It's been over three months since Playerunknown's Battlegrounds arrived on Xbox One and Xbox One X. Released as an early access 'game preview', what was immediately clear was that PUBG's console implementation had profound issues in nearly all areas: presentation was lacking, textures possessed severe streaming problems and frame-rate was sub-optimal, to put it generously. Three months on and there have been a range of improvements, but performance, key to the PUBG experience, is still lacking - and the developers agree with us.
In its recent Spring Xbox PUBG Roadmap, Bluehole provides a candid and eye-opening admission about the state of the game. "To put it bluntly, we are simply not satisfied with the game's current console performance," the statement says. "Especially so during tense moments of onscreen action."
A couple of months have passed since our last PUBG Xbox analysis and new patches continue to roll out, so in reassessing the game, we did our most comprehensive tests yet - we captured and analysed over 90 minutes of action from both Xbox One and Xbox One X, buddying up in the same online game instances to ensure that conditions between the two consoles were as like-for-like as possible. Rather than extracting a selection of clips from the captures as we've done in the past, everything we played was analysed - the idea being to ensure that we missed nothing, while also giving us an idea of how the flow of an entire session played out.
What's clear is that there have been some improvements. Our first impressions of Xbox PUBG back in the day were marred by terrible performance in the game's lobby areas and when jumping to the carrier ready for deployment. Both aspects here see a boost, with a closer lock to the target 30 frames per second marred only by PUBG's signature massive stutter when players transition to the carrier. The developers have also added additional lobbies too, though in common with the crashed plane area, texture streaming here is still rather slow. Rubber-banding or 'micro-teleporting' is also a non-issue now - during our testing period, anyway. Previously, simple tasks like walking through a door could prove challenging, but things are clearly much improved now.
Frame-rate does still go to pot though: as soon you jump from the plane, the descent is still marred by truly awful performance; depending on how much there is to draw, and how many players are in your immediate vicinity, we logged performance as low as 9fps. There's also the same frame-rate lag in the aftermath of landing, with PUBG taking a little while to stabilise to 30fps - though this does seem to have improved since earlier patches. The bottom line? PUBG's opening - its handshake with the player, if you like - has partially improved, but there's still an essence of ropeyness to it.
But this is just the beginning of a typical match, over in a matter of minutes. The bread and butter of the game - foraging for weapons and equipment, staying within the safe zone and taking out opponents en route - that's far more important. Now, there are prolonged stretches of gameplay that do play out at the target 30fps, something we saw in our last test, but this typically involves on-foot traversal across the map with not much going on. Elsewhere, the picture isn't so pretty, with even the most basic in-building weapons searches often plagued with baffling performance drops.
What really struck us as rather odd is the situation with regards to Xbox One X. Yes, it's rendering at 4K resolution with a significant boost to visual feature set, but there's no guarantee of a solid performance uplift over the standard model. We noted a couple of occasions of much lower performance on the X while searching buildings for kit, while the base model holds up better. Xbox One X also has another issue that its less powerful counterpart doesn't: there's a depth of field effect that kicks in on menus, which drops performance by around 3fps. What this means is that working through inventory in a lower frame-rate area becomes a bit of a slog. The effect is missing on the standard Xbox - clearly with good reason - and I don't see much point retaining it on Xbox One X.
The issue further came to the fore when chasing down a supply drop, signified with a helpful red smoke trail. Closing in on the crate, frame-rate fell through the floor in rendering the smoke, while actually looting the supplies felt like wading through treacle as the depth of field effect inflicted a further GPU hit on top of the strain in handling the alpha textures used to render the smoke. This makes basic menu manipulation something of an ordeal - unwieldy and clumsy in an area of the game likely to attract a lot of other players.
Other serious issues remain. PUBG's map is vast, meaning that locating a car, bike or jeep is often required to make it to the next safe zone in time. It's clear that background streaming of world data remains a big challenge for the game, with in-game performance dropping - sometimes drastically - when travelling at speed across the terrain. It stands to reason really; the quicker you move, the faster the streaming system needs to operate, spooling in new world data and assets, decompressing and processing them. And maybe that atrocious performance at the beginning of each game when you're skydiving represents a perfect storm of bottlenecks - high speed traversal straining the streaming systems, with the system simultaneously dealing with other players who may be concentrated in your vicinity, along with rendering an expansive world view, of course.
