A new contender
When it comes to games that are as fun to watch as they are to play, the battle royale genre is near the top of the list. You throw a large number of players into an arena, give them a bunch of weapons and other goodies to find and pick up, and let them duke it out until only one person is left standing.
There have been a few battle royale titles of note recently, including H1Z1: King of the Kill. Brendan "PLAYERUNKNOWN" Greene created the original battle royale mod for Arma 3 and designed the battle royale game mode for the original H1Z1 before moving on to work with Bluehole on BATTLEGROUNDS. (Editor's note: The company's branding for this game is in all capital letters, but that hurts our eyes. So from here on, we're using normal, "sentence case.")
Battlegrounds is sort of like a middle point between the arcade action of H1Z1: King of the Kill and the strictly mil-sim gameplay of Arma 3. It seems to appeal to plenty of people, and it has sold more than a million copies since it hit Steam Early Access in March.
There's already news of Battlegrounds coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (PS4), but first, the game needs to have its wrinkles ironed out on PC. Yes, there are plenty of little bugs that need stomping and a lot of optimization that needs doing, but that's expected of an Early Access title; that's why you usually pay less money, in this case about $30. What we have already, however, is an addictive game that is topping streaming sites and keeping players up way past their bedtimes for one more round.
What makes this game so much fun? What can you look forward to when it releases on Xbox One? We take a deep dive into Battlegrounds in this Early Access preview.
The island of Battlegrounds
All gameplay takes place on an island that's roughly eight square kilometers. There are ten named towns, as well as a power plant, a military base, ruins of churches, a flooded town, a whole lot of walled compounds, blocks of apartments, farmhouses, bunkers and towers. You can't go far without seeing something to either hide in, loot or avoid.
At the bottom of the map is a separate, smaller island called Sosnovka Island that's home to a huge military base, a town, a mountain and a bunch of other buildings. There are two bridges connecting Sosnovka Island to the main island, and they see a lot of action when players are attempting to get back to the main island. There are cliffs around the majority of both the large island and Sosnovka Island, making it hard or even impossible to get up from the sea if you happen to take a boat or do some swimming.
To start the match — following the warm-up lobby where you and 99 other players can run around and punch and shoot each other without effect — an airplane flies in a straight line over the island. The line is randomized each game, giving a nice variety to your overall strategy. You get to choose when you jump out of the plane, when to pull your parachute, and where you want to set down.
In the air, you're able to sort of plot out an area you want to get to, plus you're able to see vehicles. There are fixed spawn locations and random spawn locations for cars, jeeps, buggies and motorcycles. One of the first things you want to do when you set down — if you don't hop into a vehicle and drive far away from the flight path — is head into a building and start looting.
Jokingly referred to as a "looting simulator," Battlegrounds is absolutely full of stuff to pick up and use. From cosmetic items such as shirts, pants and hats, to guns and their attachments, armor and helmets, first aid, and stimulants, you'll be looking for a backpack in no time just to hold all that stuff.
There is currently a decent assortment of guns with more on the way. You have your ARs, like the M416 and SCAR-L; sniper rifles like the Kar98k and AWM; SMGs like the UMP9 and Micro UZI; shotguns like the S12K and S1897 trench gun; a bunch of pistols; and many others we'll let you find on your own. Melee weapons make an appearance (you can also punch) to help when the ammo runs out. You can even place a cast-iron pan on your lower back to literally cover your ass.
All guns have attachment slots that can be filled with suitable pieces of hardware if you happen to find them. These attachments all serve a purpose and are not just for looks. For example, you can place the beloved extended quickdraw magazine into your SMG for higher ammo capacity and quick reloads, or you can attach a suppressor to become silently deadly. Seriously, if you find a suppressor for your AR, you're probably about 25 percent more likely to win a match.
There are three tiers of body armor and helmets, each one protecting a bit more than the last. If this armor gets hit, it degrades an amount equivalent to the damage. Once completely degraded, it disappears. Finishing a match without armor is just about impossible, so be sure to keep an eye on your levels. There's no visual cue to how it's faring unless you have a look in your inventory.
When you take damage, the only way to replenish health is with bandages, first aid kits, med kits or stimulants. All of these items take time to administer, and the more effective items take more time. Stimulants include energy drinks and painkiller pills; these slowly heal you and will also give you a speed boost if you pump yourself with enough of them.
Cosmetic items that don't affect your play, such as pants, shirts and hats, can be obtained through loot crates purchased with in-game currency that is received by getting kills and winning matches.
