H1Z1: Sony’s zombie sim is more accessible but less tense than DayZ .

Sony Online Entertainment’s entry into the multiplayer zombie survival genre got off to a somewhat rocky start in January with login issues, server outages, and more than a few demands for refunds, but the paid alpha for the eventually free-to-play H1Z1 is now underway and we’ve had a healthy taste of
what it’s dishing out.

Similarly to DayZ, you spawn into H1Z1’s zombie apocalypse wearing jeans and a T-shirt and carrying only a few starter items: a flashlight, some flares, and a few gauze bandages. While you explore the extensive abandoned landscape, food and drink must be consumed, weapons found, and supplies scrounged from decaying buildings and rusting vehicles. The inventory system for managing gear is simple and sensible, and there’s a crafting pane for easily slapping together tools, weapons and other items. Voice chat is proximity based: you can only be heard by other players if you’re in their vicinity.

Zombies typically congregate around buildings and towns but currently don’t feel like much of a threat: it’s simple to lead them away from the area you’re trying to loot, and you can easily outrun even the swiftest of them. Their AI occasionally misfires, leaving them standing around harmlessly as if they’ve suddenly gone deaf and blind. I’ve seen this happen with wildlife such as bears and wolves, too.
Wolf howls and elk bleats sound mournfully from the darkened woods
Unlike DayZ , where player encounters are relatively uncommon except in certain popular cities, it’s unlikely you’ll go very long without running into someone else in H1Z1. Chalk that up to common spawn zones and a high player-count on most servers. While this makes it easier to find people to interact with, it also serves to severely lessen the tension and excitement of player encounters.

When you start a new character, it’s tied to the server you created it on. This mostly makes sense you don’t want players gearing up on low-pop or private servers and then bringing all their loot elsewhere but having to start a freshie every time you visit a new server, not to mention having to find a name for your new character that hasn’t already been taken, is a bit of a nuisance and the reason why my latest character is named ‘arrrrgh4’.

There are a number of different server modes, including a hardcore mode where your character is completely wiped when you die (typically, you’ll retain the crafting recipes you’ve learned), one for PvE play only, and a Battle Royale mode where players fight each other to become the last man standing.

Most of the combat I’ve been in thus far has been melee with fists, sticks and axes, and it’s a fun but sloppy routine of clicking the mouse as fast as you can and hoping you win. I’ve used a shotgun and bow a few times, and the ranged weapons are simple to handle if a bit inaccurate. The world you fight in, sad to say, is incredibly drab. There are towns and neighbourhoods to visit and loot, but nothing that feels authentic or lived-in, and the wilderness is similarly plain and unmemorable. The sound design, on the other hand, is very well done: wolf howls and elk bleats sound mournfully from the darkened woods, rain drums realistically on rooftops while you skulk through buildings, and there are occasionally distant, haunting sounds that will have you wondering if you’re listening to a zombie wheezing in the forest or just a trick of the wind.

H1Z1’s most contentious feature is also, unfortunately, its best. Players can call for an airdrop, paid for with in-game currency bought with real cash, which results in a plane passing slowly overhead and dropping a supply crate via parachute. Airdrops take several long minutes to arrive, and the noise of the plane and a column of smoke alerts other players on the server to the dropzone, creating a focal point for mayhem as everyone congregates to fight zombies and each other over the container. What’s actually inside the crate is more of a problem.
I hope they figure airdrops out: the battles over them provide a real spark to the game
In one, I found a shotgun with 12 shells, a military backpack, a landmine and two first-aid kits. The ability to purchase weapons and ammo through microtransactions is one Sony initially promised wouldn’t be a part of  H1Z1 , and its reversal on that stance led to such an outcry that the publisher began offering refunds to fans who pre-purchased the game. While Sony is making tweaks to the airdrops to make game-changing loot a bit more rare and harder to obtain, it doesn’t seem to be abandoning the practice altogether. I don’t think it’s a complete balance-breaker any player can claim the loot, even if they didn’t order the airdrop themselves but it’s definitely a thorny issue that is going to require a lot of work to get right. I hope they figure it out: the battles over the airdrops provide a real spark to a game that mostly consists of hours of quiet, and often dull, exploration.

H1Z1 is currently in paid alpha form on Steam, but will be free-to-play when it is officially launched.

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