There's a sense, as I punch out of the plane and eject, freefalling with 100 other players over an island filled with implements of murder, that I've done this all before.
I have done this before. While PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is an all-new, all-dancing carnival of death, the 'Battle Royale' genre is now ubiquitous. It started small, spinning out of the growing survival genre created by DayZ to cater for the adrenaline junkies who wanted less sitting around in the foliage for hours and something a little more immediate.
For those unfamiliar, battle royale titles pit a teeming mass of players against each other in a fight to the death, inspired equally by the eponymous Japanese novel, and an Arma 3 mod called PlayerUnknown's Battle Royale. Yes, the same guy. I don't often buy into auteur theory, but if anyone deserves to plaster their name across a battle royale title in a Tom Clancy-esque fashion, it's probably PlayerUnknown.
That he has returned to the battle royale genre with not a mod but a fully fledged game under his creative control means that Battlegrounds could be considered the purest form of a battle royale title, sweeping in late after several other titles have already had their crack at the genre. The benefit of all this time gestating is that, even at this early access stage, Battlegrounds feels very complete.
There are a few glitches right now. The servers can get congested, and when this happens, you'll miss the occasional frame or experience a stutter. These issues are oft-infuriating and usually occur just as you're marvelling at a shiny new sniper rifle or about to enter a critical firefight. It's only happened to me a handful of times, but each time has led to me swearing out loud.
Battle royale games are a Sisyphean effort, 30-minute chunks of life, death, repeat, stuck in a loop. You load into a game, listen to people spew racist bile in the waiting room for 90 seconds (mute your voice-chat; you'll thank me), fall out of a plane, scavenge for weapons, get shot, and head back to a different waiting room to try again.
Your only reward for success in Battlegrounds is to return to the same waiting room to do it all again, achieving points which go towards purchasing crates of cosmetic items that raise in price with each random item, serving only to indicate how long you've been playing.
Regardless of its unrelenting futility, Battlegrounds succeeds in creating a compelling game out of the chaos, whether you're playing it solo, in a pair, or with a team of four. What starts as a nervous scramble for gear evolves into moving through villages, ruins, and woodlands, sticking to foliage and shadows and desperately watching for movement. Sometimes you'll get ambushed, your heart rate spikes, and you'll be engaged in a desperate fight for survival. The tension rises more and more as the number of surviving players dwindles, as the members of your team slowly succumb to their wounds, leaving you to continue alone. Footsteps on the grass outside or a door opening will often lead to a panic, hissed calls for silence as you stop moving and try to ascertain the threat.
When combat comes, it's not a relief but further cause for panic. Worse, it's inevitable in this world of violence, where champions are elected by bloody gunfight and everyone else is merely another corpse killed along the way. Firing a gun without a silencer will cause the report to echo for hundreds of meters, and even if you do cleanly kill your target, his friends or nearby enemies will treat the shot as a feeding bell, descending on your position.