In a survival situation, the first step to salvation is to take off your t-shirt. Never mind the additional storage capacity a pocket-less t-shirt apparently provides - free your nipples! Let them breathe the open air as you tear that torso-tube into shreds. Then run to the nearest forest and press E on all the spry saplings to steal their sticks. Take your ripped t-shirt in one hand, the sticks in the other, and slap both hands together hard. If you've done it right, an exquisitely-fashioned hunting bow will appear suddenly in one of your four available slots (best not to dwell upon the location of said slots). Congratulations! Now get moving, because you've only got about half a day until you die of thirst and starvation at the same time.
It was at this point I began to wonder where the developers of H1Z1 sourced their survival facts. Did they check their survival guide was written by the Special Air Service, and not Surfers Against Sewage? Or had they been watching that knock-off Discovery Channel show Born Subsister, starring Wolf Ovyns?
By the time you read this, my facetious opening may well have become irrelevant. H1Z1 has been in constant flux since it released on Early Access last Friday, as the developers immediately addressed a slew of issues and complaints. My weekend with it was akin to appraising the ground during a landslide. Unfortunately, I fear my broader conclusions regarding the game will remain constant for the foreseeable future. It's fitting to talk about cheap knock-offs, because at present that's exactly what H1Z1 feels like.
A game in H1Z1 begins thus: you pick a server to play on and give your character a name. You spawn at a random location in a large, verdant slice of rural North America, reminiscent of Twin Peaks but with no wind in the trees. You possess nothing but some casual clothing, a small belt-bag, and a torch. From here you must endure the apocalypse by scavenging food and equipment from towns and forests, battling with zombies and dealing with an unpredictable human element. There's no safety-net and only one rule; stay alive however you can.
If this sounds familiar - actually, let's not pretend there's an "if". It sounds familiar. H1Z1 plays almost identically to Bohemia Interactive's DayZ. I don't like basing criticism on comparison, but here the similarities are extremely difficult to ignore. There's the frenzied opening hour as you figure out the game's systems by dying a dozen times. Then you start to develop a routine that gets you through this brief period of vulnerability (in my case, it was eating blackberries and crafting bows). Zombies are mostly just a nuisance unless you stumble into a large group of them, while encounters with human players are tense standoffs in which both parties weigh-up the pros and cons of killing the other.
H1Z1 is equally capable of enabling Weird Stuff to happen. On my very first survival attempt I encountered another player on a highway bridge. "Wanna play?" he muttered, the voice clearly belonging to a boy no older than 12. "Wanna play?" he repeated, before assaulting me with a combat knife and chasing me deep into a forest. The indignity of running terrified from a squeaky preteen on the dark side of the Internet will haunt me to my grave.
A few lives later I was attacked by a bear while raiding the kitchen of an abandoned bungalow. I just turned around and there he was. Maybe it was his house, I don't know. What I do know is Goldilocks got off lightly. I had the presence of mind to take a screenshot before being swatted into paste.
At a very basic level H1Z1 achieves what it sets out to do as a zombie survival game. But if you were to ask me "Why should I play this instead of DayZ?" I would respond by emitting a low buzzing noise and then smashing through the nearest window to escape the question.
Currently H1Z1 makes minimal effort to differentiate itself. PvP is optional, so if you only want to worry about the undead and basic survival, you can choose to play on a PvE server. Vehicles are available from the off, although you'll be lucky to find all the component parts to get one running. The main difference, however, is airdrops. Essentially, players can pay a fee to purchase crates of randomly generated supplies that are dropped into the game, usually close to their location. This has caused consternation among the community, since earlier in development John Smedley stated explicitly that H1Z1 would not let players purchase important items in game.
The angry claims of H1Z1 being a "pay to win" game, are premature, although I think it's a daft feature to include in a survival game regardless. In PvP mode, players can compete for airdropped resources, which in principle makes the concept more workable as it adds a risk factor. But if you've paid for those items with your own money, having them stolen from you by some chancing bandit is merely rubbing salt into your wallet's wound.
Sadly, reneged promises are the least of H1Z1's problems. Every aspect of H1Z1 is currently less well conceived, designed, and implemented than Dean Hall's dark brainchild, to the point where I'm struggling to understand why SOE has released the game at such a prototypical stage.
To begin with, H1Z1 doesn't feel great under the fingers, which is a massive missed opportunity for SOE. The one area where DayZ feels lacking is low-level engagement and close quarters interaction. Bohemia's game does landscapes and in-depth simulation wonderfully, but its combat is fussy and clunky, especially in melee. Moreover, the basic animations and collision issues experienced when exploring houses, picking up items and performing intricate actions means the game lacks tactility. In short, DayZ isn't very slick.
Alongside adding its own spin, this is the weakness I expected H1Z1 to exploit. Instead, H1Z1 is even clumsier and less interactively engaging than DayZ. Searching houses is a case of pressing E and watching a timer count down as you "search" through cupboards, or pressing E and watching a physically rendered item magically vanish into your inventory. Melee combat is akin to players slapping each other with foam noodles until one player's character model spasms and collapses like a break-dancing octopus.
Ranged combat is a little more enjoyable, although it's still too lightweight for my liking, and worryingly reminiscent of the Elder Scrolls Online. The inventory system's reliance on numbers to represent bulk is far less intuitive than DayZ's grid-based affair. Worst of all, the actual survival simulation is incredibly rudimentary, currently focussed almost entirely on hunger, thirst and stamina, with little or no account for injuries, sickness, physical exhaustion, or other deficiencies.
Heck, the game even looks rough. It can pass for pleasant if the virtual sunlight catches it in the right way, and some of the larger towns impress in their scale, but during the daytime with a clear sky overhead, it's downright ugly. The procedurally generated height-map is plainly visible beneath the vegetation, the forests are still and lifeless, buildings are bland boxes with nigh-identical furnishings. Oh, and the rain effect overlay is one of the worst I've ever seen, almost completely obscuring your vision with slimy white strands. I suspect much of this is placeholder art. But even if we allow for that, there's very little character to the setting. It's undead America, yet again.
It's Early Access, of course, which gives H1Z1 some room to sidestep the criticisms. But I don't think that's a viable excuse here, if it ever was in the first place. Even ignoring DayZ's looming shadow, there are countless survival games out there, the vast majority of which involve zombies at some point.
To stand any chance of competing long-term, H1Z1 needed to come out swinging, either by clearly demonstrating a unique approach, or at the very least using those triple-A megabucks to provide a sharper, more immediately engaging game. It categorically fails to do either. SOE seems to be experimenting with the player-feedback approach, but what the game requires most is an industrial strength dose of creative direction. It needs an auteur's guiding hand, not a rabble of conflicting voices shouting over one another.
SOE has undoubtedly got the ability to make H1Z1 great. Planetside 2 is my favourite FPS of the last five years, and the idea of SOE doing an online survival sim still has me fascinated. But right now the result is a poor imitation of Bohemia Interactive's sterling work, the Blue Peter Tracy Island to DayZ's plastic-moulded masterpiece. SOE needs to ditch the cardboard-tubes and PVA glue, and step up its game.