In the last month, I have racked up almost 93 hours in the enormously popular PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been put aside. The very impressive Flinthook is on hiatus. Even my precious Overwatch is sacrificing time to the biggest surprise of 2017.
With its origins in the Battle Royale mod for Arma 3, Battlegrounds takes everything great from the original and put its all in a neat and comprehensible package. It does away with lots of the mundane, hardcore Arma controls and gameplay but retains enough to make for a compelling experience despite being in Early Access.
I am reminded of the innumerable number of hours I spent in the original DayZ. The best aspects were always collecting loot and pressure-packed encounters against other players. Acquiring loot and slowly building your character up with an arsenal is fulfilling in a very real way. Every unexplored building represents more, possibly better loot, but increases the possibility of finding other similarly armed foes as well.
The “Battle Royale” genre takes this formula and tightens the experience to be more direct and purposeful. Other open-world survival games are huge maps for players to do what they want with loads of free-range, emergent gameplay. Battlegrounds is a more calculated entry. A hundred players start parachuting on an island filled with varying terrain, buildings, guns, and loot. Every few minutes the playable area shrinks via an unexplained and mysterious blue barrier and kills players caught in its borders. Every new “circle” ramps up the tension until reaching a boiling point. The goal is to simply be the last standing person or team.
This key difference keeps games from lasting more than about thirty minutes, with real unfortunate rounds taking all of few minutes for the average player. Since it is so easy to re-queue for another match, the game encourages aggressive and risky gameplay which can make for absolutely exhilarating moments. There is a devious sense of light-hearted nihilism where lives are expendable in the drive for success. However, the stakes and finality of death in Battlegrounds still makes every open door, field, or house ooze with dread. Firefights can be feel confusing and frustrating, but pushing through and fending off a squad of enemy players is euphoric in ways that few games can ever match. Things rarely go according to plan in Battlegrounds, but when they work out, man, there really is nothing like it.
There is no story and no real justification of why any of this is taking place. Battlegrounds isn’t trying to say anything true about the world, instead it throws emergent gameplay into overdrive with hard decisions and consequences while maintaining a sense of fun and levity.
It is strange to me that the progenitor of all these games, DayZ, still looks and plays like the old mod I loved years ago. It really hasn’t changed in any meaningful way. With games like Rust, Ark, Conan, H1Z1, and now Battlegrounds, the bar is seemingly reinvented every year and raised ever so slightly.
My once, beloved DayZ is now a mere onlooker to the rapid innovation the genre possesses; it feels old and unoriginal. Half of the features once promised are in continual, never-ending development. The ones that were implemented never added anything of real substance. Most of the innovation for DayZ is taking place in its own modding community with excellent mods like Epoch or Overpoch.
Battlegrounds is the tip of the spear now and its popularity is indicative of a quality, genre-defining product. The rapid rise of this game brings all the great aspects of the PC gaming landscape to the forefront. Innovative games with small studios rising far beyond anything a Watch Dogs 2 or Assassin Creed could muster. Even in Early Access the greatness is self-evident.