The H1Z1 open beta has been going for over a week now and, after some initial server problems that left countless thousands of players stuck staring at the waiting screen with nothing to do but watch a red silhouette jog relentlessly on the spot, I think it’s fair to say the game’s PS4 debut has been extremely successful.
With an impressive 200,000+ concurrent players on day-one alone and a total download count in excess of 1.5 million over the same period (hence the server issues), the only question that remains to be answered is this: can H1Z1 sustain these incredible numbers over the long term and find a new home on PS4?
H1Z1: An enjoyable blend of speed and strategy
On the surface, you might expect H1Z1 to play like PUBG: slow and methodical with an almost overwhelming feeling of nerve-shredding tension influencing every passing second. That’s what I was anticipating when I first booted up the game, anyway, as someone who’s never watched so much as a single let’s-play of the original PC version.
Yet, with play-area restrictions coming into effect immediately at the start of a round – before any of the one hundred players’ feet have even touched the floor – on what is only a modestly-sized map, H1Z1 offers a noticeably faster-paced take on the battle royale genre.
I have to say, I was sceptical of this approach at first. The main reason I failed to derive any lasting enjoyment from Fortnite when it landed a few months back was its combination of hectic gameplay and unusual building mechanics which, for me, dissipated the sense of dread that pervades PUBG.
However, these fears were quickly alleviated. Although it progresses at a faster rate than either of its two major competitors, producing marginally shorter average round times (fifteen minutes or thereabouts for H1Z1 compared to Fortnite’s twenty and PUBG’s twenty-five) as a result, H1Z1 doesn’t lack for tension.
It’s probably not as anxiety-inducing as PUBG – few non-horror games are. But I’d say it’s far more effective than Fortnite in this regard.
Fortnite’s handful of over-powered weapons (such as the rocket launcher and minigun), along with a raft of game-changing consumables (lethal traps, jetpacks, physics-breaking space rocks) and the game’s ad hoc building system, levels the playing field between experienced and amateur players in a way that the other two don’t. Making the average round feel that much less nerve-wracking for inexperienced or amateur players. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there isn’t a learning curve to overcome; nor am I saying random number generates and pure dumb luck are the only things that govern success in Fortnite; the cream will always rise to the top and skilled individuals who know how best to manipulate the game’s various systems will naturally have the edge over casual players. It’s just that, in my experience, success is much harder to come by in H1Z1, and that isn’t a bad thing.
At the time of writing, I’ve only ever finished inside the top ten once during a game of H1Z1 solos; and that was only because I spent the majority of the match cowering in the darkest corners of the most obscure buildings, engaging players when I was sure I had the element of surprise on my side. Whereas, in Fortnite, I’ve managed to place tenth or better a good-half a dozen times now (out of about twenty-five matches, total). In fact, I managed to finish as high as sixth in my third match, simply because I happened upon a rocket launcher shortly after landing; more recently, I placed second thanks, in no small part, to the epic minigun I found tucked away in Junk Junction.
I never had to build anything more complicated than a wooden staircase on either occasion and, aside from the odd moment here and there, I never really felt under pressure.
Now, some might argue that, in the absence of building mechanics or anything else wholly unique to the IP, H1Z1 is little more than a watered-down version of PUBG designed to make the most of the PS4 market before Microsoft’s exclusivity deal with Brendan Greene’s trend-setter expires. But honestly, I think that kind of thinking is reductive. With its easy-to-use, simplified mechanics, H1Z1 really does offer something different.
There are only a handful of weapons and miscellaneous items to consider when provisioning your character in the early stages of a round: the rarer, more powerful varieties restricted to air drops and loot crates, which, unlike PUBG, come with attachments already equipped. There’s no rummaging through complicated, multi-layered inventory screens or agonizing over the most effective attachments for your shiny new sniper rifle in H1Z1, nor do players have to spend numerous additional hours mastering a complementary set of mechanics if they want to get the full experience. H1Z1 is very much a pick-up-and-play style of game.
Take the straightforward control scheme. Weapons are retrieved and placed in the four-pronged weapon wheel automatically with a single press of the triangle button (assuming you’ve picked up one of the game’s two capacious backpacks and have room for them, of course), while there are no options for modifying a weapon’s fire rate to consider or restrictions on the application of healing items. In fact, my only real criticism of the controls at this stage is the lack of map markers which makes navigating and coordinating with a partner or team trickier than it really should be. Still, I suspect this is something Daybreak will patch into the game at some point in the near future as part of one of its manifold content updates.
Either way, the long of the short of it is that, without all the extra gubbins, H1Z1 players are able to focus all their attention on the business at hand: survival.
Meanwhile, although it’s not the game’s biggest draw or as vital to its potential success as the pacing and easy-to-use mechanics, the more realistic presentation of H1Z1 still might help it attract players put off by Fortnite’s unique visual style.
No one’s suggesting it’s the Ken Loach of video games just because it favours dank greys and muddy browns over Fortnite’s vibrant colour palette and imaginative gameplay elements. Even so, the real-world weapons, grim environment, semi-realistic bullet physics, and lack of immersion-breaking insta-building will undoubtedly make H1Z1 a far more enticing proposition for those that like the idea of PUBG, but don’t have either an Xbox One or PC capable of running it effectively.
That being said, if H1Z1 is to become a viable alternative to Fortnite and PUBG on the PS4, it goes without saying that both the servers and overall performance must first be stabilized. Additionally, if no less importantly, there’s still a hell of a lot of work to be done on the game’s graphics. Okay, so it’ll never be photo-realistic or anything – not that anyone would expect such graphical fidelity from a battle royale game – yet, in its current state, H1Z1’s bland, textureless visuals and disappointing lack of asset variety, while less objectionable than the Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic of Fortnite, renders it a truly ugly and uninspiring video game to look at.
Equally, though simplicity should always be at the forefront of Daybreak’s mind as it continues to update the game going forward, it wouldn’t hurt to add a tad more variety in terms of weapons, gear, and even cosmetics. Apart from anything else, a few additional prestige items would give players something to aspire to and, perhaps, convince the odd dedicated fan to spend a bit of their hard-earned cash on the game’s largely unobtrusive and non-game-altering microtransactions.
For now, though, following an extremely successful launch that’s seen players flock back to a game that looked for all the world to be dead and buried on PC, the signs are good for H1Z1.
It’s in a precarious position, of course, and Daybreak certainly can’t rest on its laurels at this stage. But, although it wouldn’t come as a major shock to see it slowly fade away over the ensuing weeks as early adopters gradually return to the two behemoths the original PC version of H1Z1 (more or less) shaped, nor would it be a surprise to find H1Z1 firmly ensconced in the PS4’s online competitive scene in a few months’ time.