My return to Daybreak's Early Access survival sandbox Just Survive (formerly H1Z1) wasn't exactly a triumph. As I ran around the playable portion of the new map, Badwater Canyon, I kept seeing notifications that one particular player was killing other players with a bow and arrow. A few moments later, I spotted someone firing a bow from behind cover. His back was to me, so I heroically snuck up behind him (heroes do that) and killed him (hero!) with a machete. Only when he was dead did I notice it was the wrong player. Whoops!
What was the player I killed shooting at? A bear. A bear that then chased me into an enormous crowd of zombies, which then chased me to a stronghold, where I ran into some defensive spikes and promptly died. Not quite the glorious victory I was shooting for, but representative of how I'd really fare in the post-apocalypse.
Speaking of Just Survive's new strongholds: while there are a few benefits to the new system I think they're ultimately a turn in the wrong direction for Just Survive, which is undergoing a hefty revamp. Rather than the building system that previously allowed players to construct homes and forts anywhere they like on the map, the new strongholds can only be built on certain plots that are purchasable with in-game currency earned by selling items to the NPC military base.
There are reasons for the switch: when I talked to Just Survive's creative director Ben Jones last week, he said that having a map littered with hundreds of little player-made homes can lead to performance problems on busy servers. Daybreak is introducing timed raids, which sounds cool: enemy players won't have all day and night to completely destroy your base while you're offline. Having specific building areas will also presumably prevent base-griefing—players building unfairly in spots that cause problems for other players (for example in Rust, when someone builds walls around a sleeping player or places spikes on a spawn point).
Keeping in mind Just Survive is in Early Access, and this new stronghold system has just been added publicly to an unfinished map and will certainly undergo changes in the future, it still feels like the negative aspects of the new stronghold system outweigh the potential positive ones.
Being able to pick your own spot on a map and build a fort there, rather than having to choose from a pre-selected spot, is important to feeling like you're carving out a bit of wilderness for yourself. In Ark: Survival Evolved, I built a small shack next to a lake frequented by beavers and surrounded by cliffs. I eventually closed off all the routes to the lake with walls and defenses. I slowly expanded outward from my original hut, and I even built a few things on the surrounding peaks. As a result it felt like I'd really put a personal stamp on the area beyond just coloring inside the lines. If I'd been confined to a set square of foundation instead of having my choice of where to build it wouldn't have been as enjoyable an experience.
Designated areas for building may help players quickly determine which are the most valuable plots, and thus give rise to some monumental conflicts to control them—but that happens organically anyway. Ark's various maps always wind up with a few highly desired and contested locations without the developers specifying them in advance. Players learn maps inside and out, build all over the place, and eventually discover the key spots in terms of strategy and resource availability. That's part of the fun. And, if you're late to the party and the server is already populated by bases, you can always still hunt around for a nook to call your own.
I'm also a little concerned about high-population servers filling up available stronghold plots quickly. Currently there's only one area of the map available, and while it has dozens of potential stronghold spots, in my seven hours of play on three different servers I wasn't able to find a vacant plot. The areas near the military base were all claimed—most of them already had strongholds on them—and deeper excursions into the map weren't fruitful either. Given more visits to low-pop servers I'm sure I would eventually find a vacant plot—and of course more will be added in the future—but it still felt discouraging.
I'm not sure how strongholds fit into PvE at all. Without the threat of other players, the idea of not being able to build wherever you want really takes away from the idea of conquering the environment, and without raids there doesn't feel like much of a need for the stronghold system at all. Maybe this will change when the plans for quests and missions given by the military arrive.
Finally, my general thoughts on base-building—not only in Just Survive but in just about all survival games—are still the same ones I had the last time I wrote about Miscreated. Bases, more often than not, just wind up looking like giant drab brown wooden boxes built on a square foundation, with square walls, squarely. You spend all that time and effort and wind up living in a house that looks like a damn shipping crate.
This is just my pipe-dream, but the idea of conquering a post-apocalyptic world would feel more fitting if you could claim an existing building—a house, a store, an office building—and build onto it. Not just boarding up windows but really repairing and reinforcing it. It would certainly feel more realistic and be more aesthetically pleasing than building a boxy crate castle, and a town, even a small one, feels like real estate worth fighting over.