When deciding my pick for last year’s Game of the Year award, I was dead set on Overwatch. Sure, it didn’t have a single-player campaign as good as Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (or one at all really) nor was it the complete package like Titanfall 2. However, there was something about the experience that I could only break down in terms of “moments”. It was a game that was good at creating moments from players, epitomized with its Play of the Game system which highlighted the greatest moment in each match. If it wasn’t all that great, you could laugh at it too. It was memorable which was the whole point.
“However, there’s one game that’s garnered momentum above all of them and it’s not even finished.”
Overwatch was an interesting release unto itself because from the perspective of many players, there wasn’t a whole lot to it. Well, at least in terms of “features”. Even those who followed it were a little concerned when the pre-launch open beta was essentially the full game. Was it worth the investment even as Blizzard said it would add free content in the subsequent months? It’s taken a while but Overwatch could now be considered a pretty strong “package” for those interested in feature sets, options and customization (though its hero pool still isn’t as deep as, say, Paladins).
Still, in hindsight, it’s amazing to think about the impact that Overwatch could have even with its lack of a proper spectator mode, server browser, 3v3 and 1v1 modes, replay or highlight save system, proper ranked mode (which is still pretty flawed to this day), emote wheel and so on. The game’s reporting system was also pretty bare-bones and over time, Blizzard had to assemble a strike team of sorts just to battle the game’s rising toxicity. Overwatch was still a contender for Game of the Year in 2016 though. There was no denying that.
It’s a new year though and there’s been a lot of great titles. Nier: Automata wowed us with its story structure and awesome combat, delivering equal measures of the bombastic and personal. Persona 5 didn’t so much redefine turn-based RPGs as deliver a compelling, almost addictive battle system with a beautiful visual style, strong cast of characters and excellent story. Divinity: Original Sin 2 showcased how much choice actually mattered while also offering a wide range of class customization, stellar writing and great tactical combat (plus it’s probably one of the best co-op games for PC). The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offered a fresh take on the open world genre, revelling in the little secrets and discoveries players make while enjoying wide-ranging freedom. Super Mario Odyssey brought us Nintendo gameplay at its finest in wide open spaces which offered tons of variety but still rewarded skilled platforming.
“There are great moments in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds as well and those often make up the bulk of the gameplay.”
That’s not including the dozens of other top-tier titles like What Remains of Edith Finch, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nioh, Pyre, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, SteamWorld Dig 2, Lone Echo, Rez Infinite, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, Resident Evil 7, Sonia Mania, Yakuza 0, Prey, Thimbleweed Park, Nex Machina, Night in the Woods, Total War: Warhammer 2, Guilty Gear Xrd: Rev 2 and so on and so forth. Each one of these games has delivered its share of amazing moments and stellar gameplay. You could pick out any one of these and expect a deeply moving experience, a fun story, innovation or a trip back to a simpler time. Many of the above are easily eligible some award, if not for Game of the Year.
However, there’s one game that’s garnered momentum above all of them and it’s not even finished. That game would be PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Entering Steam Early Access on March 23rd 2017, PUBG (as it’s often referred to) is a multiplayer title. It belongs to the Battle Royale genre, which is basically a large-scale Last Man Standing mode. One hundred players are dropped into a map and must forage for supplies and weapons before the big dome of death closes in on them. They must kill the others and claim victory. This can either be done solo, duo or in a group of four. PUBG’s gameplay can thus range from a solo survival experience fraught with tension or a tactical squad-based game with call-outs and sick snipes.
There are great moments in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds as well and those often make up the bulk of the gameplay. Due to the utterly random nature of each playthrough, players can land on different parts of the island, scrounge up different resources and weapons, and ultimately save themselves with a frying pan. Yes, frying pans stop bullets. You can also hunt down skilled squads using nothing but ingenuity and cunning…or as I like to call it, camping in a staircase and unloading with a shotgun. The main appeal of PUBG is the chicken dinner, the big victory at the end that comes from being the sole survivor. Those who achieved it have many different stories on how. Kyo-min “Evermore” Koo won the first ever PUBG Invitational at Gamescom playing solo, hardly getting any kills and ultimately being stuck in rocks while constantly healing himself. Then there’s the guy who won a match by laying in a bathtub in-game and getting for dinner. Figuring that he’d be killed, he was surprised to have won the entire match.
“The Steam Store page itself has a “Mixed” rating overall and there are plenty of negative reviews from consumers.”
