There’s many ways to die in PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds. There’s the brutal comedy of launching a jeep off the side of a cliff, the out-of-the-blue bafflement of a hidden sniper’s bullet, and the ever-present threat of being crushed under the weight of your own incompetence like a remarkably stupid crêpe.
Lately, though, a more insidious kind of Battlegrounds death has stolen my heart. It’s a slow, creeping kind of death that goes at its own pace because it knows It’s totally in control. You can’t tuck yourself in a bathroom and hide from it, nor can you blast at it with a shotgun when it curiously opens the door. The only way to beat it is to be the last one standing. The safe zone is a cruel and twisted god, after all, only the most efficient chicken chasers can ever hope to please it.
At the start of a PUBG match, a hundred-ish contestants are herded into a military plane and flown over a small recreation of what the Isle of Wight might look like if was ever a satellite state for the Soviet Union. From there you scope out a dropzone, skydive into battle, and pray you’ve marked the home of a well-armed doomsday-prepper and not one stuffed with tank tops and frying pans. Again.
At this point PUBG’s hallmark sense of creeping dread hasn’t quite set in. There’s still a fair amount of room to breathe and you haven’t invested enough time in the match to truly feel the sweat start beading on your neck. You might pick up some good gear or skirmish with another player but things haven’t quite become real. A hint of uncaring nonchalance still clings to you like a nasty smell but don’t worry buddy it’ll soon be blown away.
A short while after landing, players are told that they have five minutes to move to the hilariously named ‘safe’ zone – a large white circle placed randomly on the map. When the timer expires a crackling blue forcefield begins its uncaring march inwards, forcing players towards the safe zone on the promise of a microwaved brain if they can’t keep ahead. Fall behind and your health starts gradually ticking away, so either you power through or drop like a sack of well-baked potatoes in a lightly-charred heap.
Then, just as you’re puckering your lips in anticipation of safety’s sweet kiss, a smaller circle appears in the Safe Zone and the whole process repeats itself. It forces players into smaller and smaller circles until the playspace is no bigger than a standard online deathmatch map and it’s not long before a winner winner earns their chicken dinner.
The safe zone isn’t just a ruthless killer of players, though, it also slays boredom like an assassin doing magic tricks. Without it, Battlegrounds would be a fundamentally different game and an infinitely duller one. It makes action a requirement of play. Hiding is a viable strategy but it’s always fleeting. You can never truly get comfortable in any of your hidey-holes as it’s bound to eventually flush you out. It lights a fire under every game, ensuring a perfect ratio of pleasant countryside rambles to cramped urban gunfights.
One of its true joys is that when you hurl yourself out of that plane you never quite know which part of the map is going to end up ‘safe’. You might be licking your lips at high-level loot as you plunge towards the southern military base only for the Circle to brashly inform you that the North is in vogue this season and you better get over there if you have any hopes of living out the match. It keeps every game fresh and gives Battlegrounds the chance to showcase each of its paintball-esque locales. I’ve had games that draw me towards flooded towns, to bridge crossings, to hillside radio towers and to open fields bereft of cover. All of these games felt markedly different and that variety makes sure that the constant return trips to PUBG’s single map don’t start feeling overly repetitive.
The Safe Zone’s random nature might sound frustrating but it generates impromptu road-trips that deal in tension that other shooters can only dream of. Do you take a shortcut through the open fields or the long way concealed in the trees? Do you risk hanging around to find a vehicle or plow ahead and hope that a committed sprint will do just fine? Do you fight that player you’ve got the drop on or do you live-and-let-live and focus on the big blue enemy nipping at both your heels?
These constant choices ensure that Battlegrounds doesn’t have to rely solely on gunfights to be engaging. The elation of zooming through the deserted countryside on a motorbike with the sun setting at your back and the forcefield shrinking off behind you is intoxicating, but there’s always the knowledge that one duff decision on that long road to safety might just call a sudden halt to all your fun.
Push your luck even a little and the forcefield will overtake you with cold indifference, leaving you hobbling around like a wounded animal desperately searching for a comfortable spot to die.
Occasionally the worst will happen. The forcefield will race off ahead and leave you with little chance of catching up. All that’s left is you, the sorry state you’ve found yourself in, and the reassuring thought that you won’t be so silly next time. With that pressure to continue removed your final moments hark back to the game’s happy-go-lucky opening minutes. You don’t care about other players, about hiding, about anything anymore. You feel like a sightseer at the end of the world, taking in the scenery one last time before it all fades away.
In a game where every bathroom might be hiding a stranger out to gut you, there’s something oddly comforting about the Safe Zone’s predictable trudge. Its initial placement might be random but you soon get a sense for it’s speed and make decisions accordingly. It gives you a feeling of mastery outside of gunplay that guarantees a fun time every match, even if, like me, you’d struggle to shoot a barn door from the inside of a post-apocalyptic shanty town built from the ruins of a crumbling barn door factory.
It’s an exquisite, easy to grasp piece of design that’s no small part of Battleground’s genius. Even though the game (in its current state of Early Access) only sports one map, the Circle helps to keep every trip to that island feeling unique. You’ll come back to be shot in the head, you’ll come back to be run over by surplus army jeeps, and you’ll even come back to be clobbered by frying pans. But even though there’s many ways to die in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, none of them quite compare to the brilliance of the safe zone.