Why is Sony's unfinished multiplayer zombie survival game H1Z1 (official site) proving so popular? On paper, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Initial reports were negative; we've already got DayZ; even if we wanted a less hardcore DayZ with more crating, we've got 7 Days To Die already.
So what on Earth is H1Z1 for? And why am I enjoying it even though I really feel as though I shouldn't?
Part of the success is due to it H1Z1 coming from a big company with a big marketing budget (not to mention with direct access to few hundred thousand Planetside 2 players), of course, but even so, maybe it's inadvertently the right game at the right time. DayZ is an old kid on the block now, even if it is still a work in progress, and H1Z1 comes along doing something similar but with a need to learn new rules. Working out how to stay alive, how and what to build and, eventually, how to totally dominate a server is a journey of discovery, at least for now. That'll keep happening for a while, as the game updates, and it reminds me of early days in all the online games I've loved and lost - WoW, City of Heroes, Planetside. They all felt so much more special when they weren't yet full of people telling me exactly how to play, when I felt I could just poke at things and figure them out myself.
In a funny sort of way, this is where even very rickety Early Access games can excel - a chance to get a handle on one set of challenges, then have a foundation to work from when a whole new bunch of challenges arrive further down the line.
H1Z1 is, I suspect, popular because it's familiarity plus novelty, but also because it's massively successful familiarity paired with more massively successful familiarity. The Minecraft element is as big as the DayZ element, and the two go together rather well (not least because Minecraft was doing deadly night-time survival long before DayZ was). There's a major difference between a game which asks you to scavenge and a game which asks you to build too; in DayZ my first priority is to find buildings and hope there's a weapon in there, whereas in H1Z1 I head to the nearest shrub, grab some twigs and make a few arrows. Though first - and I do love this - first you'll need to remove your t-shirt and shred it in order to make a string for your bow. The idea that this would create a bow capable of killing zombies with a single shot to the head is laughable, but wonderful.
I'm also fond of raiding cars for scrap metal, and of picking up clothing and bags I don't actually need then reducing it all to cloth scraps - an essential building material - rather than leaving it for someone else. I found so many backpacks, a precious item because they can carry so much, and merrily ripped 'em all to shreds. It's the game building in greed for greed's sake, and I am not at all above that.
I'm not hating it, in other words. I have hit a fair few bugs, including floating zombies, crashes and (quite often) being unable to use anything in my inventory, but despite that flurry of outrage at launch, it doesn't now seem any worse than the early access norm (if there can be said to be one). It is fairly obviously only the starting point of a game, however. There isn't too much to do or build as yet, but that doesn't trouble me too much for now. I suspect it would if I was heading in every night, but that's not my plan until it's further along. Really, the issue is lack originality, but while that cannot be denied oddly it's not winding me up.
I think that's because the essentials of the game feel pretty good, if on the rickety side. Crafting is quick and satisfying, and requires a little bit of experimentation to learn 'recipes', running through dark woods in search of shelter is creepy, and the zombies are on the slow/fast sweet spot - slow enough to be zombies, fast enough to be dangerous.
And, if I'm entirely honest, it's fairly forgiving. It's fairly straightforward to recover from injuries (presuming you win or escape from the fight), there are always blackberry bushes around to slightly top up ailing energy and hydration, and again, getting your first weapons and items is something you can do almost straight away. I like DayZ's brutality and all, but part of me enjoys the chance to muck around that much more. H1Z1's world, while by no means novel, is an atmospheric one, and I get a lot out of simple exploration, like crossing a long, lonely bridge and finding an abandoned gas station at the other end. In DayZ, I can't relax enough to appreciate that stuff.
Then again, here comes the big, guilty confession: I'm playing on a PVE server right now. I will progress to PVP in time, but I want to figure the game out first. This massively reduces the risk of sudden, unwelcome death, though clearly it takes away a great deal of the ad hoc roleplaying too. I don't need to guess whether someone's malign or helpful, because there's not a damned thing they can do to me, apart from potentially train a few zombies my way.
Even so, suddenly spotting another soul is terrifying - partly because of DayZ memories, partly because if they're in the same place as you that means they might hoover up all the loot before you can. This makes me angry. I'm the local kleptomaniac. I don't want to share. Of course, once in a while they drop something useful at my feet, and suddenly I feel horribly guilty for sprinting around grabbing everything in sight the second they appeared.
I also feel guilty for enjoying myself. I guess we'll see what tomorrow brings - this could well find more of its own character further down the line. Right now, H1Z1 is profoundly unoriginal, and not doing anything that far smaller studios aren't attempting already, not to mention thats it's in very basic shape and has had a brief encounter with the ugly stick, but I kind of like it anyway. I probably shouldn't, I realise that. But we don't get to control these things, do we?
H1Z1 is out on Steam Early Access now, costing £15. It'll be free on 'full' launch. This is kind of a thorny issue for some people.