PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has done the unthinkable: it has pulled me back into online shooter addiction, years after I had supposedly gone cold turkey. Overwatch didn't get me, Battlefield 1 didn't appeal, and it's been years since I bothered with Call of Duty. But PUBG has its hooks in deep, even though it runs about as well on Xbox as a pair of gin-soaked nanas in a three-legged race… in high heels.
Everyone knows PUBG's battle royale formula by now: a maximum of 100 people parachute onto a huge island stocked with guns and vehicles, then battle it out in an ever-decreasing play space until just one individual or team remains. There are zero respawns – although in team modes, it is possible to revive a comrade who has been knocked down but not finished off – and the game can be played either locked in first-person, or in third-person with first-person aiming down sights. Simple.
However, a quick summary like that doesn't do PUBG justice. What sounds like a panic-inducingly chaotic and haphazard shooter ruled by those with superior twitch skills is in reality a dread-inducing slow-burn of a semi-stealth title that rewards solid strategizing, educated guesswork, and patience. It does also reward twitch reflexes, but they aren't nearly as heavily favoured as they are in other online shooters. As such, smart tactics can often overcome superior shooting, and that is no doubt a large part of the appeal for perpetually cross-eyed marksmen like me.
The moment-to-moment decisions you make in PUBG mightn't seem like much, but it's often possible to trace your eventual triumph or demise back to a single small moment minutes earlier, when you determined to zig rather than zag. Constant calculations on how long to loot for, which weapons to discard in favour of which, whether to take a second to close doors behind you, and where to head next are constantly running through your mind as you race against the clock to get as geared up as possible before the game's shrinking electric field forces you into contact with other players.
Should you save precious seconds but risk alerting nearby enemies by jumping out a window rather than walking downstairs? Should you risk a stay in the game's health-sapping electric field to loot another building, or get to good cover inside the safe zone and snipe latecomers? Should you remain uber-mobile in a loud vehicle, or ditch the meagre protection it provides and slyly make your way around on foot? Should you make a play for that supply crate, knowing full well everyone else in the area also covets the high-powered weaponry within?
On top of decisions like these, you are trying to predict where other players will likely have gone: you saw a squad parachute in the direction of the mansion and the safe zone is to the east – will they have had time to head south to loot the warehouse? Should you roll right up to the door and burst in, or take the time to park out of earshot and sneak up? Quickly now, the electric field is closing!
Even having enemies in your sights presents a conundrum, because unless you have a silencer equipped, firing is basically advertising your position to anyone within a kilometre radius. Armour raises the time to kill substantially as well, and almost everyone is using a controller without aim assist, so it often pays to have a plan B, some cover, backup, or all of the above. Running away to find better gear or a better position are both valid strategies.
So is sitting crouched in the corner of a second floor bathroom, gun trained on the door, hands sweating. Every encounter is deliciously tense, but you always feel like you have a shot at coming out on top – provided you play smart. It's cat and mouse, amped up to the extreme – a game where the prospect of traversing an open field is as scary as the muffled footsteps a floor below you suddenly stopping when you move.
These qualities also make it an anecdote factory – one you will quickly bore your friends with – because it makes the mundane feel extraordinary. That's a strength though, because it means that in a game where you played for 20 minutes, eliminated nobody, and finished midway down the pack, you can still feel like something was achieved. More importantly, with every death, you learn something as well, even if it's simply "don't press B in a moving vehicle" (you'll learn that one more than a few times, trust me).
Once, I parachuted to my favourite spot only to see with dismay that the safe zone was all the way across the other side of the map. After quickly looting some nearby houses, I set off on foot, running over hills, between buildings, and through forests, scanning the horizon as I went. Several times I dove into bushes to avoid being seen and run down by players driving past, and automatic gunfire up ahead had me alter my bearing because I only had a shotgun.
The electric field overtook me early on, but I had picked up four health kits, and I used these at intervals to keep myself alive. After what felt like an hour but in reality was probably six minutes, I made it into the first safe zone, but it had taken me so long to get there that the play area was already contracting, and I was back taking damage in the electric field. I regarded those on bikes and in buggies with jealousy as I once again began to run.
The new safe zone was on the smaller island across a bridge to the south of the map, but halfway across it I began to take fire from the other end. Unsure whether the fall would kill me, I jumped from the bridge, plunged into the water far below, and began swimming for my life. Miraculously, I got across to the island, stole a speedboat just as another player exited it, and hussed around the coast just as the electric field – massively damaging at this late stage of the game – closed off that route for good.
