When H1Z1 was announced last year I sighed, took a deep breath, and wondered why Sony (by now, Daybreak) was shoveling development money into a DayZ ripoff. So when they announced early access recently I did the only logical thing that I could think of. I immediately spent the twenty bucks and bought in!
What can I say? I’m a sucker for zombie survival games.
[Side note: I am sure regular DBB readers will immediately recognize that my feelings about zombie games are the polar opposite of Cyber who, as you no doubt know, takes every opportunity to pan all things zombie. Well, he can take a hike because this is my article!]
H1Z1 is the latest game in the survival craze that often overlaps with the zombie craze that has been running parallel to it. It has the usual trappings. You start with the shirt on your back, a pack of gauze that offer a small amount of healing, a flashlight, and you’re dropped into a world filled with the living dead, and, much more dangerous, the still living. You’re left to forage for supplies and materials that underpin a fairly well conceived crafting system that is the current highlight of the game.
You can build structures from wood and, later, metal that give you a chance to leave your mark on the game world. Unfortunately right now they are relatively easy to break down by a determined player and unless you are actively around to defend it, your base isn’t going to be long for the world. The basic building system they’ve put into place has promise, but until they give us a way to have a bit more permanent settlements it will continue to be somewhat of a sideshow.
[Note: I apologozie, but despite being able to take a gameplay video, H1Z1 thwarted all of my efforts to takes screen shots and so I had to crib these ones from the H1z1 page on Steam.]
The first time I dropped into the game two things were immediately obvious. On the one hand, the game is early access for a reason. What appear to be placeholder art assets are still commonplace and the same models and even houses are used and reused countless times around the map. On the other, the game did certainly feel like the kind of zombie survival game I was looking for right from the beginning. With no in game map you’re left to really explore. I set off down the road and before long was picking through an abandoned gas station.
Getting a basic set of gear is pretty easy. Wooden boxes can be broken down into the makings of a bow and arrows – your best friends early on. You can shred your starting clothing, leaving yourself in a plain set of jeans and a white t-shirt, to make a satchel that gives you some extra carrying capacity and then you’re off and on your way. Even a basic shack can be built with a modest amount of wood planks. The crafting system also allows you to purify water for drinking, do some basic metal working, and even craft biofuel from animal fat to gas up the vehicles that can be found around the map (and which often require that you find a car battery or spark plug to actually get running).
Before long I realized that my thirst and hunger meters were getting dangerously low. The constant fight against hunger is perhaps the most daunting aspect of the game. They’ve since upped the amount of loot that spawns in the world making finding water bottles and the occasional canned food a bit less frustration, but the game often leaves you foraging for berries in the wilderness. Luckily there is no shortage of them. But it also means that the game borders on becoming a blackberry-picking simulator from time to time. They replenish a mere 2% of your hunger and thirst per berry. You can eat only one at a time. Between picking them and eating them, well, you can do the math.
Still, when you emerge from the forest into one of the game’s towns, housing developments or myriad points of interest on the map, the game does shine. Creeping through a small house along one of the game’s lakes I thought I heard the sound of another player nearby. My first reaction, being on a PvP server, was to duck down and hide in hopes they would pass me by. But after a moment, axe in hand, I called out over local VOIP, which serves as the only in-game communication possible. “Is someone there?” I asked hesitantly. No response. I waited a moment before returning to my task of giving the place a once over. I still don’t know if there actually was a player around or not. It’s that kind of moment that H1Z1 delivers better than the competition, in my experience. It is also the kind of thing that keeps me logging back in.
There was some uproar over the game’s first early access build being pay to win. I’m happy to report that this is no longer the case, but allow me to explain. Airdrops can be purchased from the in game store. These call in plane to drop in a shipping containing on the map. This was supposed to come with a big swell of zombies and the rest of the server who, being alerted to the drop by the unmistakable sound of the airplane, will show up to contest it. The rewards are usually modest, but guns and ammo can be found in there. On day one of early access these dropped right on the head of the person who called it in and, zombie AI being almost entirely broken, allowed people to loot it essentially uncontested. It was a buggy mess, and SOE Daybreak should be criticized for opening up the shop when it was in that state, but it has since been fixed. The rest of the cash shop is filled with crates and keys to open them that are reminiscent of Valve’s TF2 model and net you cosmetic items. I just don’t see this model being pay-to-win now that the bugs have been fixed, and the intention certainly wasn’t there to fleece players for airdrops.
Finally, I have to mention Battle Royale, the final piece of the free-to-play puzzle. You can purchase tickets to play in a Battle Royale a mode that spawns you in as a fresh character with 199 others to fight to the death. The number of guns and items is way up in this mode, and the last man standing wins. After a little while a poisonous gas starts filling the map and creeps towards a given point slowly restricting the safe play area. Get caught in the gas and you’re dead. It’s a great mode and an interesting way to put something on the cash shop that doesn’t affect the normal play on servers at all. Battle Royale is a self contained, one-off, map.
Overall the game has a ways to go. I’d like to see the game world expanded a little, maybe with a bit larger town somewhere. Structures need to be more permanent, while still being a little vulnerable. Zombies need a major overhaul in order to be more threatening and probably in larger numbers. That is apparently already in the works. The core of these things are already in the game, but without a lot of work the game does risk getting stale after a dozen or two hours. Although that isn’t too bad, MMOs promise a lot more gameplay than that. Finally, I’d really like to see them develop some kind of temporary events that spawn on the servers to be points of interest every so often. Something to either cooperate with other players to do, or perhaps compete over. Airdrops serve this purpose already, but they are rare in practice. The game would benefit immensely from things that make the experience a bit less predictable.
If you can make it past that first 15-30 minutes after a fresh spawn you’re likely to be quite safe. You have to keep collecting food and water, and other players will occasionally kill you (or you them). But things risk becoming a bit stagnant. My hour long play-through video is a fair representation. You’re in for a lot of relatively quiet moments punctuated by the occasional interesting encounter often including other players.
If you can put up with unfinished game systems across the board, zombie AI that sometimes fails to notice you a few feet away, server wipes and the usual early access bugaboos, then H1Z1 has some great experiences waiting for you. I’m cautiously optimistic about this one, although that is somewhat tempered by SOE’s transition into Daybreak, which raises some questions about their ability to continue all their projects in my mind, despite their assurances that it will not have any negative consequences. If you’re not sure about this genre or are worried about putting money into a company in flux, you may be just as well off waiting for a bit more mature version of the game to be released when you can get a better experience that you can try out without the monetary commitment.
You can check out the H1Z1 early access on Steam!