Battlegrounds is entry-level Arma, and it's a lot of fun

Steam's breakout hit succeeds by taking Arma's good ideas and squishing them.

Arma has quietly become a very influential game.

Bohemia Interactive's military sim series has been around for 15 years (including its early life as Operation Flashpoint), but its best ideas are only now being borrowed by some of today's most popular multiplayer games: Ark: Survival Evolved, H1Z1: King of the Kill, Rust, or even low-key open-world co-op romp Ghost Recon Wildlands. Directly and indirectly, these massive-scale shooters build on Arma's legacy of fidelity, big maps, and its make-your-own-fun mentality.

Add PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds to that list. Born from the Arma mod Battle Royale (which became the basis for H1Z1: King of the Kill), Battlegrounds is the latest mutation of the emerging subgenre of the same name. Despite that relatively long period of gestation, Battlegrounds' launch last week wasn't without the expected Early Access bruises. Developer Bluehole seems to be on top of it, issuing its first patch yesterday, but the reward system has been having issues. Server performance has struggled here and there. And even on lower settings, my framerate plunges when I look at the biggest cities on the map. 

Still, Battlegrounds is the best game of its kind available, thanks in large part to its considerable Arma DNA.

Concentrated

Using your eyes to spot and track enemies is an essential skill.

If Arma's tea, Battlegrounds is espresso. Its format compresses the time and space you're accustomed to in sandbox FPSes, dropping you into a 64 km² map (much smaller than Arma 3's 270 km²) that perpetually shrinks in diameter. King of the Kill players know how this system works: a 'safe zone' is marked on the map a few minutes into the match, and all players have to scramble to get inside. Anyone caught outside takes damage over time. Every few minutes, a smaller zone within the previous zone appears, forcing anyone left alive closer together. A match takes 20 minutes at most.

Some core Arma mechanics are purposefully shrunk down, too. Your compass is a fixed part of the UI, not something you have to find, equip, then 'pull out' by hitting a key. Body positioning matters, but you don't have nine different infantry stances to fiddle with. Each gun shoots a different caliber of ammo, but it's an easy system to grasp.

In short: Battlegrounds isn't a simulation, but it retains plenty of Arma's spirit. Using your eyes to spot and track enemies is an essential skill, for example. When you see someone running across a field, there's this 'I know something you don't know' sensation—I can totally shoot this guy, he doesn't see me, you'll think. But like Arma and DayZ, it's usually not a matter of putting them under your crosshairs and jabbing the left mouse button. You want to wait until they're out in the open, when they're checking their inventory, when they're preoccupied and aloof. In these moments, I love the way Battlegrounds asks me to think critically and examine an enemy's body language, check which towns are nearby, or guess based on the state of the ever-changing safe zone what that enemy might do next.

Like Arma, too, you should play it with friends. Scrounging for loot is more satisfying when you're filling in each other's equipment gaps ("Anyone got any 7.62mm?") and announcing big finds over voice chat. Moments of leadership emerge: deciding when to jump out of the plane at the start, deciding which group of buildings to raid next, figuring out the right time to ditch a vehicle. Someone's got to make those calls, and I like that Battlegrounds makes me feel the disappointment when they go wrong alongside doses of GTA Online-style calamity.

Other than the performance imperfections and untenable gunshot sounds, I'm only curious, and slightly concerned, about how quickly Battlegrounds might age. Although it's a prettier, grittier, and more deliberate game than King of the Kill, those who've already put a ton of time into battle royale might eventually feel like Battlegrounds is a better-fitting set of pants. The Early Access offering is shallow: a map, essentially one mode, and the mildly satisfying lure of sick trenchcoats awaiting you in the loot system. It'll be interesting to see if the devs can keep pace with the game's burgeoning community.

Overall, Battlegrounds' approach to simplifying simulation-style systems and mechanics is successful. Many of my gaming friends who bounced off of Arma because they perceived it as too unwieldy are diving in, and those who haven't yet have been asking me enthusiastically about whether they should. I'm glad to have a short-form gateway game to sell them on the fun of FPS fidelity.