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First Impressions: H1Z1 is more boredom than terror

First Impressions: H1Z1 is more boredom than terror
Justin Olivetti
Justin Olivetti|January 19, 2015 12:00 PM
What would video game purgatory look like? After spending an afternoon wandering aimlessly across a mostly-deserted countryside, I'd have to say that H1Z1's early access build fits the description of limbo perfectly. I even smacked into a wall of grey nothing that bordered the eight square kilometers of play space and wondered whether it might be more interesting in that haze than back among the living dead.

H1Z1, as SOE will emphatically tell you, is not anywhere near to being done. Features are missing, placeholder art is everywhere, and there isn't a female character to be seen. It's only just playable on a larger scale, and yet the studio felt fit to open hundreds of servers (and take in thousands of dollars) so that the early crowd could sate its curiosity. There's no NDA, either, which means that the studio definitely wants people to chat the game up, whether good or bad. I'm happy to oblige.

After waiting out the first two chaotic days of the early access launch, I logged several hours of play over the weekend on a PvE "disgusting carebear" server. Sorry, but if I wanted to play DayZ, I'd be playing DayZ. I wanted to roam through a post-apocalyptic setting to scavenge, craft, and pit my brains against zombies' lack of them.

In this MMO veteran's perspective, there are several facets of H1Z1 that are startlingly different. The screen is almost free of a HUD, allowing the scenery to take full control of the visuals. It was only when I got hurt or started to die of thirst, for example, that small HUD popups appeared to inform me of the cheery news. There's also no general or world chat (possibly because it's bugged), no quests, no introductory story, no radar map, no classes, and no starter weapons. It was just me, my fists, and my trusty flashlight (or Zombie Attractor, as I came to call it).

After dying to a go-getter zombie while I was tabbed out, I began my journey across the world to seek my fame and fortune. Well, actually I was seeking weapons, food, and water to increase the odds that I would continue living. A small rest stop at the bottom of the hill got me excited, although hopes for supplies were dashed when I saw two other players running willy-nilly. The place was picked clean. Maybe this comes with the territory of this type of game, but nowadays it feels wrong to be playing an MMO where I'm actually resentful to see another player because I'm worried that he or she will steal "my" stuff.

It almost didn't matter whether or not other players were around, as any structure I found was devoid of loot. I must have opened a warehouse worth of amoires, cabinets, refrigerators, and wrecked cars only to find nothing time and again. Realistic? That's your call. Fun? Not as much.

Before long, I was starving to death. With single-digit percentages left, I decided to use one of the free airdrops that I saw in my inventory to call down some help -- or at least some food. It took a while before the plane came by, and I all-out sprinted to try to get to the cache before any other dirty rotten players in the vicinity decided to do the same. Of course, when I got there I discovered that the airdrop also thoughtfully summoned half-dozen or so zombies as well, which spelled an early end to my first life.

My second life progressed marginally better. Against all odds, I found a machete in one cabin and enjoyed thwacking away at a zombie that was running into the base of the house. For a game that's all about zombies, H1Z1 is relatively frugal about using them. I must have seen perhaps 8 or 9 during my entire session, and apart from the swarm accompanying the airdrop, none posed any actual threat. I could punch one out with several jabs if need be or just run right on by and count on the undead getting distracted after too long.

With few zombies, little to no loot, and nothing to craft, I found myself running... and running... and running. I followed roads. I checked carbon-copy houses. I sprinted through the countryside hoping for some out-of-the-way treasure trove. I went dumpster diving. I climbed to the top of a mountain. And nothing ever really happened as I made no progress whatsoever in equipping my character or crafting anything useful. I actually fell into a trance as I watched the terrain scroll by without incident for the better part of an hour.

It got so dull that I actually welcomed the weird graphical glitches that happened here and there. My favorite was a house where all of the furniture was shifted about three feet through the walls (which were invisible) and barbed wire ran through the living room.

There were hints of promise among the drudgery of running, however. H1Z1 actually does a great job nailing atmosphere. While there are no dead bodies or other gruesome signs of the former apocalypse, the sound design conveys an uneasy dread that seeps in after a while. Weather effects, like the haze over a sunset, give nature a more prominent role. And every once in a while I'd come across a sign or an object that delivered context.

I also applaud the use of proximity voice chat. I did miss talking with players across the server, so finding someone and chatting with him up close was a welcome relief from the silence.

Things even started looking up when I found a string of houses that even had loot in them. In quick succession, I grabbed mandarin oranges, water, a hatchet, a knife, and antibiotics. Suddenly, a glimmer of potential for the survival mechanics shone through. Pro tip: Don't eat raw meat, as you can get food poisoning. But when it's a choice between that or dying of starvation, what do you do?

As it stands right now, H1Z1 -- at least the PvE version -- is a boredom simulator that's also a very poor man's State of Decay. Defenders will undoubtedly point to its alpha status as a reason for any faults (while still accepting the praise, of course). I say that the fact that the studio considers this build ready for a paying audience also opens it up to real and necessary criticism. H1Z1 needs a lot more work from the team, not a lot more bodies rampaging through the countryside, to make it a launch-ready title. I truly hope that what comes out of this will make good on the potential that early access suggests.

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First Impressions: H1Z1 is more boredom than terror