It was about half-past midnight on the island. I was scrambling through the thick forest during the pitch black night, searching up and down the low-poly hills to find flint so I could light a fire. Another player had promised to help me find resources; it felt like ages since I saw their white shirt bound off into the dark distance. I found what sounded, based on my footsteps, like a vein of ore. Surely, I thought, there must be some flint somewhere in this pile of rocks. I took out my axe, reared back for a swing, when a sudden roar told me I was too late. Moments later I was eaten by a puma.
Ylands is the new creative survival sandbox from Bohemia Interactive, the team behind the Arma series and DayZ. It’s a low-polygon adventure played across various islands, or Ylands. The game’s trailer sets the scene–in survival mode, you play as the castaway of a recent shipwreck, and you need to make a life for yourself with what’s available to you. What sets Ylands apart from Minecraft is a unique sense of style, a deeper survival sandbox, and a set of visual scripting tools that offers players the promise of building their own games for others to play.
The coolest parts of Ylands are those that aren’t available in something like vanilla Minecraft. To retaliate for my previous embarrassment at the hands of that puma, I created a new island world in creative mode. With the Creator Cube, players can spawn anything they’d like and have access to some really deep terrain editing tools. With a few quick clicks, I spawned a healthy inventory of weapons and ammo, and I summoned the parts necessary to build a basic Jeep. I loaded up my weapons into the trunk of my off-roader and I set out to kill every single puma I could find.
Some of my favorite Ylands were themed instances with their own rules and styles of play. The game’s workshop contains scenarios like the Wild West, pirate ship battles, sky battle arenas, and race tracks. One scenario found a friend and I looking for hidden rooms and objects at an abandoned villain’s lair in the thick jungle. Another Yland, Stunt Town, lets players drive off a ramp in a massive 10-seat car, or hurtle through a ring of fire in a hot dog truck. The modes of play enabled by Ylands' comprehensive toolset, built-in workshop, and easy-to-create servers feel weirder and more diverse than other sandbox titles.
Ylands’ creative tools are reminiscent of Disney Infinity’s Toybox mode and LittleBigPlanet’s creative suite. Players can create shareable mini-games across a variety of genres using Ylands as a platform. The creative mode includes tools like comprehensive terrain manipulation and the ability to assign clothing and items to roles that other players can choose when they join an instance. These tools are the beginning of what Bohemia promises will constitute a rich visual scripting engine upon the game’s final release. The Early Access release has inspired simple platformers and recreations of Pac-Man, so I’m curious to see what will be possible with the final toolbox.
Even with all this promise, Ylands' Early Access build definitely feels like it needs more time in the oven. I frequently ran into issues with lag, lighting, and even game-breaking bugs that ended my play sessions. The game’s low-polygon style makes for gorgeous vistas and some really stand-out visuals—however, it's still a survival game, and those visuals make it sometimes very difficult to determine exactly what minerals you’re gathering. For example, say you’re on a hillside, looking for veins of ore; sometimes, what looks like iron is actually dirt. Or, you’ll be making an impact with your pick, and audio cues will tell you you’re digging into stone, but you get clumps of dirt at best.
On the plus side, the survival sandbox is extensive. Players in survival explore a series of randomly generated islands connected by a vast ocean. Each island offers different biomes, abandoned buildings, hidden temples, and even boss creatures in the island’s depths. The game has several systems that I need more time to master, including a magic and potions mechanic and a kind of energy called Ylandium that can power machines.
Offering such an expansive and deep sandbox, however, might mean that newcomers will find themselves in the dark the first couple hours of play. I mean that literally—it took me more than a few in-game days to figure out exactly how to find flint in order to light fires. Ylands isn’t always the best at communicating what objects you’re picking up and what they’re useful for. Between that and the game’s complex controls, it felt like the learning curve was a bit higher than other survival sandbox games.
Ylands is a gorgeous game full of interesting systems. It offers a ton of promise and, when it works, it brings something truly different to the genre. Finding a group of strangers, building a huge car with a bunch of seats, and driving it off a ramp before launching into a gunfight is really, really fun. Bohemia’s built an infrastructure in Ylands that makes that kind of gameplay relatively easy to come by.
It’s a variety of creativity and play that genre standbys like Minecraft can’t offer without heaps of mods or private servers. Though there are a host of issues that put a damper on the promise of the game’s survival mode, I’m excited to see what this game looks like when it’s out of Early Access and open to everyone. Who knows–maybe shipwrecks can be fun after all.