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Icarus, the savage new survival game from DayZ's creator, is more chill than it lets on

Dean Hall's new game has potential, but needs more time in the oven

Alright, the next sentence will feature a confusing combo of words.

Icarus: First Cohort is a PvE session-based survival game by RocketWerkz, a studio founded by Dean Hall - the person who brought us DayZ. While in DayZ you attempt to survive through a zombie apocalypse, the idea in Icarus is that you've got a limited amount of time to explore a savage alien planet, grab resources, then hoof it back to your dropship and escape. If you don't make it out alive, you lose everything.

"Crikey", I thought when I heard about it. "Now that is intense." But in reality, Icarus is a lot less savage than it lets on. In fact, I'd say it's pretty chill. I mean, I had time to try and become the first person in Icarus to bake some bread. I failed - but in fairness, the feature hasn't gone live yet.

Announced last year, Icarus turned up at this year's PC Gaming Show at E3. It's launching on August 11th on Steam and will release in Chapters. The first looks like it'll be the planet I sampled in about three hours of hands on.

I was reporting directly to the top, this being Dean Hall himself, who acted as my very patient guide through. Sudden diversions like the bread attempt weren't uncommon either. It took at least an hour for us to venture into the polar region of the planet, because I always found a distraction.

That's what Icarus does so well. It didn't take long for me to get comfortable in its world and start gathering resources, then turning those bits of plant or rock into bows, armour, or knives (but sadly, not a succulent golden loaf). Still, as someone who's not that well-versed in survival games, apart from my adventures in Valheim, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I took to my life as a space-explorer in a bad situation.

You've got to balance your Oxygen, Food, and Water levels. Thankfully it's all pretty simple and never became a chore. Plus, you can make items pretty early on that make topping them up a breeze.

Each process was made simple by a clear levelling system, where you do stuff like smack trees with your fists a la every other survival game, gain EXP and skill points, then bung them into a nicely presented tree of stuff-you-can-make. These start at simple tools like a stone pickaxe, and progress to things like a ghillie suit, or even a vehicle.

Icarus has plenty of nice touches in the main survival systems, and it's very easy to get into. Building feels intuitive and each tile looks nice. I like that I could skin animals for leather, and that after I upgraded my knife my yield increased, thus eliminating some of the ballache from hunting. The sounds are excellent too, and I promise that you will not hear a better axe-meets-wood thunk in video games.

There's also a separate Talent tree where you can pop points into branches like Bows and Blades. It's all very much a work in progress, but Hall emphasised that they want it to feel a bit like Skyrim.

Icarus's combat already does to be fair, in that floaty, slashy way. Don't expect fights at close range to feel weighty or impactful. I did enjoy my time with the bow, though. Mainly because it was divorced from the melee jank and did this cool Sniper Warrior thing where landing a killing blow at long range would trigger a cool change of camera, like I had a GoPro attached to my arrow.

This is what Hall wants from the Talents in the future; a focus on fun, as opposed to incremental stat increases. You know, stuff like being able to fire off multiple arrows at once, or shoot some crazy hyper-arrow that'll travel a huge distance. It's a way off yet, but I remain hopeful they'll ditch percentile bumps for powerful, unique abilities.

I'm not sure how unique Icarus is, though. In the jargon "PvE session-based survival game", it's the "session-based" bit which makes it stand out, but even then, I'm not sure I felt its impact really. The big thing with Icarus is that it's a "platform". You take on missions of varying difficulty. There may be a smaller time limit, or it'll be a particularly tough environment. But each time you have to gather resources, survive, and get out. Rather than hopping into one fixed world with your pals for eternity, the idea is that you'll take on a variety of missions and control the intensity of the task at hand, one session at a time.

What Icarus wants to become is a survival game that doesn't fix you in one place. Instead of progression being tied to conquering a single world, here it's all about becoming an all-powerful space pirate as you pilfer from a handful of planets to get stronger. It's exciting, thinking about how they could add a steady stream of new planets. Eventually you could have an entire universe to plunder.

It certainly has promise in its current form. I didn't get to see what happens when you return to base with your resources, or have a look at what other missions were available, though. That makes it difficult to get a sense of how the platform might actually work, separate from the dream scenario I have in my head.

I was told they do plan on adding DLC called "Chapters" that'll introduce new biomes, and I reckon that variety is needed. The world Hall and I explored was gorgeous, with lovely forests and yawning caverns, but it didn't feel savage - or alien, for that matter. I hunted goats and deer. I gathered ferns and chopped wood with an axe. I mined rocks and Hall built houses from stone. It was all very… Earthy. No purple tendrils and no inhaling rainbow coloured spores. No sea made of gloop or little goblin with a big hammer.

During a storm, a lightning bolt struck a tree and I was left impressed by how the fire spread. After a tree burned out, you could chop it down for charcoal. Seemingly nothing in Icarus is junk.

I liked the chill vibe as we played, but sometimes I remembered that it was meant to be a matter of life and death. I never felt the timer looming over me, like I was racing against the clock to get my haul back to base. I suppose this works for those who want a less frantic play session, but the lack of pressure felt like the game's premise was somewhat defeated.

I did get a greater sense of Icarus' potential right at the end, when Hall and I finally reached the ice biome - a snowy wasteland pocked with ravenous polar bears. We had to craft fur armour to keep ourselves warm. Any ice we found on the floor had to be melted if we needed drinking water. I felt vulnerable, and we were forced to get creative to survive.

As we trekked deeper into the white, we got caught in a blizzard and desperately searched for a place to seek shelter. We couldn't spot any caves, so we ducked under a huge snowy overhang formed by the wind. Despite getting battered by the cold, we huddled inside and escaped with our lives. This split-second decision ensured we scraped by, and it was genuinely thrilling stuff. Finally, I could see something of the game's vision!

I know Icarus needs more time in the oven, like the bread I tried to bake. I hope that future planets feel actually extraterrestrial and not like a slightly more treacherous New Zealand. But I reckon it also needs to be a bit clearer in its messaging about the whole session-based thing. It isn't some mad scramble all the time and it's a lot more grounded than you'd expect. The other option, of course, is to tweak it so it is a mad scramble all the time.

E3 2021 may be over but our memories live on - see everything on our E3 hub. Many more big game showcases and streams are still to come this summer, leading up to Gamescom, so see our summer games stream schedule to stay up to date.

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About the Author
Ed Thorn avatar

Ed Thorn

Senior Staff Writer

When Ed's not cracking thugs with bicycles in Yakuza, he's likely swinging a badminton racket in real life. Any genre goes, but he's very into shooters and likes a weighty gun, particularly if they have a chainsaw attached to them. Adores orange and mango squash, unsure about olives.

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