PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds for Xbox One is unique and intense, but rough around the edges
The phenomenon that is PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) largely passed me by this year, in part because I'm simply not a huge PC gamer.
I use my Razer Blade laptop to play passive, lighter games, including 4X strategy games like Stellaris, and occasionally casual World of Warcraft. Although I spent most of my teen years playing Unreal Tournament 99 on a PC nonstop, after Halo 2, I ended up preferring the couch-optimal Xbox experience for shooters. Still, I watched PUBG evolve from the sidelines, as its Battle Royale-style one-versus-99 gameplay grew from obscurity into a 2017-defining game.
Aiming with a mouse is certainly far more accurate than it is with an Xbox gamepad joystick, but perhaps more crucially, you can turn faster. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is as much about tactics and strategy as it is about precise aiming and skill. Sound is incredibly important in PUBG, too, listening for enemy footsteps as you creep around the game's sizeable open-world map.
Some had wondered if PUBG's finer nuances might be lost in the transition to console, where games are often "dumbed down" to accommodate the lack of available inputs on a gamepad versus a keyboard and a mouse. In some cases that might be true. Some PUBG veterans on our team feel that powerful weapon spawns are more abundant in the console version, although we don't really have data to back that. I can say one thing for sure, though; after just a few games, PUBG represents some of the most intense, nerve-wracking competitive combat I've experienced on Xbox, ever.
It's not pretty ...
PUBG is still in early access on PC and has arrived in "Game Preview" on Xbox One, indicating that the game is still in development. While the core gameplay feels relatively polished, the engine and visuals struggle, even on the suped-up Xbox One X.
PUGB targets a disappointing 30 frames per second (FPS) on Xbox One and Xbox One X. Note my use of the word targets. It often doesn't even hit 30 FPS, especially in the earlier phases of the game and if the action gets too intense. Microsoft says optimizations are on-going, and considering the game is just $30, it's not exactly a deal-breaker (and it still runs better than a lot of other Game Preview titles out there), but the AAA marketing push PUBG has received may inflate expectations.
Additionally, it just doesn't look that good. Sure, tracking hundreds of players across a persistent world is undoubtedly more intensive than, say, a superficially similar game, like Ghost Recon Wildlands, but the tradeoff seems to be a game that looks like it emerged limping from the Xbox 360 era.
PUBG's textures and resolution, even on Xbox One X, just aren't good right now ... but they aren't particularly great on a high-end PC either. At least as of writing, PUBG is a game that targets function over form, and in that department, it soars.
For those unfamiliar, PUBG can be a pretty intense experience to watch on streams, but nothing compares to actually playing it.
In a shooter like Call of Duty or Battlefield, the stakes never seem particularly high, because you simply respawn upon death. In PUBG, though, the whole premise of the game revolves around survival. If you die, that's it, you lose. Sure, you'll get more points for purchasing cosmetic items the longer you survive, but the whole idea of PUBG is to be the last man or woman standing. If you're accustomed to more casual types of shooters, PUBG is a curveball (and then some).
In PUBG, you and 99 other players spawn into a large map, parachuting in via plane. The plane traverses a different path each game, which helps keep each new match fresh. Ammo, weapons, and other gear must be accrued on-site, all players start at zero. The placements are also completely random, and scavenging safely and stealthily forms the basis of play, at least in the early stages of a game.
Each game can last anywhere between two minutes and 20 minutes, depending on how long you can survive. The playable area available to combatants constantly shrinks too, forcing players to fight or flee for their lives. In the earliest parts of the game, this can create frantic fights over handguns and melee weapons (including the game's iconic frying pan), as you attempt to survive the initial stages.
If you make it past the beginning (or parachute down somewhere particularly quiet), the middle of a PUBG match can be a little quieter. Often too quiet for my tastes. I'm not sure if I've just been ruined by generations of casual shooters that drip-feed small hits of dopamine for each quick-fire kill, but PUBG often rewards the patient, methodical player, over the run n' gunner.
If you're already geared up and in the safe zone, sometimes it's optimal to simply sit still and wait a few minutes, gun aimed at the top of a stairwell or doorway. If not, searching abandoned houses in the surrounding area makes for anxiety-inducing scenarios, where the slightest hint of enemy footsteps can set your pulse racing.
I tend to panic while playing PUBG, and it's not something I've experienced in a console game often. The only times I can remember panic setting in, heart racing, concentration fluctuating, has been in open-world, player versus player situations in World of Warcraft on PC. There's something intense about one-versus-one experiences that result in a final, crushing loss, and PUBG captures that intensity incredibly well on Xbox One.
I managed to get into the No. 2 spot in PUBG, so far, one kill away from that memetic chicken dinner reward. Sadly, I choked, primarily because I didn't fully read up on the controls (you really should do that before playing), but also because I was still getting used to the shooting mechanics.
PUBG's bullet tech certainly comes with a learning curve, beyond even that of Battlefield 1. Bullets drop, gunfire spreads relatively realistically, favoring controlled fire over panic-induced spraying. The game also features leaning mechanics, allowing you to reduce your hitbox as much as possible to promote tactical play, and gunfire realistically echoes in the distance, enhanced by surround sound set-ups (you'll want a decent headset for this game to play optimally).
Despite losing, the sensation of coming second was incredible. You can play in squads, but this was a solo run. Ducking and diving away from 99 other players, lucking out with a couple of accidental flanks, and sneaking behind enemies to catch them unawares feels immersive in a way more casual, arcade-style shooters simply can't.
There's nothing like this on Xbox
PUBG isn't something I think I could sit down and play for hours on end. I find the experience to be far too intense (or maybe I just need to get used to it), but there simply isn't anything available on Xbox One that even comes close to this experience right now. Games like Fortnite Battle Royale that attempt to emulate PUBG totally miss the point; it's the realistic nature of the game that makes it so immersive, so incredibly visceral.
At just $30, any shooter fan should give this a go, even if, like me, you have a tendency towards twitch shooters or large-scale warfare like Battlefield 1. Players who enjoy Rainbow Six Siege might find themselves right at home, and for sure, gamers currently playing Fortnite Battle Royale should come across to PUBG and experience the real deal.
PUBG is definitely rough around the edges, but Microsoft's team prioritized intuitive controls and relatively stable gameplay over visuals and flair. I think if this game was full price, I'd find it hard to recommend. At $30? It feels like a no-brainer, and it's going to be interesting to see how PUBG on Xbox evolves over time.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!