H1Z1 hands-on: first impressions of SOE's zombie survival game

SOE has embraced an extremely transparent, open style of development with H1Z1 . After suddenly revealing the game just a few weeks ago with a live demo (and following that with additional, extended livestream gameplay demos, including one where the game's barricading feature was built live for viewers in one day), SOE invited press to play the game for the first time today in Santa Monica, CA as many members of the media are in town for pre-E3 appointments.

I spent about 20 minutes creeping and fleeing my way through H1Z1's open world. I found it barren and mostly uninteresting, but that's kind of to be expected at this early, pre-alpha stage. H1Z1 is a few steps beyond a tech demo right now, a loose test of how zombies and PvP get along with SOE's excellent Forgelight engine, the tech that powers PlanetSide 2 and Landmark. Melee is a bit buggy, zombies often clipped through another as a single mushed-together mass, only a small number of items seem to be implemented, and the world is seemingly only populated with wolves, deer, zombies, and other players.

My experiences were very rudimentary as a result. Running from zombies. Chopping down a tree. Walking through deserted factories. Building a campfire. The latter was simple and intuitive, a good sign for H1Z1's ambitious goal to let players build objects and structures within its open world. At this stage it's clear that H1Z1 will benefit a lot from the work done on Landmark and PlanetSide 2; I'm hoping the latter's vehicle tech finds a good home in H1Z1. It's a nice detail to see that tall trees, for example, fall when you cleave them, and that wood-gathering isn't some abstract menu exercise, as it was in the early days of DayZ.

H1Z1's map is modeled after “everywhere America,” but more specifically it's meant to resemble Oregon. At this stage it's a series of valleys, bridges, unkempt infrastructure, and thin forests. Something I'm hoping to see in a future build is heavy vegetation and grass that invites hiding and trap-laying. It'll be interesting to see whether Forgelight can render grass at a long distance to conceal players, something that DayZ doesn't necessarily do a great job of.

The pre-alpha inventory was easy enough to navigate and craft items through, again, clearly helped by SOE's long history of making MMOs and building such interfaces. This same menu housed the health, stamina, hunger, and hydration meters, which I was told all influence one another. If your hunger and hydration are good, you'll recover stamina. If they're all at zero, your stamina meter will erode over time, and then eventually start eating into your health.

I'll have an interview going up this week that digs into some deeper questions on H1Z1's game systems, but for now I'm at least encouraged by how easy player movement feels and that its basic parts are up and running. It's tough to judge the game at this stage because so much of its design, even as it approaches an Early Access pre-alpha release, is still being determined by the game's team of 30-something developers and its community. SOE emphasized that H1Z1 will be a “hardcore” survival game, but I'm curious and slightly concerned about how that's going to intersect with H1Z1's building system for housing and lesser structures.

One interesting fact I came away with was that zombies will perceive “smell” in the form of heatmap activity in addition to using their eyes and ears. In other words, if you build an isolated community in the wilderness, you shouldn't be completely safe and separated from zombies. I like the idea of a survival game that allows for player-created, semi-permanent communities to spring up but that has an organic, systems-driven way of getting zombies to interact with players in those areas.

This demo didn't give me too much to go on, but my gut tells me that H1Z1 will probably end up playing like a DayZ that's driven less by the fidelity of Arma 2's world and weapon ballistics and more by crafting, building, and player-generated content. H1Z1 does, of course, bear a strong resemblance to DayZ right now (to the extent that the “wave” and “surrender/hands up” emotes are bound to the same keys), but I think that familiarity is actually an asset (in terms of how quickly H1Z1 feels natural when you sit down to play it). I'm happy to see SOE not be too bashful about similarities as long as it brings its own spirit and vision to the game and recognizes that DayZ has a long list of flaws that don't need to be duplicated.

A final note: SOE told me that they want the game to be “bigger than PlanetSide 2” in terms of scale, so what player capacity H1Z1 will be able to accommodate is a huge unanswered question that could potentially have a significant impact on the playing experience. Look for more specific notes about the game's systems in the Q&A I'll be posting soon.

Evan Lahti
Global Editor-in-Chief

Evan's a hardcore FPS enthusiast who joined PC Gamer in 2008. After an era spent publishing reviews, news, and cover features, he now oversees editorial operations for PC Gamer worldwide, including setting policy, training, and editing stories written by the wider team. His most-played FPSes are CS:GO, Team Fortress 2, Team Fortress Classic, Rainbow Six Siege, and Arma 2. His first multiplayer FPS was Quake 2, played on serial LAN in his uncle's basement, the ideal conditions for instilling a lifelong fondness for fragging. Evan also leads production of the PC Gaming Show, the annual E3 showcase event dedicated to PC gaming.