By Remko Molenaar (Proxzor)
Years have gone by since the zombie apocalypse has taken over the games industry, and the plague shows no signs of slowing in 2015. The front runner in the MMO space was H1Z1, which hit a bumpy early access test in mid-January. I was invited among a small batch of press to give the game an initial test run. I have a bit of a reputation for getting sucked into these survival horror games and have been following the game ever since it was announced, so I entered the test with plenty of optimism that this was going to be my next guilty pleasure.
Still the past few stabs at this sub-genre have been a long ways from perfect. No developer seemed to have the funding or vision to get all the pieces of the zombie puzzle together in working order. Even DayZ, the most promising of the bunch and one of the forefathers of the online zombie world, remains full of bugs and looks like it’s going to be doomed to be an alpha game forever. Obviously I don’t want to mention DayZ a lot, but reviewing any zombie game these days without referencing DayZ is difficult. With all of its faults, DayZ is still the king of zombies in most gamers’ eyes, so H1Z1 will need to live up to its benchmark to have any lasting community. Does it have a chance?
Obviously it is hard to compete with the trendsetter called DayZ. H1Z1 seems to have a find tactics up its sleeves to set itself apart rather than competing directly for the same niche. The most noticeable I feel is their push to be more of an MMORPG with massive servers and multiple server rule sets. The key difference this results in is it becomes a rare occurrence that a single group of friends will dominate an entire server, as there will always be that rival faction established far enough away to give them a run for their money (or gear as the case may be). The type of zombies and theme used obviously play a huge role in zombie survival games, but so far in most games the zombies are somewhat funky and rarely a real threat. In the end they just seem to be a nuisance interfering in an otherwise FPS deathmatch.
My first impression in H1Z1 was that there was a clear design decision to make the zombies an important factor in gameplay. The gameplay runs smoothly with quality controls focused on making melee weapon combat engaging, and the zombies act intelligently and with a bit more determination than veterans of the sub-genre might expect. I first spawned next to a small village consisting of roughly a dozen homes and a zombie population to match the quaint neighborhood. Since I only had my fists and a flashlight I didn’t expect to be much of a threat to these rotting monsters. Fortunately your fists can knock these walkers to the ground, buying you some time to escape. Killing a zombie with your bare hands on the other hand can be a precarious endeavor. Since I didn’t want to waste my time drawing in an undead audience to feast their eyes on my Mike Tyson impersonation, I tried to sneak and find some useful tools in the closest building to up my odds. After sneaking around the village I managed to find a few cans with delicious food, and a few water bottles that are very useful, both being key ingredients to keep alive another day.
In H1Z1 the best thing to do as a survivalist is know your surroundings, crafting takes a huge role in H1Z1 and at the start you are better off using the tools you can find the fastest. With just a few sticks, and your shirt you can make a bow very early on. Arrows aren’t hard to come by either and before you know it you are kitted out like Robin Hood, head-shotting zombies like you’re Daryl Dixon. Since H1Z1 runs on the same game engine as Planetside 2, bullet drop is already implemented and with the starting bow your arrows will drop very fast due to the low acceleration of the projectile. It gets more time to become acquainted with the bow physics, but once you get the hang of it, the bow is your best possible craftable tool that you can start out with.
Once you have a deadly weapon capable of clearing patches of zombies in rapid order, it’s time to clear out villages without sneaking around. Zombies are a threat, but range is their ultimate weakness. With some basic tactics and stealth, you should be able to remove a dozen or so of them from the area without a scratch. In most games like this, I wouldn’t waste the ammunition to do so. Yet H1Z1 left me with a satisfied feeling in part thanks to the smooth combat and in part thanks to the actual skill required to do so. An added bonus was the realization that some of the zombies in town were packing items! After some further gameplay and studying zombies from a distance, I came to the conclusion that when you kill an enemy player but do not kill the zombies around him, the zombies will automatically pick his stuff up over a time. This can create quite the jackpot for a new player who is lucky enough to kill a fully kitted out zombie carrying a bunch of tools.
It didn’t take long before I found other people doing the exact same thing as me, getting to know my surroundings and finding out where the hell we were. Since the game takes place in a world that is supposed to resemble the United States, most of the buildings, vehicles and areas have that good ol’ boy small town US feel. In most of the buildings you enter there is a bunch of furniture that you can open and hope for some goods, cars are also able to have something in them so make sure you check everything before you take off and head to another town. An overly large amount of time will be spent rolling the RNG dice looting random structures. Far more so than fighting for your life I found. As the echo of distant gunfire reminded me though, dropping your guard for even a second can be the end of your character.
I stopped wasting time at this point and quickly met up with two random people; one of them was also carrying around a bow and together we felt confident against any threats that might try to take us out. After clearing the town we went and followed a road, since our group had looted most everything around and supplies began to run low. After ten minutes of walking down the road, we came across a second village complete with a huge map plastered on a dilapidated bus stop. On this map we found exactly where we are and what was around us. We saw that a fairly big market was ahead of us so we decided to check it out and hope for some useful tools like a hammer, axe, or perhaps even a backpack to up our carrying capacity. Three people packing backpacks can bring a heck of a lot of goods with them. As it turned out luck favored us, as we managed the distance with few zombies and no signs of other players. Even the market itself was deserted, with piles of goods waiting to be looted. We both found a hammer and even a machete that is extremely useful if you want to kill the wildlife to gather some meat.
