Early Access Preview: Playerunknown's Battlegrounds is janky and addictive

Indie developer Bluehole’s Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds has a tonne of potential built atop poorly optimised Early Access jankiness.

Early Access Preview: Playerunknown's Battlegrounds is janky and addictive

I’ve ranted about it before, but it’s worth mentioning again here. I never got into DayZ. I was the guy who kept waiting for the full release or, short of that, a more polished version of the game that never really seemed to arrive. When I finally tried it out properly for the first time a few weeks ago, I didn’t get into it.

Despite this, the appeal of the battle royale-style Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, which people are comparing (in part) to DayZ, caught my attention as soon as I saw its trailer. I realise there are other similarly themed games that have come before, but this 100-player UE4-powered monster grabbed me in a way that none of the others had. Even though it had a $29.99USD price tag on Steam , which is usually a price that makes me hesitate, I bought in on its first day of Early Access release.

And, oh, boy, have I had a whole lot of fun with it since then.

Bear in mind that almost all of my play time has been relegated to Asian servers. The bad news is that there were games where the bad latency was so noticeable that hits didn’t appear to register, player knock-outs or kills weren’t confirmed until seconds after they’d happened, and simple tasks like opening a door and walking through it proved particularly frustrating.

The good news is that Australian servers are live right now. After a handful of matches, though, I’m not convinced they’re the best, but there’s talk of a patch going live shortly to help with that.

Latency issues aren’t the only problem with Battlegrounds, though (and there’s no way to even see in-game latency at this point, which is frustrating). There’s no vaulting mechanic (yet), which means you get stuck a lot, or sometimes can’t even jump over waist-high fences. It’s crashed on me a couple of times, or I’ve had to crash it when it gets stuck on a loading screen. The optimisation is so terrible that it makes zero difference, at least on my rig, when switching between High and Very Low graphical settings. This means the frame rate can drop below 60fps, which is less than ideal when precision shots are essential for killing enemies, particularly when they have armour. Hell, there are times when it runs better on higher settings than it does on the lowest. Go figure.

That’s all the bad stuff out of the way. Phew. Obviously, to put up wit the above, Battlegrounds has to have a special core gameplay loop, and it has that in spades. You can play alone, in pairs, or in teams of up to four people in fights on the same (huge) map where up to 100 players are competing at any one time. In solo mode, it’s a fight to the last player; in pairs, it’s a fight to the last two; and in teams, well, you’re incredibly lucky if you make it to the end with your entire four-player squad alive.

Friendly fire is always on, though, but there’s a relatively forgiving time to kill at play to allow for some escapability, especially once you start getting armoured up. Every match starts with a lobby screen while the game collects a minimum number of players (around 70), and then everyone starts the round in the same cargo plane that flies over the fixed map from a randomised direction. After about 10 seconds, players can jump out at any point over the island.

The trick is, you don’t know who’s going to jump out where, and those huge clusters of buildings on the map tend to be the place where the most people bail out. As you descend, you can use alt to scan the skies for threats (a handy button to know for the rest of the game, too), and if you don’t spot any opponents, you’re doing incredibly well. This means the game involves tension from the moment you jump out of the cargo plane.

If you’ve got enemy players lower than you heading for the same buildings, you’re better off trying to veer away and land somewhere else. What ramps the tension up considerably as soon as you land, though, is that while the map is fixed, the equipment drops are not. It’s best to fire off a reverent prayer to the RNG gods during your descent, because you want to find a gun as soon as you land.

The RNG gods are not always kind, though. There have been times when I’ve found nothing of worth, both in terms of offensive capabilities, and all-important equipment pick-ups like backpacks, helmets, and healing items. The trick is this cuts both ways. I’ve scored plenty of early kills because some unarmed sap ran into the first house I was in the process of looting after I’d collected a gun.

Another time, all I could find was a sickle, but that’s okay because all the poor other player had was their fists. As soon as they got stuck on a bad jump (something that happens frequently), I landed an easy early kill. Then again, that was a duos match, and killing one enemy in a duo match tends to up the tension even more because the surviving teammates are usually hunting you. That sense of dread increases even more when you’re playing the team mode.

Battlegrounds has a proximity VOIP function, but it’s rarely used. Everyone is likely using third-party VOIP software to communicate—I know I do (Discord FTW!)—and if they’re not, they’re at a distinct disadvantage. Sound plays such a massive role in Battlegrounds that it makes you think twice about taking a shot.

Gunshot sounds travel a generous distance, so if you’re better off not firing long-range SMG shots at an enemy because you’ll just give your position away. It’s relatively easy to track enemies who haven’t seen you, but those shots will alert anyone else in the area where you are, so you’ll likely be hunted soon after.

The better tactics for coming out on top in Battlegrounds, at least in my experience, are a mixture of hide-and-seek, tactical clearing of structures, and frantic firefights. Sniper rifles are all well and good for providing a range advantage, but they’re only truly useful when combined with an 8x scope (or, at the very least, a 4x scope).

The same is true of assault rifles, which work best with a 4x scope, and switching between single shot for long-range engagements (in first-person view) and burst-fire or full-auto for close-quarters battles. Because Battlegrounds uses third-person view by default, scanning the environment while you’re moving (with alt), looking around corners or over cover, and peeking out windows without exposing yourself are all crucial tricks.

Once again, while it’s a great tactic to use, there’s always the distinct feeling that it’s being used against you, which means sprinting across open spaces can be intense. This type of movement is best avoided, but you don’t always have a choice.

There’s an engagement circle that appears on the map not long after the start of the round that gets smaller as time passes. Behind that circle is a gas cloud that forces players to move into the circle. You can survive in the gas for a time, but you don’t want to be caught in it for too long or you’ll die. Oh, you’ll also have to contend with the random placement of a deadly red circle that means your area is about to get bombed. There’s a bit of luck at play at the beginning of the round in terms of the circle.

Sometimes, you’ll be within its boundaries or, better still, close to the centre so you don’t have to worry about relocating. Other times, you’re so far away from it that you have to hoof it immediately, or find a working vehicle to get back into the player area. The problem with vehicles is they make a shitload of sound and they’re easy to spot from afar, which means you’re basically painting a big target over your head whenever you use one.

As with the other mechanics I’ve mentioned, using a vehicle is a risk/reward strategy that’s just one of many tactical decisions you have to make (without a whole lot of intel) in order to stay alive in Battlegrounds. Scoring kills early on is all well and good, but in the duos match I won with my friend, he had seven kills before we got to the final stages, and I had none. During the intense moments of the last minutes of the game, I nabbed seven kills. I would like to say that ‘slow and steady’ is the moral of the story here, but you don’t always have the luxury of playing that way. And that’s what makes Battlegrounds great.

Battlegrounds isn’t the kind of game that you go into expecting to get dozens of kills, and it’s just as satisfying (in terms of tension) to avoid a firefight than to score heaps of kills. That’s coming from someone who likes to see a massive gap between kills and deaths in your average shooter. Even though it’s rough around the edges in Early Access form, the clear potential of the gameplay formula shines through.

I foresee this as being one of those games that I keep installed just in case a friend wants to jump in and play, or for times when I’ve got a spare half hour of play time. Matches last anywhere from a couple of minutes to around 40 minutes (if you survive long enough), and you can disconnect when you’re dead and jump into a new match. As soon as Bluehole smooths out some of the rougher edges, the game will be even better, but considering it’s this addictive in its current form, I only see Battlegrounds attracting an even bigger player base in the not-so-distant future.

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