- Review Price: £24.99
Console exclusive to Xbox One Game Preview, available on PC
It hasn’t been a great year for Xbox One exclusives, but at least Microsoft can finish it with a biggie: a console version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG as it’s known to fans. PUBG is unquestionably the year’s biggest multiplayer phenomenon; not the first Battle Royale game, but the one that really brought the whole concept together.
In case you don’t know that concept, let’s lay it out in simple terms. Inspired by Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 movie, a Battle Royale game sees a large number of players thrown into a single area, where they battle it out until only one survives. In PUBG’s case, this involves 100 players dropped by parachute onto a fictional Eastern European island, scavenging for weapons, weapon modifications, body armour, clothes and ammo, then blasting away at each other.
Cleverly, players have to reach and stay within a safe zone that shrinks progressively or lose health at a rapid rate; a nice idea that ensures they have to keep moving and will be thrown together even as the number of survivors dwindles. What’s more, they also have to dodge the dangerous, unpredictable red zones, where a sudden bombing raid could put them out of action before they even get a chance to get killed.
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One of PUBG’s beauties is that it’s not just about the combat. You actually spend relatively little time shooting – a risky business where you’re likely to get killed – and more time exploring your surroundings, searching and looting the various buildings and avoiding falling prey to an ambush, sneak attack or cheap sniper shot. There are vehicles to race around in some top gear to collect, but your primary responsibility is just to not get killed – and if you make the odd kill along the way, all the better. It’s not like a Call of Duty or even a CounterStrike; it’s tense, a little bit nerve-wracking, unpredictable and incredibly immersive, with a layer of tactical depth that few other shooters can match.
The good news for Xbox One players is that none of this has been lost with the console PUBG. The bad news is that this Xbox Game Preview version is an inferior, glitchy and very much in-development version of the PC game, which itself won’t see the final version 1.0 release until next year. I’m not suggesting that you should cough up £25 to play it, but that it’s a great game with some significant caveats.
First of all, performance. Even on PC it takes a monster rig to keep PUBG running at 1080p, 60fps or above. On the Xbox One it runs at a target 30fps – and 30 to 40fps at 4K on Xbox One X – but in practice there’s a fair bit of stuttering, frame-dropping and general jerking around.
Textures glitch in and out, other artefacts occasionally appear and it’s not as if the game looks incredible even when it’s running fine; the visuals are more functional than spectacular. PUBG has to handle hundreds of players at an 8 x 8Km scale, but if you’re used to games as detail-rich as Call of Duty: World War II or Ghost Recon: Wildlands, it can be a bit of shock.
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Throw in odd spots of really nasty lag – the worst I’ve experienced in an online game for some time – and this does have an impact on gameplay. PUBG is a game where range, aim and accuracy count, and while most of my deaths came down to a mix of poor aim, stupidity and outright panic, a few were caused by jerky updates as my view rotated. Safe to say that the Xbox Game Preview version needs some serious optimisation.
Then there are the controls. Now, Bluehole Studio, working with Microsoft and Gears of War 4 developers, The Coalition, has actually done a very good job of making a fairly complex control setup work on the Xbox One pad. Some controls have double purposes depending on whether you click or hold, while clicking the left-stick has you sprinting while moving but leaning left while aiming.
However, inventory management seems over-complicated and a nightmare to handle at speed, and that goes double when you’re trying to fit weapon mods. You can still run into a room and pick up everything by pointing at the floor and spamming the X key, but anything more complex takes three times as long as it should. And given that spending too long in the same spot, fiddling with your inventory is never a good idea in PUBG, this is a problem.
Finally, stability. It’s not bad and matchmaking seems to work pretty well, but I’ve still been dumped from games, found myself unable to progress past the initial loading screens without restarting and had the game crash coming out of the game, losing my progress (annoyingly, I’d reached seventh place and had three kills).
Should you do it? Well, that’s a big, fat ….. maybe. On the one hand the experience feels a little rough, and if you want to play a Battle Royale game on Xbox, you can download Epic’s (let’s be nice and call it a homage) Fortnite: Battle Royale for free. It’s a slicker and more polished game and arguably more accessible and fun.
Yet, here’s the thing: Fortnite: Battle Royale doesn’t have the same feel, the same tension or the same sense of immersion. It’s not a game where you nervously approach a closed door wondering whether the house is empty, or if someone closed the door and is lurking inside. It’s not a game where you nervously listen for the slightest hint of a footstep through your headphones, or ponder whether to run towards that distant gunfire or keep your distance ‘til you’re better tooled-up. Even in it’s current, less than finished state, PUBG is still that game.
We’re not going to dish out any final scores until the full release next year, but Bluehole and Microsoft have some serious work to do if they want to bring the Xbox One PUBG up to scratch. I hope they do it, because at its best this is still one of the most thrilling and tactical multiplayer games around – and it deserves to be as big on console as it is on PC.