Racing the circle
You're all decked out with a bunch of fancy armor and a suppressed M16A4. What do you do next? Once everyone has landed, a large white circle (the first one covers roughly 50 percent of the map) appears and a five-minute timer starts. After the five minutes expire, a blue circle begins closing in from the outside edges of the map. If you get caught outside of the blue circle, you'll begin losing health. Your health is depleted very slowly if you're outside of the first few blue circles, but it depleted very fast if you're outside of the last blue circles of a game.
Once the blue circle reaches the white circle, a new white circle appears within the old one (smaller) and a new timer (shorter) starts. The process is repeated. This ultimately forces players into one small spot on the map, and matches last between 30 minutes and 45 minutes if you survive until the very end.
You can stave off elimination when outside the circle by ingesting stimulants or by healing yourself faster than the circle takes health. This becomes nearly impossible in the later circles, but there are plenty of strategies that involve staying outside of the first few blue circles, as long as first aid is plentiful.
While you're dealing with the creeping circle, you're also dealing with other players. They all have the exact same objective, they all have the exact same chance of finding loot, and they all have the same racing heartbeat. In order to best the other players, you (and your partner or squad) need to make snap decisions and play smart.
It takes a team
Battlegrounds can be played alone against 99 other players, with a partner against 49 other duos, or in a four-person squad against 24 other squads. Playing with friends is deeply satisfying, especially when everyone is dialed-in and using their comms to communicate clearly and efficiently.
When playing solo, if your health is depleted completely you are immediately killed. When playing with a partner or three, however, you first go into a "downed" state when your health is depleted. You can crawl around slowly, but you can't shoot. This gives your friends time to rush over and administer a revive but also leaves them unable to defend themselves.
Enemy players can shoot you a few more times when you're in a downed state to finish you off, and you'll also die eventually if you don't receive a revive. After dying, you can watch your remaining teammates until they're all dead or they win the match.
There isn't really a preferred method of play; plenty of people switch between solo, duo, and squad, with each mode delivering a different style of play. Solo is usually spent creeping around, carefully checking corners. Duos are played a bit more aggressively because you have the option to set up a flanking route. Squads usually involve some serious tactics.
A note on squads: One person usually takes over as the person who makes the snap decisions. There's no real voting system on who that is, and in my experience someone just sort of takes over in the moment. It seems to work well as long as everyone is communicating openly, and the teamwork involved in a squad or duo win is usually something you can all feel proud of.
Listening to the players
Battlegrounds is an Early Access title, and bugs are to be expected. That's the agreement when you buy into this sort of thing. However, developers don't necessarily have to listen to their community and make changes to their games. There have been plenty of instances where a title was released, a large number of people bought into it, and the devs escaped with their bags of money.
So far, Bluehole has been on the ball when it comes to listening to the gripes of players and fixing problems. However, the game is not optimized and requires a pretty beefy PC to get any sort of acceptable framerate, There is some rubber-banding at the start of matches, and lags happen at the worst time (think close-quarters combat). Vehicles are known to fly into the air unexpectedly and explode in a fiery wreck, and some players are convinced the SKS doesn't shoot anywhere near where it's supposed to.
These problems are all documented by Bluehole, and the company noted that it is working diligently on fixing them. Since the Early Access release, there has been a patch each week that either fixed bugs, optimized the game, added new content, or all of the above. It's clear that Bluehole and Playerunknown do not want their creation to fall into the same category as plenty of other Early Access games that have long since been abandoned by the majority of their player-base.
Playerunknown's Battlegrounds summary (a.k.a. TL;DR)
Battlegrounds is similar to a lot of other battle royale games. It delivers the same heart-thumping moments, the same adrenaline rush of a firefight, and the same elation when a win finally comes your way. Because it sits somewhere between mil-sim and arcade action, it appeals to a wide number of players, and the player base continues to grow day by day. It's more about making smart decisions and having steady aim than it is about knowing the map or grinding away to unlock better gear. Every match is a new experience, with every player sitting at the same chance of winning as they jump from the airplane.
Yes, there are moments of frustration, both caused by being outplayed or by the current state of the game, but they're overshadowed by the overall tension, hilarity, and camaraderie. Where else can you get into a high-speed chase with another vehicle, shoot the driver, celebrate, then watch as your own vehicle hits a small bump and rockets into the air?
If Bluehole and Playerunknown continue refining the game and listening to their player base, there could be a new standard set in this genre. With it eventually coming to consoles, it's bound to be a topic of discussion for a long time. Want to get in on the Early Access action, rough edges, bugs, and all? You can grab it now for about $30.
Cale Hunt is formerly a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He's been reviewing laptops and accessories full-time since 2016, with hundreds of reviews published for Windows Central. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.