For three summers going, I’ve been keeping an eye out for a bright summery blast of video-gaming fun, a title that appears to be everywhere like a song of the summer.
It’s typically a game that nobody expected to be a huge hit, or in the case of last year’s “Overwatch” from Blizzard Entertainment, one that is so polished and broadly appealing that it makes fans out of players exhausted by a genre like first-person shooters.
Perhaps reflecting this year’s political divisions and the idea that we are living in truly weird times, the game this year that screams out “Summer Game Jam 2017” is not a bubbly Nintendo Switch title or something sports-related that will make you feel great about the human spirit.
In fact, it’s a dystopian shooter where everybody is trying to kill everybody else, not unlike the grim tournaments in the “Hunger Games” series.
“PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” is a weird anomaly, a third-person shooter that throws up to 100 players onto an island, literally dropping their virtual bodies from a C-130 cargo plane, leaving them to parachute as quickly as possible and begin scrounging for weapons and supplies.
The goal of the game, in its purest form right now, is simple: be the last person standing. A reminder of where each player stands is shown in the form of a large number at the top right of the screen. That’s how many players are still alive on the island. If you die in the top 20, you’ve done well for yourself.
The game, which has already been referred to be at least one game outlet as the most important, game-changing shooter since 2007’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” has had a remarkable rise. Its creator Brendan Greene (the titular “PlayerUnknown”) was already known for developing game-mode add-ons called “mods” to other games, including “Arma 2” and “H1Z1.” Greene’s specialty is battle royale game mechanics and he’s so good at it that Daybreak Games (former Sony Online Entertainment) ended up releasing his “King of the Hill” mode as a stand-alone game.
Announced one year ago, “Battlegrounds” is still in “early access” release, selling for $30 for Windows PC in unfinished form as Greene and a team of developers at Korean studio Bluehole Inc. continue to work on improving the game. An Xbox One version is planned for this year, with PlayStation 4 to follow next year. Here’s the amazing part: Even in its beta form, the game has been purchased by more than four million players since it was made available in March.
What is it about “Battlegrounds” that makes it so engaging? Aren’t games like this just a bloody excuse to engage in virtual violence and mayhem?
The game’s construct, a kind of large open-world danger zone that encompasses about 5 miles by 5 miles, actually allows for a lot of creative gameplay. You can go in guns blazing (if you can find weapons quickly) and get yourself killed in short order. Or you can play strategically, making sure to land your parachute in an opportune spot, using buildings and ground cover to stealthily creep across the landscape and avoid other people at all costs. That’s one way to outlast most of the competition, but there are a few smart wrinkles that make “Battlegrounds” more interesting.
The radius of gameplay shrinks as the match goes on. A timer counts down and if you’re not within that zone, a scary electrified cone will close in and damage your character. As players rush to beat the clock and get into the zone, it’s inevitable that they’ll eventually run into each other. In certain randomized red zones on the map, bombs drop. The news isn’t all bad; planes also drop care packages with supplies, weapons and gear.
The Russian island, only the first map available for the game so far, is beautifully rendered, especially if you have a powerful enough computer to convincingly display all the foliage and tree cover details. You can also see over long distances, and it’s scary to suddenly spot a few players off in the distance who might be seeing you as well. You hope they’re not carrying a sniper rifle.
For me, it’s that unbearable tension that separates “Battlegrounds” from other shooters. While some matches end much more quickly than others, especially if you’re not being careful, it’s the rare action game with long stretches of quiet punctuated by scary, unexpected encounters.
My best moments in the game have been teaming up with another player in “Duo” mode (you can also create teams), allowing buddies to watch each others’ backs and engage in private chat without other competitors listening in.
The game’s free-form nature has also made for some highly entertaining community-generated entertainment, from a video that includes 50 players engaging in non-violent activities such as synchronized swimming to a moment from back in April when a player found a way to squeeze a vehicle into an underground tunnel.
Which is not to say that “Battlegrounds” is as fun or as accessible as “Overwatch” or “Rocket League.” The PC requirements to play it smoothly are not light. It’s tough to master and there’s a steep learning curve in starting out. As the game gets even more popular, there’s a danger it will become too difficult for new players to get a handle on. So far, it also doesn’t have modes for more casual players and its skills-based matchmaking isn’t as evolved now as it eventually will be.
But my hope is that this indie take on “Hunger Games” will only get more interesting and that it won’t lose its experimental vibe as it goes into wider and wider release. Greene says he’s committed to giving fans the tools to create their own mods for the game, and you can bet that you’re going to see some freaky stuff built upon this very solid foundation.
Cover image: "PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds" is a battle-royale shooter game currently available for Windows PC ahead of its official release. Versions for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are in the works. Bluehole, Inc.