As I’m slowly falling down to Earth, I look back on the plane as it meanders away from the island. It was a simpler time back when I was aboard, even if it was just as confusing sitting in a cargo hold filled with 100 people. But looking around at the other black dots of parachutes littering the sky, my hands begin to sweat—my muscles tighten. There are two jumpers less than a hundred yards away.
I knew it was on.
This immense and permanent sense of dread is otherwise known as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The premise is simple: you and 99 other players are shoved onto an island and told to kill each other. It’s a bit Battle Royale in that way. You start off with nothing and immediately begin scavenging for supplies, armor, weapons—whatever you can find, basically.
There’s a bit of The Hunger Games in there, too. As you play, the Safe Zone will shrink and shift, and you do really want to be in the Safe Zone. Outside of that, bombings will sprinkle across the landscape and pretty much fuck up your Christmas. I mean, you’re just as likely to die in the Safe Zone, but you can’t really stab back at an explosion, you know?
Upfront, this game doesn’t play the best. It’s a bit…stiff in its controls (if that makes sense) in the way most MMOs are. Jumping is just a cycle of unwavering displacement, shifting between animations or stances is more like a snap than a transition, and there’s plenty of wavering connection reliability between everything and everyone that’s happening. Even the nice little touches like the third-person firearm collision aiming aren’t enough to make the mechanics sing.
But that’s not even close to the point of the game. The point of the game is dread. Creeping, powerful, overwhelming dread. Waiting in the plane’s hold, you can see as people shoot out of the back. But you wait. And wait. And wait. And you’re running out of island to land on, but there’s still a dozen players left. Last chance to jump. Oh fuck this is going to be a rough start.
And that’s before you even start playing. Once you land, paranoia quickly becomes a close, intimate friend as death notices start popping up in the corner. You slap your mouse around, shuttling your view across the entire breadth of the map with little desire to look with depth. Right now you’re looking for movement. Let your caveman brain take over. Cover good. Shit, something just went behind that tree.
Even if you make it into a building, it’s a dire situation. You’re crouched and roving between rooms, poking at scattered bits of survival items. You see a shotgun lying next to a pile of ammo through an open doorway, but you hesitate. Was that door already open? Why would a door be open? This has to be a trap. But without that weapon, you’re as good as dead. One step at a time, holding your breath, you walk forward.
The warnings start blaring. The Safe Zone is active. Shotgun pointed at the window, back to the wall, you inch your finger towards the map button. Without a pause, looking at anything but the horizon could lead to an easy kill for an opponent. But you have to. Like I said, you can fight back against an explosion.
Three minutes left. Three minutes to get halfway across the map and you still haven’t moved a muscle. The Safe Zone has shrunk down to the size of a dime, just as the player count has dropped down to a meager handful. Survival means moving, but survival also means not heading towards the scattershot gunfire you hear outside. It sounds more like a threat than a skirmish. Someone has been watching The Warriors.
Three minutes have passed, and you haven’t moved. At all. Shotgun still aimed at the window, back to the wall. Caveman smart. You’re breathing has shallowed but your heart is beating faster—harder. It’s so loud, you swear it’s going to give you away. You have to go. You have to. You stand up and you see it: a rifle, a rifle in the hands of the player that looks like the winner.
There’s something here with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It doesn’t handle great and it’s fairly buggy (it just recently entered Early Access on PC), but there’s a reason why people are playing it. There’s a reason why you can hop on at a whim and join a full game. You’ll find out why even though you know you’re going to die, you still jump out of that plane.