The multiplayer shooter PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds sacrifices any hint of personality, overarching narrative pretense, or aesthetic creativity in favor of delivering on a high concept. While that concept is innovative, at least for a video game, the austerity that rules over every single other aspect of the game makes the idea of playing it past the first win feel pointless.
Once you and 99 other players set foot on an abandoned island, it’s kill or be killed. You start with nothing but the clothes on your back, and you wander dusty, dilapidated environs trying to find the armor, weaponry, healing items, and enhancement items that you need in order to stay alive, all while the safe, playable area of the vaguely Mediterranean island shrinks with every dead opponent. By the time it’s just you and one other combatant left alive—assuming you even make it that far—the playable area is reduced to a patch of grass the size of a parking lot. If you lose, you’re unceremoniously sent back to the lobby. If you win, you get a nice cache of coins to spend on cosmetic items, the message “WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER,” and you too are also unceremoniously sent back to the lobby. No flash, no flair, no music outside of the title screen. Just get in, try to shoot somebody, and get out.
On paper, there’s a sort of quick-fix, mobile-game quality to that concept that makes it ideal for mindless hits of FPS excitement, but success in this game almost actively works against that idea. The island is so huge that typically, for the first five to 10 minutes of any match, you’re wandering around completely alone, gathering supplies for a fight that might be happening miles away—a routine that’s occasionally punctuated by a random airstrike that rains bombs down on your area. When you do meet another player, whether it’s five minutes or 45 minutes in, fights are usually over in such a quick, undignified way—mostly as a result of a player you never even got to see sniping from an unknown location—that it’s hard to even get invested in any one match, especially since there’s no real sense of reward from victory.
At its most enjoyable, the game creates a No Country for Old Men-like sense of quiet tension broken by sudden bursts of violence. The hail of bullets ringing throughout the island will trigger your fight-or-flight response. The anticipation of movement off in the distance, or an enemy walking into the same house where you’ve taken up shelter, is nothing short of heart-pounding. When PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds gets up close and personal, it can be exhilarating. Most of the time, you can count on being shot before you even figure out whether you have the ammo to reload the gun you collected moments earlier. As for rest of the time, after you’ve figured out where the best weapons are located, you can count on swift, ugly bloodbaths as swarms of players make a beeline for the same location all at once.
It doesn’t help matters that unless you’re an extremely quick study, the game’s weirdly unintuitive control scheme will very likely get in your way. The setup seems to be attempting to translate the far more complex PC controls to the Xbox One but instead settles on a scheme completely counter to the last 20 years of FPS standards. There’s no tutorial, no single player, and no practice space made available to you before you’re thrown to the wolves, so the fact that the controls represent their own little teachable moment for such an extended period adds insult on top of so much injury.
Even beyond its Steam Early Access roots, the game comes off as a proof of concept, the result of someone having floated the idea of a video-game adaptation of Battle Royale or The Hunger Games rather than coming forth with a full-fledged game experience based on either. Already, there are titles capitalizing on this game’s success on the PC—the also-unfinished Fortnite being the best and already more enjoyable of the bunch—that bring more compelling, unique elements to the table. How PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds holds up in the months to come depends entirely on what exactly it can offer players who see beyond its laundry list of shortcomings, because a nonexistent chicken dinner already doesn’t cut it.