It’s been nearly five whole years since the pioneering PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds first appeared on Steam and popularized the idea of pitting 100 players against each other until only the best (or last) among them survives. Since then, the original battle royale has been locked in a fight for relevance against the many games it inspired, and only now has it dropped its entry fee and joined the ranks of its free-to-play competition. Now that the novelty has worn off, in some ways PUBG has been left wanting compared to newer and more innovative battle royales, but its unique focus on massive zones and realistic simulation means it hasn’t lost its touch either.
Survival after parachuting into PUBG’s relatively realistic open world requires you to be much stealthier and more deliberately tactical than you would in, say, the run-and-gun style of Fortnite. For example, you might wait for a passing aircraft to drown out your footsteps so you can enter a household undetected, or you might use a smokescreen to distract a squad of enemy players that are pinning you down from a nearby ridge. Firefights are regularly tense and enjoyable, though the wide selection of guns tend to be clunkier to fire than other modern shooters too (even after you’ve modded them with scopes and extended magazines).
What PUBG has in tactics, it lacks in the “gunfeel” that make games like Call of Duty or Apex Legends so enjoyable to play. Weapons are more tolerable to handle in third-person mode, but frustratingly inaccurate unless you switch to first-person or aim down sights. But since movement is clearly designed around third-person play, not to mention you get the ability to peek around corners without poking your head out, first-person mode feels slow by comparison, and the weapons suffer for it. PUBG’s emphasis on realistic bullet physics sets it apart in an interesting way, and it makes sense that hitmarkers are absent by default because PUBG wants to give you as little information as possible to make its fights more intense. But all that also means it’s not nearly as slick as, say, Call of Duty: Warzone.
Third-person play simply feels much better, and it seems to be because your player model is physically simulated in much the same way as a character from Grand Theft Auto 5 or Red Dead Redemption 2, with a bit more fluidity in movement — so that you aren’t constantly tripping over yourself, but you still feel fragile. It’s a tough balance to strike, but it’s noticeable that you aren’t playing a game that was particularly intended as a first-person shooter when you switch over to first-person mode. Aiming down sights is also just plain stiff in comparison to any proper first-person shooter, especially Call of Duty or Battlefield.
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It doesn’t help that trying to play PUBG with a controller feels like a trip down clunky memory lane; weapon swapping and reloading is unresponsive, the inventory system is draconian to navigate in tense situations, and aiming feels drifty and unreliable. Compare that to Fortnite and Apex Legends, which feel equally suited for controllers as they do with the good old keyboard and mouse, and it’s not flattering. PUBG is a keyboard and mouse game at its core, and my experience on PC has been markedly more enjoyable than when I played on the PS5 for this reason – not to mention issues with graphics and performance that can pop-up on console.
Each of the seven diverse maps, including the Eastern European-inspired Erangel and the golden deserts of Miramar, are at least vast enough to get lost in, and you’ll never see everything in one go before most of the playable area is swallowed by the shrinking survival zone that forces everyone together at the end of a match. They all sprawl across a wide variety of outposts, villages, and terrain features such as rivers and mountains that can be used to your advantage if you approach it like a tactical playground. It’s all gorgeous to look at, but it also serves to give you choices in how you survive the encroaching storm and evade (or ambush) anybody who may be waiting to pick you off.
It can become tedious to move across them if you and your team of up to four find yourselves without a vehicle, though – and when you do find one they’re not much fun to drive because of their poor controls and clunky physics. Sometimes you might find yourself losing control and crashing into the wall if your connection gets spotty, while others you could accidentally flip your vehicle entirely and then have no way to flip it back over. By comparison, Fortnite leans into its physics imperfections and gives you bouncy vehicles, grappling hooks, jump pads, and other fun toys to get creative with. PUBG instead leans away from them for as clean cut a presentation of realism as it can, and since it struggles to deliver that realism in practice, driving around ends up feeling stiff and downright unenjoyable.
And because these matches last considerably longer than the typical Apex Legends or Fortnite round, there can be quite a bit of dead air between long segments of running, driving, biking, or occasionally flying around. But of course, the hunt for ammunition, body armor, and medical supplies to keep you in the fight is constant enough to fill the space between moments of tension. Looting is still rewarding and enjoyable because the randomness of it means that you can strike big and find a powerful gun or a set of tier three armor just waiting around the corner, but there’s no way to know until you take the risk and go looking for it.
That expansive map size means that there’s always an opportunity cost to action or inaction in PUBG. Every decision is meaningful, but usually not enough to spell life or death on its own; will you cut across the open field to reach a nearby weapons cache and risk a sniper attack, or will you sneak between buildings and hope you find decent loot along the way? Do you recklessly drive across the map and risk unwanted attention, or do you creep around the edges of the storm and wait for the other players to pick each other off before making your move? Lots of approaches are viable, and your decisions leading to that chicken dinner winner screen is always a thrill.
And if you’re curious about whether it runs well, don’t worry, it does… at least on PC. Besides the unwieldy physics, I haven’t run into any experience-ruining bugs. And while it sounds like hacking has become a noticeable issue with members of the PUBG community, I didn’t personally run into anybody that ruined my experience on either the PC or the PlayStation 5. That said, it’s a lot better if you’re playing on a decent PC. I’ve been playing PUBG on a system that can push out frames above a consistent 60fps at 3440 by 1440p resolution on max settings, and with the additional field of view, PUBG’s wide landscapes and vast draw distances jive together exceptionally well.
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By comparison, PUBG is a rough experience on a PlayStation 5. It’s a struggle to distinguish other players at long ranges, rendering the vastness of PUBG’s maps feeling empty. There is a “Performance” mode which aims for a smooth 60fps at 1080p, but the lack of 4K fidelity, limited draw distance, and imprecise controls make it difficult to play PUBG the way it was designed. You’re also locked to playing with other PlayStation and Xbox players, which puts PUBG behind its battle royale contemporaries in terms of cross-play with PC and other platforms.
PUBG doesn’t have much meat on its bones if you get bored of skirmishing for survival in both solo and team modes. There’s very little in the way of custom maps, and the only other official Arcade mode is a lackluster Team Deathmatch that you can comfortably ignore. That single-mode focus is similar to Apex Legends, and it’s good that your primary option stays a lot of fun for a long time, but neither game can hold a candle to the versatility of Fortnite.
It’s great then that you can always dip into the dedicated Training mode and play with PUBG’s entire collection of weapons and toys, even testing them against a firing range, a race car track, and a cool “jump school” area that lets you parachute in as many times as you’d like. In fact, the new player experience does a fine job of getting you up to speed quickly with a few mandatory training matches against easy-target bots.