Multiplayer shooters are changing. What was a field dominated by arena free-for-all shooters and then samey-military combat games where the most significant change was the switch from World War 2 to the modern military aesthetic and then to the future has now become forked down the path of realism mixed with the old arena combat.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds takes a bit of survival games like the eternally unfinished Day-Z and combines it with battle royale books and movies to turn the game into an incredibly tense, brief, survival arena combat experience.
Battlegrounds is a modern-military shooter set on an island where up-to 100 players parachute in from a transport aircraft with nothing but their fists to start. All other weapons are scattered around the limited rural towns and buildings that make up the human settlements of this island along with clothes and kevlar and ammo and kitchen implements.
The hundred players have just one life each to squander as they choose. As you glide to the ground you’ll see other players picking their starting spot. Landing near buildings at the start can help you get armed, but you might have more competition.
Landing on the southern-most detached island is stupid because there are two bridges off of it and you’re going to die.
If the game stopped innovating there, everyone would be wise to just camp in buildings. That definitely still happens, but the brilliant change versus Day-Z and other survival games is that Battlegrounds forces players together by enclosing a slow moving force field on a timer around a randomly picked circular section of the map. At the same time, a player count is ticking from 100 down to 1 and you hope to be the last person left alive.
As the playable area of the map shrinks, players are forced out of camping into taking risks like running through open fields to reach the newly smaller playable zone.
Unlike most other shooters, this take on a multiplayer battle royale is the only way to play Battlegrounds. There’s no capture-the-flag. No team deathmatch. Just trying to stay in a shrinking circle on an in-game map where each minute alive adds more value to your character and leaves behind only the most skilled players hunting each other down to be the last one standing.
I thought it would be much more terrifying to lose a character after 10 minutes, the game gently rewards you at the end of every match with some in-game currency to unlock new character customization options and tells you how many players were left when you perished.
At that point you’re almost guaranteed to have found a few nicer weapons and modified them with better scopes and found a bigger backpack.
Most modern shooters limit players to just a few weapons on their person at any time and Battlegrounds isn’t different there. You get two long guns, a pistol, and some grenades if you’re lucky enough to find them. Even better is finding a vehicle that can feel like your ticket to the top ten until the playable zone shrinks to the point where you’re forced on foot.
Managing that inventory is a bit fiddly and I wish it were simplified so that it wasn’t such an incredible risk to sort through it while playing.
Once, when I was playing with a group of three, we had been surviving for about 30 minutes and we reached the outskirts of a set of a factory buildings. One of the team was separated from us as we clambered down a hill into the valley. We heard gunfire and knew that we couldn’t do anything for him at our new lower vantage point.
Now down to just two survivors, we found a multi-story building on the lot stocked with weapons and vantage points to snipe from. It was almost in the center of the playable circle on the map, so we set up shop. Switching jobs between watching the stairs and peeking out of the windows for any survivors trying to move on our building. This felt perfect as we watched the player count dwindle down from about 50 to under 20.
As the force field closed in we realized we were going to have to give up our safe house and run for the new playable area, but Battlegrounds had a new trick. We were stuck against the side of a mountain. There’s no way to climb, so we were quickly sapped of our health by the force field in third place because we didn’t think to look for an escape route.
I don’t know yet if the gameplay is going to get tiresome without the progression of other post-Modern Warfare shooters to level your character and unlock new guns and accessories. All you can unlock now with the coins rewarded after a match are clothing items for character customization.
A lot can change, the game has all kinds of bugs as it is still in Steam’s Early Access program, but it is refreshing to play something new and different in Battlegrounds. Already it takes great moments from my favorite survival games like Day-Z and packages then up into more streamlined bite-sized chunks. Scavaging for items. Lying in wait for every other cutthroat bastard once you have something worth protecting. Every game is unique. It’s thrilling to get these scenes condensed into a new experience.
Every death is a new anecdote. Just now I made it to 12th place and had everything I could want. While racing in a newly acquired dune buggy to escape the forcefield into the new playable area, I forgot that the game’s physics are janky. I pulled up to one of the only two shacks in an open field and got out of my car, but because of the jank my character immediately died from falling damage because the car wasn’t completely stopped.
That might sound frustrating, but it was hilarious at the time.
This is what I love about Battlegrounds. Each life in its world is a delightful mess that leaves you with a story to tell.