When I think of desert maps, I picture barren landscapes, wide open expanses, and not much else. That's what I'm half-expecting as I become (I'm told) the first person outside the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds team to set virtual foot inside the battle royale shooter's upcoming desert map during a visit to the office of developer Bluehole (now PUBG Corp) in South Korea in late September.
What I find instead is a sprawling battle arena crowded with desert trees, cacti, and a surprising number of buildings. It's immediately noticeable how much more variation there is to the terrain than in Erangel, PUBG's current map. There are hills, rises, and ditches in the landscape, which should create lots of opportunities for cover from sniper fire, or alternatively, convenient places to stage an ambush. The varied terrain will make a difference not just for those running around in PUBG but also those driving, I'm told by art director Taeseok Jang, who I chat with over Skype during my visit. Vehicle handling will act and feel much differently depending on whether players are on smooth, paved surfaces or offroading on rough terrain.
I'm not playing a match, just exploring on my own, and the as-yet unnamed desert map is still a work in progress with some textures, features, and even entire locations missing. One large town I can see on the minimap has been removed from the build I'm touring until it's been better optimized, and the zone marked for a military base is currently empty. What is available, however, feels like a natural fit for PUBG's looting, shooting, and driving.
Oh—and climbing, clambering, and vaulting. While I'm exploring the desert, I get to do plenty of that, too.
With Mexico serving as a source of inspiration for the map, it makes sense that I eventually find a colorful wrestling arena, sure to draw a number of fist-fights and melee engagements when players finally get their hands on it (and, I'll wager, some wrestling mask skins from Bluehole's art department).
My favorite locations are three ancient meteor impact craters with small towns inside them, the abandoned shops and homes built right on the sunken crater floor. One such town, with echoes of DayZ, sports the still-burning wreck of a crashed plane. Even with no opponents on the map with me, I can anticipate the tension of looting the buildings in these craters, eyes constantly scanning the high ridge that circles the town for the movement of opportunistic snipers. Even better, I imagine, will be when the blue circle happens to close on one of the crater towns at the end of a match, giving the advantage not to the players peering down from the ridge but to those already hunkered somewhere inside one of the buildings.
Like the map, PUBG's vaulting system is still in an unfinished state, but after just a few attempts at clambering and climbing it begins feeling extremely smooth and kinetic. Running into a church through the front door, I give the back door a miss and instead clamber onto the window ledge and hop out to the ground. Then I climb back in, and repeat the move a few more times. In a small town consisting of a few crumbling shops, I mantle out of one building through a window, vault over a fence, and then leap into window of another building, all while sprinting at top speed. Then I run back the same way, retracing my steps and leaps until I manage to make the entire route feel natural and physical. It's easy to imagine frenzied chases through buildings and alleys, quick and athletic dashes through towns and villages, and hasty escapes from ambushes or thrown grenades using this new movement system.
You can see more exclusive screenshots and read more about the new map, the vaulting system, and my interviews with creative director Brendan Greene, art director Taeseok Jang, CEO of PUBG Corp C.H. Kim, and others, in PC Gamer magazine. For those of you in the UK, it's issue 311, which is on its way to subscribers now and on newsstands on October 19. For readers the U.S., it's issue 299, and will be on sale November 7.