For all intents and purposes, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a game where anything can happen. It can be a long, drawn-out experience that tests your patience or it can be a short exhilarating ride. The gaming world seemingly caught on to whatever mojo it possessed. Within three months, PUBG had already sold four million units. At last count, it passed 20 million units sold and broke the record for daily peak concurrent players on Steam. It’s done what no other game – Skyrim, Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, Call of Duty, DayZ, Rust and what have you – could ever do, unseating Valve’s Dota 2 as the most played game on Steam for several weeks on end. Creator Brendan “Playerunknown” Greene is now thinking that the game can compete with League of Legends in terms of player numbers. It’s almost humorous to think that when initially presented with the idea, developer Bluehole thought PUBG would at best sell 1 million copies.
Of course, with the so-called “brilliance” it brings to the table, PUBG can also be immensely frustrating. Hackers are a problem in games such as these and Bluehole has been doing its best to crack down on them. Bugs, performance issues, server issues, connectivity problems, the stream sniping ban controversy, more bugs, more hackers, the list goes on. It’s to be expected with an Early Access title but PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is also a game that’s attracted a lot of attention. That puts a big microscope on its every decision, whether it’s the announcement of an Xbox One version, delays for certain updates like vaulting, broken patches or just the odd bit about loot boxes for Gamescom purposes. Not every decision has been met with raucous applause. The Steam Store page itself has a “Mixed” rating overall and there are plenty of negative reviews from consumers.
So when you hear all this, it’s probably absurd to think that something like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds could be nominated for Game of the Year, much less win. Yet it’s becoming a prime discussion point as 2017 slowly draws to a close. The fact of the matter is that PUBG is not a complete game. However, it will be finished in December when the 1.0 version (hopefully) releases.
“It’s probably going to be a finished game by December 12th but there are plenty of other finished games which have proven their excellence and stand tall as the greatest of the year, if not all time.”
And really, shouldn’t fun be a deciding factor for nominating Game of the Year? Who cares about graphics when the gameplay is fun? A number of concessions would be made with that line of thinking, to be honest. Who cares if the game is buggy or performs terribly when it’s fun? Who cares about the hackers and broken updates when it’s fun? Who cares about the numerous matches of frustration when you eventually do find a match that’s simply the best and reinforces the feeling that there’s no other game out there like this?
I can empathize with all those viewpoints. Heck, it’s the root cause of the games-as-a-service model surviving for as long as it has. When a game can deliver solid gameplay that its audience simply won’t experience anywhere else, they’d be willing to ignore many of its shortcomings and strange business decisions to keep playing it. It’s not a criticism or a snarky remark but an observation of sorts. To Bluehole’s credit, it is doing the very best it can to ensure that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is the best game it can possibly be. Supporting the kind of player base it has and appeasing all of them is a monumental effort as well. It’s one of those scenarios where the developer can never truly emerge the victor and must simply trust its gut.
But is that kind of gameplay enough to qualify for Game of the Year? If it delivers enough “moments” and unforgettable stories, causing its player base to individually pour hundreds of hours into it, isn’t that worthy of recognition? Sure but as noted above, you could make that case for a number of games. You could tell me that playing Nier: Automata or Divinity: Original Sin 2 for the tenth time won’t deliver a fresh experience like PUBG would. But I could reply that replaying these games is like re-watching a great movie or even re-reading an excellent novel. It’s entirely subjective and both experiences offer their own degrees of highs and lows. There’s also no denying that several commercial, finished games offer many more highs without the technical issues that an Early Access title provides. It’s probably going to be a finished game by December 12th but there are plenty of other finished games which have proven their excellence and stand tall as the greatest of the year, if not all time.
“For me at least, PUBG remains an unprecedented commercial success in a year full of artistic triumphs and nothing more, even if it does have a bit of art poking out from beneath its many, many layers of flaws.”
Of course, as noted above, it’s subjective. If someone wants to give PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds an award for Game of the Year simply based on the amount of fun they’ve had with it, they can. I’m sure it could even be justified in some cases and no, I wouldn’t be surprised or outraged. It would certainly be curious though. Like re-reading a book with typos, grammatical errors, missing pages and whatnot that’s bound in a flimsy package (that doesn’t even stay connected to the internet, for argument’s sake), PUBG’s experience is certainly unique. It may even be fun in some cases. However, the level of polish is ultimately what separates a game like, say, Overwatch from PUBG when it comes to accepting the highest recognition that a game could earn.
Whether it’s deserving of that is another matter entirely but the fact that it can be considered in the same league as other stellar titles certainly is interesting. What does that say for the future of other Early Access titles, including those that are currently still embroiled in early development, or about games that aren’t considered “finished” by the world as a whole but provide their own unique brand of fun? It’s certainly an interesting discussion that could have larger ramifications on the industry as a whole in the future. For me at least, PUBG remains an unprecedented commercial success in a year full of artistic triumphs and nothing more, even if it does have a bit of art poking out from beneath its many, many layers of flaws.