In 2017, the gaming world was abuzz. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds emerged from humble beginnings as a mod for popular military shooter ARMA 3 to dominate the gaming conversation and put Battle Royale titles on the map. In 2019, it is surrounded by competitors on all sides – Fortnite, Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Blackout among them.
What next for PUBG?
PUBG became a phenomenon for a reason, of course. Surviving one of its matches requires a not-insignificant degree of luck, a far cry from the constant killing and respawning of other modern shooters. PUBG offered a complete antithesis to Call of Duty – every kill its own reward, every death a learning experience.
Even to this day, it remains the most realistic (within reason) battle royale title – its weapons are authentic, its locales almost mundane in their relatability – all greens and browns. Crawling through long grass with a sniper rifle aiming at an unsuspecting enemy feels arguably tenser in PUBG than any other. It’s a game that causes hands to sweat and sharpest of inhalation, free from the colourful skins of its competition.
PUBG is also (at least for now), the only game of these juggernauts with more than one map – although its competition often tweak their maps to negate this. Each map is huge, and force different playstyles – the arid desert of Miramar has less cover than Erangel’s forest areas and streams, while the smaller Sanhok is geared towards a quick-fix of combat.
Of course, traversing these maps takes longer than in say, Blackout. PUBG’s pace is deliberate to some, and downright glacial for others. Death coming at any moment is one thing, but when it happens after a twenty minute trudge across the map it feels a bitter pill to swallow. Of course, this promotes the use of tactics – an inability to drop a shield (as in Apex Legends), or build a tower (a la Fortnite) means combat feels more focused on skill.
Compared to its exclusively first-person cousins and their focus on accessibility, PUBG’s interface feels like a mess on anything other than mouse and keyboards. Attachments are finicky to equip, and swapping pieces from one weapon to another feels like a chore – even without the pressure of shifting inventory items in the middle of a gunfight.
PUBG’s disappointing console ports didn’t help a lot either – while there is a learning curve, being killed because the game crashes or a framerate drop occurs in the middle of a gunfight feels cheap.
All of this paints to a lack of accessibility, and this is tied into a key issue with PUBG – its price. Costing less than most games would usually increase visibility for a game (around £20), but in a battle against two games which play infinitely better that cost absolutely nothing it’s a tough proposition. While PUBG Lite offers a feature complete PUBG experience with a simpler graphical style, it’s only available on PC. PUBG’s mobile port is also free, and remains insanely popular in China, even receiving a tie-in with Resident Evil 2 Remake.
While it remains cheaper than Blackout (part of full-priced Call of Duty: Black Ops 4), that game also includes a full multiplayer suite and a co-operative zombies mode – not to mention it runs a lot better on consoles.
Could PUBG look to rebuild itself, ironically, in the mould of Fortnite? Focused primarily on getting people in for free and still charging for cosmetics? I think it’s more likely that it continues to lean on its realism, maintaining a clear niche that it maintains in the subgenre.
It’s hard to say, but given that PUBG remains an incredibly tense experience even without the polish, brighter colours, and snappy action of the competition, I think there’s a clear market for it. Its movement may be slow, and it’s showing its age, but there’s life in this “old” dog yet.