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H1Z1 pre-Early Access impressions and producer interview

This is a big week for Sony Online Entertainment as a whole and for the developers behind H1Z1, in particular. This is the week that their entry into the survival genre hits Steam Early Access, jumping into a relatively empty January release space. SOE has high hopes for this game, aiming for public feedback that will eventually lead to a more polished product. However, the caveat is in place that H1Z1 still has a long road ahead of it. To get a look at how that road will look, I had a chance to go hands-on with a pre-Early Access build of the game and also speak to H1Z1 producer Steve George.

First and foremost, I asked George about how much has changed since the pre-alpha build seen during last year's E3. As one might imagine, many of the basic elements have been implemented, as well as some essential features.

"The AI has gone through a major overhaul," George told Shacknews. "Our sound has changed majorly, our environments and our tree rendering system, many of our regular systems have gone through an overhaul. We've put in an 'Iris' system for your eyes, so they adjust to lighting. When it's dark out, your eyes will adjust so that you see better. [The E3 Judges Day build] was something we thought we were going to put out earlier, but we decided to take a step back and analyze this, deciding to spend some more time with this product and make it a little more golden before we put it out to everybody."

Specifically, one of the biggest changes to H1Z1 is the game's user interface. The total items that can be carried are now allocated across bags and clothes, with each item allotted a certain bulk scale. Since each item in the world takes up more space than others, players need to manage which essentials to carry along with them. For example, bottles will take up a certain amount of space, but can be left behind to make room for essential items like a weapon.

While weapons can be equipped onto certain slots, like your right hand, this principle will also extend into vehicles. Vehicles, even if they aren't deteriorated, will no longer run automatically. H1Z1 will make you work for your ride, since each vehicle will require spark plugs and a car battery to run. Other vital parts include headlights to help see in the darkness and in the fog. Players will need to determine where their priorities lie, since vehicle parts will take precious space in their inventory and will likely require other items be left behind.

All of this is part of H1Z1's commitment to a minimalistic HUD. Menus are simple to navigate and the bulk system is simple to understand. Furthermore, there aren't numerous menus to complicate matters, something George says was a crucial part of the experience.

"We want to make sure the player isn't inundated with all sorts of menus and chat and all that sort of stuff in their face," George explained. "We've tried really hard to keep as many UI elements out of your face as possible. But if you want to show all your health and stamina, you can show it if you'd like. When you switch your weapons, you can see a quick indicator before it goes away."

As promised six months ago, H1Z1 has received dynamic weather, with fog and rain both making it into the game. Weather effects popped in at random points during my playthrough, with the fog effect particularly offering up the kind of drab, dreary atmosphere that one would expect from a post-apocalyptic outing. Visually, the weather effects are interesting in how they add to the environment. The weather doesn't appear to effect gameplay, but it does offer an interesting change in scenery. The weather transitions were also seamless, with George noting that weather effects are all GPU-based for minimal performance issues.

The more I witnessed H1Z1's visual changes, the more that I sensed an elephant in the room. Our Chatty boards took notice of an early gameplay clip of H1Z1 that surfaced at this year's CES from the Razer booth. Posters savaged the art style, lighting, and textures, all of which looked severely dated. SOE reps quickly pointed at this being an older build and, in fact, later that day, I linked to Twitch streamer Lowco2525, who was streaming the latest build right next to me. While posters noted an improvement, there was still some unrest regarding the overall art style. With this in mind, I asked George about how the team is handling constructive criticism in regards to the game's visuals.

"Our team does take that criticism to heart and we review things and see where we can fix them," George answered. "Some people were complaining about textures on vehicles for a while, so we made some adjustments. This stuff is all iterative. At some point, we're going to stabilize quite well and then... we're working on a new environment system -- a new terrain and world system. And somewhere down the line, DirectX 11 rendering functions will go up."

Not all of H1Z1's growing pains are visual-related. As expected, many of the pre-alpha growing pains are still present, particularly with hit detection. At one point, I spent a good four minutes chasing after a pesky deer to make venison out of him. That could lead some to ask, "Ozzie, why are you chasing a deer on foot?" but that's not the point. The point is, once I caught the deer the first time, certain hits weren't registering. It was only until later that I was able to chop Bambi into fresh meat. It's one of those issues that serve as a reminder that H1Z1 is still a work in progress.

Many of these kinks are expected to get worked out over the course of Early Access. On the topic, I asked George what else the team would be looking to get out of Early Access that they couldn't get otherwise.

"We're going to be trying to figure out what the ideal player-per-square-footage is, which is a big unknown in our minds," George said. "We ought to get thousands of players on a server, that's not a problem for us. But we don't know what the ideal number is, playability-wise, for each server. We'll start with a few hundred or so and we'll crank it up and down as we see fit. Once we find what that magic number is based on 64 square kilometers, we'll start to expand the world outward. One of the key things to the development of this product is the end user. We're taking an approach where we're going to have a website, which allows you to come in, see some of the things we want to work, and players are going to be able to upvote and downvote those items. They're going to get to an upvote status of a certain status and we'll greenlight them at that point. Once they get greenlit, we'll put them onto a calendar, so people will know approximately when these features are coming along. And if we don't know how long it'll take us, we won't put them on the calendar. We're only going to slot things in that we're fairly confident of that we'll get out in a reasonable amount of time."

Look for the Early Access build of H1Z1 to evolve as time goes on. George noted that there will be different server types, including non-PVP servers, zombie-free servers, and servers under Battle Royale rules. The latter is a part of SOE's collaboration with mod creator PLAYERUNKNOWN, whom SOE President John Smedley personally reached out to after watching how the Battle Royale mod freshened up Arma 3.

SOE President John Smedley began the day by issuing the same warning that Dean 'Rocket' Hall issued for DayZ, namely that a lengthy Early Access period is expected. Those looking for a near-finalized product over the coming months should not expect to find one. That much was evident through my hands-on time, but the game does appear to be taking steps forward. Those interested in helping provide feedback to the H1Z1 team should expect to see the game hit Steam Early Access this Thursday, January 15.

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