We don't talk about "power ups" in games much, anymore. Instead, we talk about upgrades, consumables, and buffs. Maybe that's because "power ups" recalls something more cartoonish: a glowing orb that turns your character into a werewolf; a floating bullet icon that doubles the rate of your bright, orange fighter jet's machine gun fire; a pill that lets you eat ghosts.
These are goofy, but they also feel larger, somehow, than their contemporaries. "Upgrades, consumables, and buffs" offer their own benefits, but the ones that come to mind don't change the state of play as dramatically as traditional power ups did. Mario's fire flower offered him an entire new way to combat enemies. Sonic's sneakers didn't just give him a little extra speed, they seemed to transform those early games into their true form. Being able to hold an extra primary weapon in Call of Duty or gaining a few extra hearts in Breath of the Wild are great bonuses, but they just don't have that same transformative oomph.
All of this is (partly) why the scopes of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds stand out so much.
For the unfamiliar, Battlegrounds offers a 100-player first/third person battle royale, set on a deserted island filled with weapons, armor, and vehicles. The goal is to survive the other players and to outrun a deadly energy wall that slowly constricts around the circumference of the island war zone. Players start with nothing and have to procure equipment onsite, grabbing pistols, rifles, and body armor from dilapidated suburban homes, emptied out hospitals, and the occasional power plant or ancient ruin.
And when you bump into someone else in one of these places, the action that follows is quick, tactical, and terrifying. It's exhilarating. You move through a dozen plans at once, crossing off the worst ones and committing, hopefully, to the least foolish. All while 99 other people do the same thing.
Watch Austin and Patrick enter the world of Battlegrounds for the first time right here:
Like so many other shooters, Battlegrounds offers the modern upgrades, consumables, and buffs: a larger clip for your AK-47, some bandages to heal your wounds, a can of off-brand Red Bull to give you a speed boost. But one category of upgrade feels more like a classic, actually "game changing" power up: scopes.
Most of the combat in Battlegrounds in the early and mid stages of the game occurs at close to mid range. Maybe you realize that another person is rummaging through the same abandoned apartment complex as you, and you exchange fire down a wide hallway or in a flight of stairs. Or you hear the hum of a dune buggy approach the little complex you've staked out, and fire off a few rifle rounds from 50 yards away. Canny players use cover and positioning to get the drop on their foes, but most of the time, it feels like you're able to identify the general location of your attacker—so long as you weren't downed in the opening barrage, anyway.
But scopes change that entirely.
For the person looking through a scope, distance collapses. That player who sped by on a bike isn't just a blip, they're a slow, steady wave, and you have all the time in the world to reach out and touch them. And so both as sniper and target, you must suddenly face the fact that you may never be able to figure out where your attacker is.
And just as distance shrinks, the space of possibilities opens wide. What might be a defensible position on a hill suddenly transforms to become an artillery platform. What was once just the kitchenette of the upstairs studio apartment is now a forward operating base. No upgrade in any other game—including plenty of shooters with scopes—has made me feel so powerful, nor made death feel so arbitrary.
I have played hundreds (thousands?) of games about war, including a handful that intend to convey the horrors therein. But nothing has illustrated the terror of combat more than the scopes of Battlegrounds and the asymmetrical power they instate. Unseen, a half mile away, you can erase 30 minutes of someone else's effort. This is a small amount to take from someone. It's forgettable, petty. It's nothing compared to what is lost in real armed conflict, yet compared to games with brief respawn timers, it still feels like something.
In that way, it transforms Battlegrounds twice. First, it is a contemporary fire flower, changing the silhouettes of rolling hills into a target range. Second, it makes a game that is already cold feel even more grim. The scope erases all notion that combat is fair or honorable, that war is won by soldiers with the biggest heart and reddest blood.
The scopes in Battlegrounds aren't as flashy as invincibility stars or double-jump boots, but they change how you interact with enemies and the environment in just as potent of ways. And for me, at least, they're just as memorable.
What about you, though? What stands out as your all time favorite power up? Let me know over in the forums. (And hey, because I'm open minded, you can include any upgrades, buffs, and consumables you love, too.)