PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds – or PUBG as it's better known – started life on the PC before drifting sideways to console and mobile devices. It's not often that we turn to mobile games for review, but in the case of PUBG Mobile, there's a serious case for it: it's an exceptional experience.
The defining game of battle royale
You can't turn anywhere without hearing about "battle royale" (BR) these days, the idea being that many players are simultaneously thrown into a survival arena and, you guessed it, have to survive.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is generally considered to be the classic BR game, despite many others jumping on the bandwagon. Key among the rivals is Fortnite – which also came to mobile around the same time – but there's increased activity in BR games from other established franchises, including Call of Duty. PUBG, however, is only about battle royale and although there are different game types, it all revolves around this scavenger survival concept, which is incredibly simple.
What's most impressive is the adoption of PUBG Mobile: there are 20 million active daily users (according to Tencent); it holds the number 1 spot on iTunes for strategy games (with a 4.5 star review average); and sits in the top action games on Google Play (again with near perfect user scores).
Fortnite has attracted a lot of younger players because of its stylised graphics, storyline and defence elements. PUBG Mobile attracted those looking for a more realistic combat gameplay. That's also reflected in the ratings: PUBG is 16 or 17, while Fortnite is 12.
PUBG Mobile doesn't need the most powerful phone
One of the things that's made games like PUBG Mobile work on mobile is the increased power and screen size that mobile devices now offer. Across the board, smartphones are becoming better gaming devices. In the case of PUBG, we'd pick the phone over the Xbox, because we think it plays better (and the Xbox version has run into a number of problems).
While the gaming experience is better on larger-screen devices – we have played it predominantly on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and 9 – it also plays well on lower power devices. We've played it on the Nokia 6, with mid-range hardware and at lower screen resolutions, so a good experience isn't the preserve of those with the most powerful or expensive phones.
PUBG Mobile addresses a number of graphical elements to the game offering to automatically detect the best settings for you – but giving you control over the resolution, colouration and other settings. Importantly, you can also edit the frame rate if you find you're not getting a smooth experience.
In reality, the biggest barrier to play that we've found is connectivity. If you don't have a good connection, you're likely to get lag and find your player doesn't respond and can't be controlled properly. That means you're likely to end up dead. And if you're dead, you can't win.
Generally speaking the graphics are very good and the game does play smoothly – but it's important to make sure you have your brightness turned up and any night mode turned off as this will downgrade the visual experience.
Gameplay and controls
The crux of PUBG Mobile is to survive. There is no plot. It's gather, kill, and avoid being killed. That takes several different modes – which have slowly been changing over updates to the game – but revolve around Classic and Arcade modes.
The Classic is 100 players dropping into one of three maps (at the time of writing). The Arcade modes are various versions of this – changing the length of the game, size of the map or restricting the selection of weapons.
The game also offers third-person and first-person perspective, letting you choose how you play.
But the big thing about mobile gameplay is controls and information: there's a lot on the display, from movement controls to the mini map, to voice and text communication, as well as weapon controls. You get to custom edit the display if you want, so you can reposition some elements to make things more playable.
If we have one criticism it's that screen clutter can obscure the game: you might be crouching in a building and move toward the window to target an opponent, and then have something popping up to tell you there are some supplies to gather in that location. You'll then find that obscures your view, while you're trying to fight. Ultimately that's a downside of mobile play.
There are reports of some playing with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse on a tablet and that may well be the case (both work well on Android), but we've never found it to be a limit to winning or progressing in the game. Generally speaking, you die because of some tactical limitation – you're in exposed ground, running to get to the playzone and someone with a rifle and scope is on high ground, ready to shoot you.
There is also talk of cheating, but the same applies as above. We've not encountered something that's obviously cheating and have never really struggled to rank well in games.
Team play and friends
There are teams and voice chat for co-op games. You can invite friends to the game and play as a proper team, or just be paired with strangers. Voice chat is completely controllable, although the speaker is on for team games by default. You'll often then hear someone else crashing around (hand movements past mobile device microphones really get in the way here).
We usually turn voice chat off when playing with strangers. It might be antisocial for the team, but there is an opening for abuse on open voice systems – and who can be bothered with that? There's a text system for team communication with some stock phrases ('help', 'enemy ahead', 'I've found a scope', etc), and there's a custom field for text entry here too.
While this is sparingly used, we've encountered some players writing extensively – obviously on a keyboard – and generally berating the rest of the team for some reason or another, which is tedious to say the least. That's online gaming, eh?
Teams are generally a good experience, although often dive straight into the fiercest battle and die through naivety, leaving you without teammates. The camaraderie can be pretty good and after 25 minutes (an average game length) playing with a considerate teammate, you'll feel the community spirit. Make friends and play together again, because good players thrive in PUBG.
Every game is different and beginners are just fine
One of the successes of PUBG is that you don't respawn, it's one life (except in the Arcade war mode). That means everyone drops in with nothing except their clothes.
That also means the game is immediately approachable for beginners, as everyone starts on a level playing field. Sure, experience helps and knowing that a shotgun will decimate someone in close range but won't touch someone further away, makes a huge difference – but you don't find yourself immediately slaughtered in a small arena, which has been the downside in lots of previous online multiplayer games.
That's a great thing, because you can essentially choose to avoid the conflict and gather, or dive right into the places where the battle is going to be the fiercest if you have blood lust. Veteran or not.
PUBG Mobile does attempt to match players on some degree of ability, often filling in gaps with bots. You can spot the bots as they display erratic behaviour, like running wildly in the open and stopping when you shoot at them, pausing for a long time (when you usually kill them) then sprinting off in a different direction (if you don't).
You might think that PUBG Mobile gets a little one dimensional as it only offers one thing. We've not found that to be the case, though, as every game is different and you're free to roam the map as you please, until the decreasing playzone limits your movement as the game progresses.
The experience has been enhanced by updates to the mobile game. At the time of writing there are three maps – temperate, desert, jungle – each with their own character and some minor differences in weapons and vehicles. You can choose to have random maps or always play the same map.
Rewards and in-game purchases
To try to spice things up, there's a hefty rewards system where you collect XP/BP for various things – daily plays, time survived, kills with a particular weapons and so on. These contribute to various levels across the game, as well as giving you credits to use for various other collectibles, like equipment crates.
From these crates you can get clothing. The "free" clothing you'll gather is fairly basic and common, with the in-game store offering a wider range of exciting garments you can purchase with real money.
It's here that PUBG Mobile attempts to monetise. You can directly by clothes and items, like weapon skins, but you really don't have to – although starting the game dressed for war is a minor advantage.
There's also a Royale Pass system that powers-up rewards, letting you do things like change the skin of the aircraft you drop in from (a 10 second moment of glory in reality). Do you need to spend any money to progress in the game? No, you do not.
PUBG Mobile's success very much comes down to playability on mobile devices. The fact that you can login on your phone or tablet and play across whichever device, largely irrelevant of its specification, is why this free-to-play game has been able to thrive.
PUBG Mobile now sees updates pretty much every month, bringing additions and improvements. We've been playing since it launched on Android and we've not managed to get bored yet, which is a rare and great result.
Importantly, we're not tempted to switch to a bigger platform: PUBG Mobile feels and plays like a native mobile game with every bit the AAA feel, and we can't ask for more than that.