The most successful PC game of the year is now on Xbox, but how does the experience translate on consoles?
It really is impossible to overstate how successful PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (commonly known as PUBG) has been this year. Released on PC in March, it has sold over 25 million copies. Which already makes it one of the most successful video games of all time – ahead of many Call Of Duty and Grand Theft Auto entries. To say that is astonishing is not to suggest it doesn’t deserve the success, but that it is extraordinary considering the game isn’t even finished yet.
The release in March was only for early access, with the first v1.0 release version not due until next week on PC. That will include a new desert map and the first time at which the game will present itself as a complete product. But despite them releasing so close together that is not what this Xbox One version is.
Although the developers are careful not to be too specific the ‘Game Preview Edition’ on Xbox One appears to be several months behind the PC, not only in the sense that it only has one map but that it is a patently unfinished game that suffers from the sort of technical problems and graphical limitations of the game in its very earliest days.
The point of early access games is that they’re constantly evolving, and in just the last few days we’ve seen the user interface change multiple times and new options, like starting a match as part of a random squad, pop up out of nowhere. We’ve no doubt that the Xbox One version will improve and expand very quickly, but for now all we can talk about is what it’s like at launch.
But first we should explain what PUBG is, which is actually fairly simple. It’s a primarily third person shooter where you’re dropped onto a huge map with 99 other people and strive to become the last person standing. In order to keep the pace up the useable area of the map shrinks over time, but that’s really it in terms of rules.
As you can see, the idea is neither complex nor particularly new. A game mode very similar to PUBG has existed for years, and is usually referred to as Battle Royale – after the cult Japanese movie. Brendan ‘PlayerUnknown’ Greene himself originally created a mod for ArmA II called Battle Royale, which was itself an offshoot of fellow grassroots hit DayZ.
PUBG has elements of a survival game, with a stamina and health bar to maintain through collectables, but a typical match lasts no longer than 30 minutes or so. You start each one with no equipment and have to parachute off a randomly moving plane, so that it’s almost impossible to start any two matches in the same place. The location of loot is also randomised, although obvious hot spots do tend to have better equipment.
The most interesting thing about PUBG is that it’s a true sandbox game. None of the gameplay mechanics are very complex or unusual, and while the map is well designed it’s really its size that is the greatest benefit. Everything which makes the game fun comes from the simple but inflexible rules, and the knowledge that if you die that’s it – there’s no lives and not even a way to watch the rest of the match unfurl.
The tension this creates is incredible, and every player has their own favourite PUBG story. Your first kill is usually a good one (ours was a fist fight that had us running away into another room, and coming back with a crowbar) but the decision on when and how to move away from the safety of a good hiding place is always the most difficult.
For most of the time the game is deathly silent (there is no story, but for reasons unexplained the island is entirely empty of other people) and suddenly hearing the crack of gunfire in the distance reminds you that you are not alone. As does the rev of an engine, with one of our favourite moments this week being when we heard a van pulling up as we were about to leave a house. We quickly took up position behind the front door, and were able to gun down a whole squad of players without them knowing what happened.
Or there was that weird moment where we saw someone standing completely still in a field, presumably as the player was away from their console. Naturally we killed them, but the second we bent down to rummage through their belongings we were shot in the back of the head by an unknown assailant. And we still have no idea whether that was a premediated trap or not.
PUBG is a game of infinite stories, none of which are scripted. It is freeform game design at its very best, where the developer’s hand is almost never felt and everything that happens is down to the action of the players themselves. In that sense we can well understand why it’s been such an enormous hit on PC, but we’re not sure it will do quite as well on consoles. Or at least not until it’s in better shape than it currently is.
PUBG on Xbox One is, quite frankly, a mess. It’s deeply ironic that as Microsoft promote the world’s most powerful console in the Xbox One X, the format’s most important exclusive looks like a half-broken PC demo from the mid-2000s.
The character models and animations are shockingly bad (the fist fight we mentioned looked like two action figures being dangled on wires in front of each other), the movement feels like everyone’s got shopping trolley wheels on their feet, and the network lag causes constant hiccups. The map itself does look okay, at a distance, but there’s tons of object and texture pop-in, and the frame rate is often well below 30fps. It’s usually at its worst in built-up areas, at which point it often becomes impossible to aim properly.
The root of the problem is that this is a game that was designed solely with PCs in mind, and rather than adapt the game for console use the developers just tried to create a straight port, with as few changes as possible. Which is how you end up with badly un-optimised controls and such a terrible interface.
And yet we still enjoyed every minute while the game was working, and would recommend it to anyone as long as they understand that this is not a finished product.
We’ve never approved of early access games precisely because of problems like this, but the raw appeal of PUBG is enough to win through almost anything. But if you’d rather wait until it’s finished there’s always the free-to-play Fortnite, or several other Battle Royale games. The mode looks set to be a mainstay of many video games in the future, but it’s PUBG which popularised it and will likely dominate the scene for years to come.
In Short: PUBG is one of the best multiplayer experiences of the generation, and as technically flawed as this Xbox One version currently is that fact still shines through.
Pros: Perfectly streamlined concept ensures an infinite range of possibilities. Huge map, plenty of different weapons, and great pacing.
Cons: A technical nightmare, with terrible graphics and animation, and an awful interface. Poorly optimised controls and low frame rate, plus frequent network issues.
Formats: Xbox One
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: PUBG Corporation
Release Date: 12th December 2017
Age Rating: 16
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