Early Access: H1Z1

When I started H1Z1, I immediately checked to see if I had the name right. My understanding is that DayZ had launched as a complete game, and the infamous WarZ had long come and gone. But no, Sony Online Entertainment's game seems to be real, an early-access zombie survival game. I never played DayZ, so I can't meaningfully compare it on those terms. I do have experience with early access zombies like Project Zomboid, and 'survival' games are fairly common. I will say that the first/third person style and rural landscape appear quite similar – and this game has a similar harsh landscape, both in the wildlife and in your fellow players.

DayZ takes place in the wilderness surrounding Pleasant Valley, a town decimated by a zombie outbreak. My experiences were mostly on a PvP server, with players able to kill each other; server types are listed, with features such as headshots only to kill zombies and recipe wipe (all learned recipes deleted upon death); servers without the ability to kill other players exist, but that detracts a bit from the tension.

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My first experiences, armed only with a two-page primer and the clothes on my back, could be qualified as confused. Stretches of empty forest led to a lonely highway, and a set of rural houses reminiscent of my own Eastern Ontario roots. The houses yielded nothing, as did most buildings – everything is staggeringly empty, with store shelves bare and houses filled with only garbage. The very few times I found useful materials were often clearly due to player oversight – nearly every building had the telltale signs of activity, with every door hanging open in an indication that another wandering player had been there. Servers never had populations lower than Medium, so most places were picked clean.

It is a lonely game, with long stretches of wandering, picking blackberries for hydration until I could scavenge the tools necessary to boil water (or the bottles needed to actually collect and use it). Zombies  are sparsely encountered, usually only on roads or near cars, and the few times I fought them left me partially wounded after a slugging match with a branch. The forests themselves are dark and cluttered, and look alright for an early-access game; they look like sprawling, oppressive places. I have to say that the zombies look legitimately disturbing, with piercing eyes and distinct yellow sharpened teeth. While they're easy to outrun, they can sneak up on you, and prevent you from safely looting areas – they're not so much a threat in themselves, but they make the challenge of surviving a bit more complicated. Animals provide equal threat, from wolves and bears (I saw one of the latter, and proceeded to sneak around). The sound of wolf howls and deer calls announce their presence, with the quiet breaths of the former putting you on edge as you try to find it before it attacks you.

And then I met a duo of survivors in a sunny grocery-store parking lot. They immediately took shots at me with bows, which I had not learned how to make quite yet, and proceeded to lure zombies towards me while swinging axes at my head. What resulted with a game of strafing in circles, with me swinging my newly-made combat knife against both of them, while they continuously missed. I took one down with a few well-placed slices, before succumbing to an axe to the face (or a zombie to the back, I wasn't really sure.).

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These experiences were really the defining points of the game. Everything is surprisingly empty, with most places picked clean when I arrived. The crafting system revolves around finding items and using the discovery screen to learn recipes with them, which becomes an issue when you can't find sheet metal, or an axe to chop wood, or when you don't know you can shred your own clothing. This makes many of the necessities beyond your reach – a blade is needed to harvest animals you kill for meat, the ability to make a bow drill to light fires is needed to boil any water unless you enjoy health damage with your hydration. Health heals painfully slowly (so to speak) without bandages or gauze.

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It's not impossible, as evidenced by the world. Lines of animal traps behind a gas station indicate that mythical sheet metal exists. Occasionally, a police car drives down the road. I even found one, on fire, in the middle of the street, but I lacked the fat-rendered biofuel to take it on a final spin.

Right now, that seems to be about all I can do – go around, survive, and get lost in the woods and die. Early-access titles often rely on being large, sandboxes. What they have now has potential – the ambiance is downright oppressive, and the emptiness gives you a sense of tension as you wonder what you'll encounter on your journey between rural streets and houses. Even daylight has a sense of painful desolation, true to the real-life countryside. But after a while, you notice that the same houses repeat down the same street, and that all of them have been looted and you can't build anything new. The game needs expansion, something else to do and some sense that you can progress beyond the starting point, even if you stand to lose everything at any given moment. I personally like the emptiness, and the scarcity of zombies even in the populated areas – it makes this feel like the major mayhem has passed, and only the wild has reclaimed it. Gems like the church on the hill overlooking the warehouse districts, complete with local sinister music, are welcome.

Micro-transactions were somewhat of a controversy with this game due to their providing firearms (which were originally stated to be only available to discover in the world, not by purchase). Airdrops can be purchased with real-life money, giving you the ability to call in an air-borne crate to land, giving you a wealth of items. That is, if you get there first – anyone else may head to the flare and fight their way through the horde of zombies to get the chest. I tried one of the airdrops I started with, and found that the items weren't worth the effort.

Overall, this has potential as a survival sandbox, with some proper expansion. I hope that, at $21.99, the micro-transactions will remain mostly as the airdrops, allowing players to start on level field and fight it out.