Seeing some good cover in the safe zone on the cliffs above, I drove the boat into a rocky inlet and began my climb. Shots rang out from above and bullets bounced off the precipice around me, but with a few shotgun blasts, I managed to drop one attacker and scare away a second – or so I thought. It turns out I was trying to scale a cliff that couldn't actually be climbed, and I was left leaping around in desperation as the electric field once again swallowed me – this time for good.
That seems like it should have been nothing but frustration, but it felt exhilarating – a crazy story of overwhelming odds, close escapes, tension, and fortune favouring the brave. So, you can imagine what it feels like when you do something properly skillful, like scoring three consecutive pistol kills against players toting assault rifles, or sniping someone off the back of a speeding buggy from 100 paces.
Playing in squad mode only heightens the experience, and the potential for calamity. For every time you resurrect a downed teammate under the cover of a smoke grenade, there's a time you'll shoot one in the back of the head while firing out of a car, or run one over while trying to pick them up during an ambush. If you have mates with headsets, PUBG is a peerless and often hilarious experience.
Less hilarious is the game's performance on Xbox. Despite Microsoft's promise of "boutique, first-party, white-glove treatment", when it launched into Game Preview on December 12, PUBG was less a hot mess and more a smouldering wreck, haunted by crashes, cratering framerates, and textures that refused to load. It is an ugly game on PC, but on console it was as if it had gone five rounds with Israel Adesanya and then its plastic surgeon sneezed while fixing its face.
Things have improved a lot since then thanks to the addition of Oceanic servers (including FPP solo) and a plethora of patches, but the framerate still has lingering feelings about the mid-20s, and sometimes tanks altogether when you're hoofing it in a car or embroiled in an indoor gun battle.
And that's on an Xbox One X. On a standard Xbox One or One S, things are even more dire. Right after you parachute to ground, it's possible to run into a vague smudge of a building before the interior renders, only to be killed when a table materialises around you. These problems mean a clear advantage is given to those playing on Microsoft's flagship console.
Whichever Xbox you are on, crashes are still common, but fortunately you can usually reload and resume in a couple of minutes – provided you haven't been killed by players or the environment. On the upside, it is pretty amusing watching a clearly-disconnected player helplessly stride through the middle of a gunfight and out of the safe zone, or slam a car into the side of the only shack for miles, killing all his buddies in the process. On the downside, lag will murder you in ways you never thought possible, and that's pretty frustrating when you've spent the last 20 minutes gearing up and have finally found an 8x scope for your Mini 14.
Despite all that, I cannot stop playing this silly, amazing, surprising little game.
Sure, there are some large issues. Yes, Xbox players are yet to get proximity chat, kill cam support, or the game's second map. Yes, the compass is too hard to read, and the reticule is too small. Yes, Fortnite is free and runs exceedingly well. Yes, PUBG on Xbox is a bit of a mess, and cheaters aside, it's far better on PC. So is practically everything. That's not the debate here.
The debate – or question, rather – is, am I having fun? And the answer is a resounding "hell yes!". Too much, in fact. This is the first game for a long time to deprive me of significant amounts of sleep because I can't stop playing it or thinking about it. It's the first game in forever that has me watching YouTube videos, saving infographics that explain how to judge distances, and discussing tactics with my squad after each and every round. I've stopped this review several times to play it "as research". After typing that sentence, I just did so again.
In short, PUBG is fantastic. It's screwy and messy, but also oh so addictive. And to be fair, it's only been in Game Preview for two months, so problems are going to be present. I know it's flawed, I just can't deny how much I am loving it. I've put dozens of hours in to this ugly pile of jank, and my love is undiminished – in fact, it has only grown. My most shameful secret? They could fix absolutely nothing from this point forward and I'd still love it. What is wrong with me?
That's why I'm scoring PUBG now, framerate be damned, Game Preview be damned. It will be a better game in the future, and it will almost certainly run better then too. There will be more features added, and Miramar, the latest map on PC, will no doubt make an appearance. But a review is a snapshot in time, and right now, this review reflects where I'm at with PUBG. Even so, consider this hearty recommendation with huge caveats.
When our Best of 2017 ran last December, I had a number of people asking, "Where is PUBG"? Fair point, but none of us had played it. Now I have, I'll tell you one thing right now: it won't be left off this year's list.