PUBG has dramatically transformed over the years, swapping grittiness for cartoon outfits, but it's still as ruthless and chaotic as ever

PUBG pink skin
(Image credit: Krafton)

Cast your mind back to 2017, when battle royales weren't even a glint in most games developers' eyes and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds—now officially known as PUBG: Battlegrounds—smashed its way into early access. It rapidly rose through the ranks, and soon became one of Steam's most-played games. While there had been mods inspired by the Battle Royale film before, there hadn't been anything quite like this. It was nihilistic, intensely unwelcoming and brutally difficult to get to grips with. I played for a year, but my interest faded as the game moved out of the popular consciousness. I never forgot the ridiculous tension, though, or the silly situations that the game constantly threw my way.

When PCG's Joshua Wolens and I were looking for something to play recently, going back, we assumed, was going to be like slipping into an old pair of well-worn shoes. What a surprise it was, then, to find that the game is almost nothing like it was back in 2017-18. 

(Image credit: Krafton)

While the PUBG Guy, the game's unofficial mascot, remains part of the cover art—complete with a button-up shirt and Spetznaz helmet—he is one of the few relics of an older era. Where once the servers were full of characters that looked like him, it's now full of people wearing skins that wouldn't look out of place in Fortnite. Take the Battle Bunny set, which, when previewed, blasts Kpop (I think, don't come for me Kpop stans) through your headphones. If that's not for you, how about a dog-themed onesie or a KFC set, complete with bucket hat, because of course.

I'm not one to complain about weird skins in games—I enthusiastically played Modern Warfare 2 as Snoop Dogg, and will likely end up buying the Cheech and Chong packs at some point—but it's quite the shock to the system. When you load into a match at the time of writing, you're also encouraged to lob cupcakes at a huge present, which opens to reveal a music box that then plays Happy Birthday to celebrate PUBG's seventh anniversary. 

The big change in tone is down to two things: the game's popularity in Asia and Fortniteification. If you didn't know, PUBG is massive in Asia, particularly China, and has been since at least 2018. Due to Chinese government regulations, PUBG has its own version there called Peacekeeper Elite, but enterprising Chinese players can (and do) still play PUBG with VPNs. This leads to the interesting situation where a game that once felt rooted in the grand tradition of Eastern European eurojank now bases its aesthetic around a more international feel, particularly with regard to Asian settings, which feel noticeably lacking in mainstream multiplayer shooters. A number of maps now feature biomes resembling countries in East and Southeast Asia—including the massive Rondo, there are three of them. The vibe has changed significantly since the era of PUBG being solely set in Eastern Europe or Central America.

(Image credit: Krafton)

As well as trying to appeal to its substantial audience in Asia, it's been taking cues from its main competition. PUBG might have been first, but Fortnite took the genre to new heights. Fortnite was shut down in China back in 2021 and has never managed to reach the levels of popularity in the rest of Asia as it has in the west, but it established a blueprint that elevated it beyond a game and into a phenomenon. Chasing the Fortnite dollar, then, makes a lot of sense. While it might be lacking the same wealth of licensed characters as Fortnite, PUBG's wacky and strange skins (catch me in Erangel in sailor suit pants and a demon mask) still offer players a lot of silliness. It's a world away from my experiences back in the day, where lootboxes netted me the overwhelming joy of a striped polo shirt and some black trousers.

Another advantage Fortnite had over PUBG was the lack of a price of entry. Back in 2022, however, PUBG made the shift to free to play, and as a result the modern game now really pushes its microtransactions and commercial tie-ins. Where once players had to be content driving around in jeeps and rust buckets, last year PUBG put players behind the wheel of an Aston Martin roadster and SUV—for a price. 

It's a weird place for a game to be: it looks intensely commercial while retaining the gameplay grittiness of its 2017 release, as well as some aspects that feel entirely unfriendly to new players, such as being able to manually zero sights to different ranges and the cumbersome way that gun attachments work. It still feels like an Arma mod: janky, unfriendly but incredibly unique, with a diehard community who have stuck by it even as more and more battle royales appear. 

(Image credit: Krafton)

Yet underneath all of these aesthetic changes and a shift in audience, the core of PUBG—those tense shootouts and the desperate scramble to be the last player standing—remains as fast and as lethal as ever. You're still jumping from the plane (welcomed by a spread of balloons in the shape of the number 7, part of the anniversary celebrations), landing and scrounging for whatever weaponry you can find, and, nine times out of 10, getting sniped by someone within moments. When you get those runs where you come down to the final 10 players, it's as rewarding and exhilarating as ever, even though the higher population of cheaters can undermine the fun.

So, if you've been away from PUBG for a long time and are thinking of coming back, what should you expect? Visiting the lands of Erangel or Miramar will be like visiting home after decades away: many things have changed, but some things have remained the same. You'll likely end up getting killed in more suspect ways than you used to, though, with some players able to wheel their rifle around to you in milliseconds and blast you with deadly accuracy. Maybe they're just incredible players, but it seems somewhat unlikely. You'll also see a wider range of guns than you used to, plus a much broader in-game store. Yet whatever you think of these changes, you'll find PUBG to be as ruthless, chaotic and silly as ever. You'll still have wild chases in a range of different cars or end up firing wildly out of upstairs windows like a spooked militiaman. It may have changed a whole lot and feel a little uncanny, but there's still plenty of fun to be had in PUBG in 2024—just buckle up for a stranger ride.