I sat down with SOE game designer Adam Clegg and started talking about H1Z1 while the game was loading. "Yeah, there are other survival games out there," he said, "and players are going to make comparisons." And it's true. Throughout the demo, I'm making comparisons to Rust, especially after my little honeymoon with the game ended with me feeling that the genre needed more time to bake. DayZ and some other titles came up a few times too, but as I said to Adam, it's something that naturally happens when you're working inside a genre. Part of what makes a good game good, though, is the execution.
I start out with the usual demo stuff. I'm shown a new character, the ritual slaughter of a zombie, and what you'd usually expect. Well, mostly. The first zombie died largely because it was more focused on killing a deer. It pretty much ignored Adam. Later zombies didn't, but that first one did. While players used to get a torch at the start, the ability to spread fire proved too powerful, so torches are now crafted, while newbies begin with a flashlight that's great for shining light but lousy for damage.
After the zombie kill came the discovery window. You mix and match materials and if you put the right stuff in, a button highlights, you click it, and you learn new recipes without destroying the items. It's pretty neat, but not earth-shattering.
Then we had base building. Put down a foundation, add buildings, make your stuff safe. Sounds like what I did at the start for Rust. The difference? If I die, my stuff unlocks and my zombie wanders around and needs to be killed (unless a zombie actually takes my stuff, or perhaps another player). That's a little different. What's really different for this genre, though, is that not only do you have to make a new character, but your name stays the same.
Now, this doesn't sound like a big deal to some people, and maybe it isn't. But for me, it means the player can't run away from their reputation. While I was told that a player who's been playing for a while has an advantage against a brand new player, I've heard that before. I've seen first hand what happens when a vet gets lazy or experiments and things go horribly wrong, so I take that information with a dose of skepticism. The game will also be free-to-play, which should concern anyone who understands what permadeath means.
Each player gets a "token" to vote for a certain server type. Want SOE to add character sleep instead of being safe when you log off? Vote for it! You can even pay for a second vote. If the server type you vote for gets opened, you'll be refunded your token. SOE isn't talking numbers, including how many players the devs desire per server, but the idea is that you shouldn't be running into players very often. The map is rather large, and when I got to play, I did notice that my character didn't run as fast as my Rust character had.
Even when I got into a vehicle, the game world certainly felt larger than the previous one I tried to live in, so the idea of living out in the wilderness away from other people seemed much more valid. With less servers, and people having to keep their name, I feel griefers will either get bored more easily than in similar titles or they will find their negative reputations too hard to avoid to enjoy themselves. But we'll have to wait and see.
Speaking of tokens, I know one topic that always comes up is PvE servers. SOE mentioned that H1Z1 isn't meant to be a raiding game. Don't expect to find a zombie that needs 25 players and a tank. You can fight hordes of zombies till your eyes bleed, but at least for now, don't expect anything too advanced in terms of AI or required strategies for mobs. There are zombies and bears. They do zombie and bear things.
Lore and the virus
Now, let's talk about the titular virus. First off, the game's set to begin a few weeks after the virus appears. However, the developers are still wondering what it does exactly. Maybe it will be contagious. Maybe players can catch it. Maybe zombies will grow more powerful as they kill more players, possibly evolving. These are just ideas, though. At the moment, the virus is just lore. It's not doing anything except serving as a plot device.
So it seems like you can live alone in the woods as a hermit, but what if you have friends? Well, the game is actually meant to be played with close friends you trust. A hermit like me is supposed to have to build up and become brave before exploring the world. I'm supposed to be listening to those gun shots, watching trees fall in real time, and debating whether I should run to or from them.
For those with friends? Move together. There are no specifics on parties or guilds yet, it's all up in the air. You can talk on the game's voice chat and only be heard by people nearby, you can use /say or /yell, or you can use your own voice chat server. What you can't do is camp a spawn of zombies or equipment. Spawning always happens away from players based on the number of players in an area. That's good if you're alone and exploring a place that might normally have a lot of zombies, but bad if you're with a bunch of friends and hoping that guns will keep respawning in a town you found. It also means that groups of players can attract groups of zombies, so consider the company you keep.
H1Z1 has no in-game map. If you're playing with friends, you'll need to use landmarks to find your way. That's why the game has large features like power lines, dams, bridges, rivers, etc. Vehicles help, but one thing to keep in mind is that, currently, vehicles don't have damage states. That is, you either flip it and watch it burn, or it's like a god, able to mow down zombies.
The big thing that seems to be holding the game back from early access is the lack of a prone state. The idea is that a lot more becomes available if SOE can get that in. Not only hiding and doing sniper stuff, but also the ability to have broken legs and needing to crawl.
There was a lot of "we want to do this," so I'm sticking to the things that are actually in game right now. For those tired of certain games that promise so much, only to find an alpha that has so little after so long, I'd say there are some important features to consider. You have hunger and thirst meters, base building, vehicles, predator/prey NPC dynamics, permadeath, a non-instanced world, real-time terrain interaction in a limited fashion (bushes, trees, and destructible buildings), day-night cycles that really effect gameplay, and fire that spreads. That's pretty good to me for alpha, and it's fairly polished.
For those who want the hype, what might you get? Dynamic weather that actually affects gameplay, a virus that spreads, zombies that can grow in power, player guilds, player-voted server types that will essentially give the game a sort of scalable hardcore setting, sleep-states, vehicles with damage states, broken limbs that affect gameplay, and a world that physically grows in size.
I've got my eye on a few other titles, but the thing is, what is already in H1Z1 makes me want to give SOE my money. As someone who's tired of paid alphas, I think that statement speaks for itself.
Massively's on the ground in Los Angeles during the week of June 10-12, bringing you all the best news from E3 2014. We're covering everything from WildStar and Landmark to Skyforge and H1Z1, so stay tuned!