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H1Z1 hands-on preview: Streamlined survival meets the zombie apocalypse

I've literally walked two feet in H1Z1, Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming survival-oriented multiplayer game, and I'm already under attack. Not, as I first assumed, by a zombie. No, instead it's a wolf jumping up and trying to tear my throat out.

I laugh—the sort of panicked, strained giggle you might give out when there's a rabid wolf trying to rip you to shreds—and say to the SOE dev watching me, "There's a $%^&#ing wolf attacking me!"

"Yeah, they tend to do that," he says, laughing. Seeing there'll be no help from those quarters, I do what any sane person would do—I punch the wolf. I punch it to death. "You know you have an axe too, right?" says the dev, after I've brutally beaten this wolf into the ground.

No, I did not know that. Welcome to H1Z1.

Fraternal twins

There's no reason to sidestep the issue—H1Z1 is basically DayZ. I know it, you know it. At multiple points during our press demo/presentation, both Rust and DayZ are namedropped. The survival genre's gotten pretty crowded of late, and H1Z1 just piles right on top.

h1z1 zombie axe

But the main difference, and H1Z1's main appeal as far as I'm concerned, is how streamlined everything is. DayZ, bless its zombie-killing heart, is built on the Arma engine. There's nothing wrong with the Arma engine, per se. It's a bit buggy, sure, but fundamentally it's a fine foundation for a game. What it does, though, is make every action a challenge. Even simple actions sometimes require three, maybe four button presses to accomplish.

That's great if you love the heavy simulation aspects of something like DayZ or Arma, but it's intimidating to new players and occasionally clunky even for longtime veterans.

H1Z1 strips everything down. Make no mistake—while I played H1Z1 on a PC and the PC platform is getting a lot of love from Sony, this is a game that was designed to work on a console gamepad from the very start. As I ran around the (still-early-in-development) world, it struck me how simple everything was. Within minutes I'd killed a wolf, chopped down a few trees, looted some cabins, killed another player on the server, stolen all his stuff, found a new hat to wear, and constructed my own shack (more on that later).

It's easy, especially compared to DayZ, which obfuscates every task behind layers of simulation-level complexity. And that should be a huge draw for newcomers, even if it dissuades hardcore DayZ players from jumping ship. It also should (presumably) make for a more natural console port—even though DayZ recently announced a PS4 version, I can't imagine how it's going to purge commands from the Arma engine to make everything important fit on a gamepad.

h1z1 planning assault

DIY games

SOE's mandate of late also seems to rely on player-driven content. The old model of MMO design was developer-driven. In other words, developers produced a ton of content for an expansion, expecting it to last a long while. Much to their surprise, players would tear through all the content in a few days and then be bored again. This is why you get the wild subscription swings in something like World of WarCraft—people re-up for expansions, then drop once they've finished the content.

And for a long time SOE fit into this model. Indeed, some of their older games (the original EverQuest, for instance) still keep to this mandate.

But with Landmark and now H1Z1, SOE aims to tap into the Little Big Planet/Star Trek Online/DayZ/Rust model, which is entirely player-driven. Instead of developing content, SOE creates tools with loose rules and wide application, and then leaves "content" up to player ingenuity.

h1z1 compound

For H1Z1, the focus in this regard is the crafting system. It's nothing you haven't seen before—you find various materials while wandering, or through direct actions like chopping down trees to get wood. Then you can combine these materials into more complex creations—a tarp and some wooden sticks can become a dew catcher, for instance, which allows you to fill empty water bottles.

Gather enough resources and you can start crafting entire buildings—the largest I ever created was a shack, which required twenty planks and ten sticks. However, I've seen other structures that included raised platforms and other "I'm a rich person in the apocalypse" features. Put enough of these structures together, add in some sharpened spikes—suddenly you have your own little post-apocalyptic town going.

It's neither as flexible nor as powerful as the tools SOE implemented in Landmark, but it'll still be interesting to see what players do with it once there's a full suite of crafting recipes to discover.

In fact, that's H1Z1'S biggest problem right now: It's empty. This Pacific Northwest-alike is incredibly rural, with enormous spaces between towns. That makes sense for SOE's vision—lots of areas for players to erect their own towns, et cetera.

The problem, of course, is there aren't players yet. After four or five hours I ran into a grand total of two other players—we're playing with a few employees and playtesters, considering the game's not even in early access yet. It's obviously a bit hard to understand how the interpersonal aspects of H1Z1 will play out when there aren't any people to interact with.

h1z1 house

That's one of the things SOE is trying to figure out right now, actually. The map will be 64 square kilometers at launch, and because SOE is hosting all the servers it can offer a variety of different rule variations. "We have the capability to put thousands of characters on a server, but how many feels good? Is it five guys? Twenty guys? A hundred guys?" pondered one of the H1Z1 developers during our presentation. "We could put a thousand people onto the map we have now just to see if people enjoy that. I don't think many would, but we could do that."

Bottom line

From a purely reductive standpoint, yeah, H1Z1 is DayZ. It's another one of those survival games that are all the rage. Just like Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm, though, I foresee H1Z1 potentially making waves with players due to a fundamental accessibility that's lacking in other survival games currently. It's a lot easier to get someone into H1Z1 and having fun than it is in DayZ, even if DayZ's myriad commands allow more flexibility in the long run.

So it's fun, and it runs. When will we see it, even labeled in early access form? That's a loaded question. Unlike DayZ, Rust, and most of these titles, SOE's developers seem very adamant about upholding some semblance of quality even in early access, and they're willing to sit on the game until it meets a long list of criteria they've outlined. Ah well.

Even so, the game seems fairly polished and I wouldn't be surprised to see it soon—just maybe not as soon as you'd like.

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