I can recall the exact moment I gave up on Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. Not that I stopped playing it entirely. After all, in the right frame of mind, I can still taste the ardor I once had for it. The heady descent from the now-infamous plane; scrambling through a ruined mud-hut for an assault rifle as snatches gunfire rings out around me; pulling out a perfect headshot on an unsuspecting rube from a few hundred yards out - all these things rouse me. Yet I still find myself booting up other games, idling in Destiny 2 with my ill-mannered compatriots, grinding out the same public event for the ten-thousandth time. And I know exactly why.
A few weeks ago, I dropped into the “school” five times - one of PUBG’s most notorious hot-spots, home to emergent early-game scraps that determine who walks away with some of the map’s best loot. Each time I landed, I sprang forth, hoping to find munitions before my fellow survivalists bagged me as an easy kill. Each time, I fell short. A shotgunner squatting in a classroom splattered my guts against the linoleum as I walked through the door; a rifleman popped my head just as I reached for an AK - the litany goes on and on. And, as I went to click the button to seat myself in another plane for the sixth time, another life to lay upon the thrall of the “Chicken Dinner.” I found myself wondering: why am I doing this to myself? Nothing about this experience was at all enjoyable. The sheer tedium of clicking through, grabbing loot, and watching the bodies pile up had numbed me to that.
This is why I (among many) found myself baffled by the inclusion of PUBG as one of the five Game of the Year candidates at The Game Awards 2017, exceeding the likes of Nier: Automata, Nioh, and a host of indie powerhouses like Night in the Woods. While it raised a burbling brouhaha on whether or not Early Access games can even qualify to be GOTY - it is, despite its mammoth popularity, technically unreleased - for me, these protests missed the point entirely. PUBG is absolutely one of the most important and popular games of 2017 - that much is clear - but it suffers from such a raft of glaring flaws that to suggest it’s one of the best games of 2017 shows just how easily the games community can be blinded, as I was, by a bit of novelty.
Many critics have accused developers of using Steam’s Early Access tag to garner a little working capital on projects that aren’t quite ready for the limelight. And while opinions on the practice may vary, even now, PUBG remains the most broken game I’ve ever played for a significant length of time, with frame-rates struggling to reach 45 to 50 on even the lowest settings on my midrange gaming PC. (For comparison’s sake, it runs the “terrible port” of Nier: Automata at the highest settings with no issue.)
Even worse, I found myself afflicted with a particularly nasty bug that prevented certain buildings from loading before the start of the match, which would result in my untimely death roughly half the time. This made playing with my friends extremely difficult, as they had to wait for my assets to “load in” before I could gear up. To date, the only solution to this issue appears to be installing the game onto a solid-state drive and possibly upgrading your RAM; PUBG thus holds the dubious honor as the only game I’ve ever had to buy specific hardware in order to play properly. Though I found this process frustrating, I don’t necessarily hold it against PUBG itself, or even Bluehole, the developers behind the game. After all, nobody blinks when an Early Access title proves a little more threadbare than, say, the next Blizzard megahit. But the fact that PUBG continues to be a glitchy mess six months into its reign on the top of FPS Mountain should be noted when it comes time to crown this year’s best game.
And these shortcomings aren’t limited to the intangibles, the game’s soul-suckingly generic art style definitely deserves mention. As I put hour after hour into PUBG, I felt more and more than the set of design principles that gird its drab concrete foundation require quite a bit of revision, a first draft rather than the intricate masterwork that some claim to see. In particular, the rapid speed and eventual lethality of the dreaded blue circle seems to encourage “camping” at the heart of the field, where you can scope out edge-skimmers as they run for their lives.
The sheer amount of rope that the designers give to chance - the path of the plane, the lack of even modest gear loadouts, the entirely-unnecessary “red zones” that just might blow you up - seems to hang players in certain matches before they even get their fingers wrapped around a trigger, which leads to the sense of fatalistic boredom that pushed me from the game in the first place. Yet that reliance on freewheeling randomness is exactly what drew the crowds to the game in the first place. Extricating one from the other might prove as difficult as separating wet from water, but, from my perspective, it’s a necessary step if the game wants to survive the waves of imitators that lurk just beyond the horizon.
As we careen towards the end of a dark, depressing year - yet, somehow, one of the greatest in gaming memory - let’s not forget those pretenders, sure to swarm in the coming months. Like Wolfenstein 3D before it, PUBG isn’t really the first of its kind, but a distillation: an apparent pretender that managed to weave a garb that captured the spirit of the masses better than the original itself. But, like Wolf 3D, yet another may eclipse it, exploiting its ramshackle technology and comparative lack of imagination to achieve a venerable milestone in gaming history: Doom. Like it or not, PUBG is far from the Doom of its genre, though it may yet become that. Once that game arrives - from Bluehole or otherwise - perhaps we can crown it the best game of the year. Until then, however, keep the torches burning for the games that you can play for thirty minutes without crashing to your damn desktop.