Well, that was a close call. While no one was certain it would release in any official capacity this year (or any other year for that matter), online multiplayer sensation PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds snuck in under the wire with a December 20, 2017, release date, giving everyone the opportunity to talk about, well, what we’ve all known since March: it’s one hell of a game.
In all probability, though, it shouldn’t be. There have been plenty of past attempts at the battle royale formula—including most recently/notably in the form of The Culling—that haven’t gotten much further than a weekend of notoriety. And the creative director Brendan Greene, the eponymous PlayerUnknown, had previously released games pretty much just like PUBG via mods for the ARMA series.
Basically, we’d seen this ground be tread before and it lead to nowhere particularly interesting. But something clicked here; PUBG took Steam over by fucking storm in what felt like a single night. Twitter erupted in video clips of wicked races against a blue wall of electric death and screenshots of chicken dinners (the delicious colloquialism for winning a match that emerged from the words “WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER” appearing after a game).
That’s because it is a game of stories. Every single game becomes another chapter in the record of your time with this game. Some will end mere seconds after landing as the remaining 99 soldier on, others will come to a halt after a poorly chosen reprieve, but most importantly, a very select few will end with you at the table. You might not always get that poultry treat, but it’s the treks into the final few that stick in your mind and, usually, in the minds of the dozens other watching along with you.
I could tell you about the time I pinned my foe against a tree with a truck and left him a grenade to snack on. Or I could tell you about hiding in a bin with only a machete as a squad hunted me down like a horror movie. But of course the thing I most want to tell you is how my last remaining squadmate ran into the open to sacrifice himself so I could figure out where the only other living combatant was hiding in a tight and frightening 20-yard circle.
And keep in mind, this tremendous, overwhelming success was found within a largely broken, nigh unbearable mess. It would crash, it would stutter, things would catch on fire for no reason, houses wouldn’t render for an entire round, and there was only one map with a nearly indecipherable set of rules concerning target penetration and bullet drop and so much more. And that’s kind of the point.
After years and years of games that we knew everything—everything right down to the pixel—about its mechanics and intent and design philosophy, we wanted something new. Make no mistake: the seismic, categorical shift that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare brought to the industry is what PUBG carries in its level three backpack.
It taps into a natural, innate understanding that other shooters failed to capture and communicate for eSports. And that was fine as it worked with the same sort of insider ethos as StarCraft and MOBAs, but PUBG as perfectly superficial in its presentation as it is deeply nuanced in its strategy and gameplay.
You watch that number dwindle and the tension rise when other shooters gave you a scoreboard of inscrutable numbers going up and down. You can intuit the layout of a house and know the fraught tension that comes with lying prone in a bathtub as footsteps fill your headphones while other multiplayer maps features alien features like sci-fi dungeons and, well, literal aliens. PUBG is digestible in a way we’d never really bothered to ask for in a competitive game.
It’s hard to overstate, however, how much more disgustingly, aggravatingly, alarmingly stressful it is playing this game. You will sweat and you will shake and you will curse and you will yell. This is a game that taps into something that no other game has really gotten into before. And that’s why PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is our number nine game of the year.