In its debut on the PS4, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds paid tribute to its new home in one obvious way: with free skins that let players cosplay as Nathan Drake from Uncharted and Ellie from The Last of Us.
And there’s one not-so-obvious. The beginning of each match pays homage to Sony’s history in the stubbornly broken way that only PUBG can. With 99 other players you parachute from a plane to one of three playable island maps below. You might land near a blocky building, as gray and textureless as a slab of PS1 concrete. As you sprint to the safety it provides, muddy, PS2-era textures begin to pop onto the walls, as blades of grass with the polygonal complexity the PS3 afforded materializing beneath your too loud feet.
And then, you reach the house and begin to hoard loot, shoveling laser dot sights and 2x scopes and ammo you may never need into your pockets. But, before you can begin to get your bearings, a bullet passes through your head. Your character ragdolls; you stare at a loading screen. You’re back in the present, now, the PS4 era, the victim of the gameplay trends that have made this tense, abortive style of play the most popular genre on the planet.
Battle Royale of Battle Royales
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds arrives on PS4 a year-and-a-half after it cratered and reshaped the PC gaming landscape with the sudden impact of a meteor leveling Dusty Depot. A lot has changed in that time. It’s no longer the most influential game in the genre it helped create. Two very popular competitors, Fortnite and the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4‘s “Blackout” mode, beat it to Sony’s marketplace. Both have established PS4 scenes, both run better, and, even more significantly, one is free.
So, keeping in mind all those things that are working against PUBG’s chances at long-term success on PS4, I think it’s worthwhile to highlight what Brendan Greene’s creation offers that its competitors don’t: a slower pace and a silent tension.
More than anything, PUBG requires patience. Often, that isn’t fun.
It asks for patience as you slog through match after match where death comes before you can find a gun. Patience as you you manage to get a kill or two, but still lose. Patience as you deal with the textural wonkiness that still haunts this game a year-and-a-half after it first entered early access. Patience as the famous PUBG jank warps you back in forth between two slightly different alternate realities, one where you’re standing in the center of a room, and another where you’re standing a few feet to the left of the center of the room. Patience as the camera lodges itself firmly in your character’s stomach so that when you look up you see the hollow shell of the inside of their torso. Patience as you wait five minutes to get into a match before closing and restarting the application, upon which you are placed immediately.
Sometimes the Jank gods reward your devotion. Yesterday, the game loaded me into a match midway, a rarity given the importance of the game’s early, loot-collecting stage. My character—a pink-haired Scarlett Johansson lookalike in a plain, white tee—appeared on the side of a hill, standing stock still alongside seven others. I shook off the cyber sleep and began to move around while my competitors remained frozen. I punched them all to death.
More significantly, though, the game rewards your patience when it’s working as it should, too. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, perhaps unsurprisingly, becomes massively more fun to play the better you get at playing it. It’s easy to shrink from conflict, to cower in the bathtub, praying that—should someone find you—the dingy shower curtain will serve as an effective shield. Unfortunately, caution can only get you as far as second place. You’ll need confidence to take the top spot. There are 100 soldiers on this island. What makes you think you have what it takes to win?
If you can summon the necessary cockiness, it will inspire you to do the things that win games: grab a gun and shoot down your competitors as they scramble for a police vest; jump off a balcony and pick off an unwary opponent below; and/or bare-knuckle box your foes to death—it only takes about four solid hits.
PUBG is at its best in the moments when you see an opportunity and seize it. But, those moments of glory are punctuated by dozens of minutes of silence. They slowly and nervously tick by, as you wait to see the whites of an opponent’s eyes. In these silent moments, PUBG offers something that “Blackout” and Fortnite don’t. The time-to-kill in Treyarch’s game is significantly faster, the rounds shorter. Fortnite is almost never silent. Whether it’s the plunky sound effects that mark the beginning of the storm’s slow encroachment or the mechanical clank of strip-mining the map, Epic’s game is almost always making noise.
In the face of quicker, louder rivals, PUBG offers a slow and meditative experience. It’s not, I would imagine, unlike sitting in a deer blind waiting for an unlucky whitetail to pass below. While PUBG’s technical issues are ever-present, they rarely spoil this core experience. This is a buggy game, but they aren’t game breaking bugs. They’re bugs that make you laugh at best and curse under your breath and reboot the game at worst. You hope they get better. But, you know that, with each game, at the very least, you are.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds review code provided by publisher. Version 1.04 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please see our Review Policy.