I’ve been spending a lot of time in toilets recently. They’re usually pretty drab, the kind of drab that only an eastern bloc aesthetic can conjure. I’m usually waiting for someone, anyone, as I stare at the dodgy textures and listen to the sounds of distant gunfire. No, I haven’t become a Ukrainian rent boy – I’m just playing a lot of Battlegrounds.
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS – Yep the title is all caps for some reason – is a ‘battle royale’ style survival-shooter. A hundred players are dropped onto an island and slowly corralled together until only one remains alive. It’s a smash hit on steam and is the creation of Brendan Greene, a veteran of several games in the genre, including their progenitor Day Z.
But what actually makes Battlegrounds fun? The shooting is nothing special – weapons sound crap and hit detection is at times less than stellar. Battlegrounds isn’t much to look at either, set on an island with a non-descript shabby-chic eastern bloc vibe. There is enough variety to be getting by and sometimes it can be fun to just explore a ruined military installation or pootle round the coast for a dystopian day trip – if you’re lucky enough to find a boat that is. After a while, you’ll gain an intimate knowledge of the handful of house templates pasted across the map. Yes, there are interesting parts, but more often than not you’ll have to spend your time hiding, cautiously moving from drab bathrooms to dingy garages. So much of the game, like it’s bathrooms, is bland, the guns aren’t thrilling to shoot and the-the cars handle weirdly. Long portions of a match will be spent hiding or running. The moments of action tend to be rare and brief.
Battlegrounds is exciting because of the tension and thrill it creates. It truly is more than the sum of its parts. The early game is a frantic scramble. If you land near someone, the choice to run for a weapon or take them down with your bare hands, is exhilarating. As you hurriedly loot houses, kitting yourself out with a good assault rifle with a long range sight and if you’re really lucky, a suppressor you begin to get the tantalising smell of a chicken dinner. Inevitably though, you’ll ignominiously be picked off as you run through a field of wheat. The paranoia that at any moment bullets could start flying and the palpable tension that comes with the sound of distant gunfire is what makes this deadly game of hide and seek so addictive.
The mid-game can drag a little as this is often the most static phase, in which you’ll furtively move from vantage point to vantage point, camping in the hope of picking off unlucky passers-by. There is a real sense of tension as you hide and monitor the progress of the ever-encroaching blue line. Yet, if anyone was to watch this gameplay it would look exceedingly dull. Battlegrounds is brilliant at eliciting anticipation for the fight to come in players which isn’t necessariliy obvious if you are simply observing the game being played. The tension of Battlegrounds reaches a head when you realise you’ve made it to the end game. The moment you notice you’re in the final twenty or so players left. The area gets smaller and smaller but still you can’t see anyone. No-one wants to be the first to raise their head above the parapet.
The last thing I love about Battlegrounds is how realistic it feels. I mean that in a very abstract sense. Everything in the game is a bit wonky, from the slightest molehill causing your car to perform wild acrobatics, to the awful noise of a hundred people firing guns on the lobby island. I don’t mean realistic in the sense of games like ARMA or a simulator but rather it manages to capture those apocalyptic daydreams. If you’ve ever sat around wondering how poorly you’d fare in a zombie outbreak or any of the other bizarre world-ending scenarios that pervade pop-culture, then you’ll know what I mean. Battlegrounds realises in virtual form, roughly how well I see myself doing in a dystopian fight the death. Grab anything that resembles a weapon, grab medicine, hide in the bathroom and defend myself if necessary; most likely with very limited success. While this won’t apply to the better end of the Battlegrounds players, who seems to perform feats I imagine would elude them in real life, most players I imagine fall into the category of nervous bathroom hide and seek.
The constant failure may sound frustrating. But somehow the excitement of the early game scramble and the impressive speed with which you can jump into a new game after being killed, in a way turns Battlegrounds into a roguelike. As you play more, you begin to carve out early game strategy and just like FTL or Risk of Rain, you get that sense of “oo, this is going to be a good run”. Famous last words. The size of the map and the random variable of other players means Battlegrounds sidesteps the problem of falling into an early game rhythm of, as Buffy so eloquently puts it, “going through the motions“.
I would argue that Battlegrounds is the most exciting roguelike released this year. It certainly doesn’t look like other games in the genre and perhaps it doesn’t strictly call itself one, but so much of the excitement and tension that it creates is can also be found in roguelikes. So there you have it, an early access battle royale shooter that looks so bland it would make watching paint dry seem like the final days of Rome. Somehow though it is just addictively fun and might be the best roguelike released this year.