As I’ve said before, H1Z1 is really focused on the crafting element of the game. With a select few weapons such as a normal knife, or a machete you can gather meat from the wildlife. Currently deer, bears, and even wolves are scattered throughout the world, and can be even more of a threat than zombies. If you run into a wolf or bear without a proper weapon to defend yourself, you have a big problem on your hands. My new friends and I decided to hunt deer for the time being, and since we had bows we were able to take them down before they could run. Assuming we could get close enough to hit one with the physics drag. One of the things I must commend H1Z1 on is the animal animations; they are absolutely amazing, and you can definitely see from the numerous animation loops that a lot of work went into them. A deer really moves like one, and can be as versatile as one. The player models have a complete rework coming, so hopefully they are brought up to the same level as their animal counterparts. The alpha label on this game seems to be more than just a ploy to sell early access packs as weekly updates continually have improved gameplay since January.
After wasting around 50 arrows to bring down two deer, our group was fully stacked on both tools and supplies. Your character’s efficiency is based on numerous vitals including hunger, energy, stamina, and thirst, and these bars drain rather quickly from regular gameplay. As such it’s hard to accomplish anything meaningful if you’re stuck running through blackberry bushes every few in-game hours to keep your guy going. After gathering the materials for a fireplace, we caught the attention of another survivor while cooking our venison. The four of us had a pleasant talk around the fireplace. We decided to add him to the group since more often than not other players are hostile in these types of games. Built in voice chat makes the negotiation process much easier, and you’ll be glad you don’t have to lower your guard while chatting with friends. After we cooked our food, we decided our group was ready to make a dent in H1Z1’s largest city, Pleasant Valley.
Pleasant Valley is a sizeable industrial city, with plenty of office buildings, apartments and stores to loot. RNG is greatly in your favor to reward something rare and useful if you can survive in the city. We were approaching the town from a less direct covert route when we heard a new sound effect growing louder by the second. It sounded like a plane was heading towards us. After a few minutes we spotted the plane through the trees ejecting a supply box that slowly descended adrift on its parachute. Hoping these were supplies or even useful weapons we decided to follow the package and hope for the best. Since the plane was right above us and made a lot of sound, we knew we weren’t the only ones probably checking out the package, but since there were still a lot of friendly people around we hoped for the best.
Once we got close we noticed a few people standing around the box, and in the distance we saw more people heading towards it, we hoped for the best and my friends decided to head over. Since most of us had bows, we felt like we were well equipped to defend ourselves against any threat. But when my friends got close, they were met with some rather unfriendly people. These people were better equipped than us, and without asking questions they started firing towards my two friends. Since I decided to flank from the other side, I saw that the group around the airdrop was fairly large with a wide array of firearms. Without a clear line of sight to my friends, I decided to take my chance and flank the group in the hopes to distract the group, giving my friends a chance to find cover. I aimed with my bow and, thanks to the practice on deer, took the closest gunner down with a shot through his temple. The group continued firing in the other direction, as I dropped a second target just as he turned to face his fallen ally.
In the distance I heard one friend calling for mercy as another managed to reach the cover of a nearby office at the bottom of the hill. The voice of my friend ended with the bang of a shotgun. I took my chances and ran down the hill hoping to reunite with one or two members of my party before I was spotted. Just as I approached the threshold, gunfire rang out from the office building. Knowing no one in our group was packing heat, this was surely a bad sign. I snuck into the lobby silently, trying to make sense of the situation. Not much further inside there were multiple people discussing the loot from my fallen friends, and it was clear I was the last survivor in my group. Thankfully my vitals were all full, so when I took off for a mad sprint to leave the town, the human hunters weren’t able or didn’t care enough to chase me down. Overall Pleasant Valley proved to be anything but pleasant. Despite H1Z1’s attempt to make zombies a larger threat, rival players remain the dominant cause of player casualties it seems.
Obviously this is just a game, but the people I met that day were a bunch of good guys. That’s a rarity in this sub-genre, and I imagine the community will continue to deteriorate as time passes. You can barely trust anyone anymore and over the last few days the game has already shifted towards an FPS deathmatch. Thankfully H1Z1 made the design decision to make guns a rarity, and matching appropriate ammo to a given gun is even more unlikely. As such bows are the weapon of choice for most players, and most hostile 1 on 1 confrontations tend to end with a few injuries rather than only one man standing. I have had an interesting adventure in H1Z1 so far, and the gameplay thus far seems more solid than any of its competitors. There aren’t many game breaking bugs, and even playing from Europe I suffered few lag issues.
So far this is definitely the most stable alpha zombie game I have played. And I fear for the future of a game like DayZ that is plagued by more bugs than features with each new patch. Sure an alpha is alpha, but having a well-established engine is a big plus when it comes to developing your game. H1Z1 is definitely not the best looking game out there right now, with its textures being quite dated. But if you are more concerned with gameplay than looks in your survival horror game, H1Z1 will fit the bill. Though there’s no harm waiting out the early alpha to see how the monetization system shapes up when the game goes fully free to play.
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