Perhaps most fundamental to the PUBG experience's failings right now is an issue the developer itself highlights - problems with tense "moments of onscreen action". Over our representative 90 minutes of capture from both Xbox One and Xbox One X, every single firefight failed to deliver 30fps performance. This is the most frustrating issue I have with the game - when you need smooth, consistent performance and controller response, PUBG on Xbox One lets you down. Often it feels impossible to actually track what's going on and where your opponents are as the visual feedback you get from the experience is so lacking. It's also interesting to note that some battle effects - such as the large blood spurts - have their own big hit to performance.
Frame-rate is a core part of the issue, but an 'invisible' performance metric of crucial importance is input lag. We had this measured close to the game's launch at 133ms with the game running 30fps, which is far from optimal and doesn't include display latency. Now, that's pretty bad - and the most recent build still feels much the same. But the kicker here is that you can layer on additional lag on top of that when performance drops. In our experience of latency testing, 133ms is at the upper end of the latency spectrum in a 30Hz title (100ms is more reasonable) and if the developer is really serious about tightening up the qualiy of the experience, shortening end-to-end latency is up there with boosting frame-rates.
The Xbox PUBG Spring Roadmap offers up a wealth of bullet-points from the developer's 'to do' list, and we've isolated the entries relevant to performance optimisation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority of the points seem to be based primarily on streamlining and improving CPU-related tasks.
- Current console performance is unsatisfactory and the team has identified some key areas to increase frame-rate. By making changes to building materials and reducing foliage composition, PUBG should run more consistently.
- Optimisation to game characters and their movements to increase frame-rate.
- Optimisation of the number of particle effects that are spawned by vehicles and grenades to increase frame-rate.
- Optimisation of object collision complexity to increase frame-rate.
- Balance the work across all CPU cores to reduce streaming hitches when moving.
- Better quality assets and the speed at which they load will improve in the future.
The good news is that Bluehole has clearly carried out extensive internal performance analysis of its title and there are a range of fixes, adjustments and upgrades in the pipeline to get the game into shape. However, we can't understate the scale of the task here: getting a game that often lurks in the early to mid 20s up to 30fps with some overhead to spare in ensuring a consistent experience is a frankly massive undertaking. And that's perhaps understating the challenge here somewhat - it's relatively easy to layer up PUBG's bottlenecks and see performance drop significantly below the 20fps threshold, whether you're playing on Xbox One or Xbox One X.
Meanwhile, PUBG is facing stiff competition from Epic's Fortnite, where its own Battle Royale mode has just delivered a rather good 60fps upgrade. It's true that the games are very, very different in their visual make-up, with the Epic offering based on a simpler, more manageable detail level that we suspect was built specifically with scalability in mind - first across PC and the various consoles, and now onto mobile. PUBG's initial focus was PC, where most gaming set-ups have the kind of CPU power that can blow the consoles' Jaguar cores out of the water.
Recently, we put the PC version through its paces with a Core i5 8400 paired with both Nvidia's GTX 1060 and AMD's Radeon RX 580. With the most minor of tweaks, both were capable of delivering 60 frames per second gameplay, but it's interesting to note that high-speed traversal could still cause occasional frame-time spikes, represented on-screen by little on-screen hitches - so even a highly capable six-core Intel processor can still find its limits in PUBG, albeit fleetingly. Regardless, this is clearly the way the game was meant to be played - PUBG PC had its own performance issues in the past, but there has been improvement: the experience is vastly improved over the console build. We could even get a reasonably solid PUBG experience on an overclocked Ryzen 3 2200G APU.
Each of our prior PUBG experiences always ended with the conclusion that despite the vast list of issues we have with the Xbox version, we did enjoy playing it, that the concept is so strong, it has the ability to overcome some big technical hurdles. That does still remain the case this time around, but our enthusiasm is a touch diminished. The PUBG idea is still immensely appealing, but the problem that the console version has is that there's competition out there doing much the much thing - without the profound performance issues. Whether that's Epic's rival offering presenting a worthy alternative, or the PC version showing us just how good PUBG should be, the Xbox version is indeed still deep in development with a long way to go.