This battle royale does just enough to set itself apart from the crowd.
In between the very start of an H1Z1 match – in which up to 150 people parachute down onto a small and continually shrinking map – and the final moments laced with exploding crossbow bolts, it’s utter chaos. Sometimes that’s the good kind that leads to great moments of action, and sometimes it’s the disorganized and directionless kind that leads to boredom. In a genre now dominated by Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, this battle royale struggles to find its own identity despite predating both – with the most promising spark of inspiration coming from an inventive new destruction derby-style mode.
H1Z1 is actually a refreshingly simple game in a lot of ways when all is said and done. Where contemporaries PUBG and Fortnite define themselves by aiming for a realistic feel and zany base-building shenanigans, respectively, H1Z1 floats somewhere in the middle. You can’t attach scopes and quick-draw magazines to your rifles and there are no sky bases or mile-high sniper towers to be found in this one. That lack of commitment to a signature look and style often leaves an empty feeling, even if it does have the benefit of being a more accessible battle royale as a result.
H1Z1 tries to fill that void with fast-paced action, but isn’t entirely successful. For example, at the very start of each match teams pick which region of the map to drop down to, and as areas become more populated they’ll start to glow yellow, orange, and eventually red, giving you the ability to determine how much of a firefight you want to immediately land in. (In PUBG, by contrast, the plane’s path and the circle’s placement is random, and you only get to pick when you drop.) Picking where to go makes the drop feel more strategic, but removes a lot of the impromptu strategy involved with random drop spots, and that makes them feel more routine. Most teams end up picking the same handful of popular spots regardless of the safe zone and just drive to the zone once they find a vehicle.
|Wait, Which H1Z1 Is This?|
|Originally, H1Z1 debuted on Steam Early Access in 2015 as a hardcore zombie survival game inspired directly by the popular ARMA 2 mod, DayZ. A few months later it added a tense battle royale multiplayer mode known as King of the Kill, which proved so popular it was spun out into its own separate Early Access game. In February 2016, the original zombie-focused H1Z1 was renamed as Just Survive, and in August 2017, King of the Kill was renamed back to H1Z1, and finally launched out of early access on February 28, 2018. That’s what’s reviewed here.|
Once on the ground, in my experience, a match of H1Z1 consists of three phases. The first all about looting and getting to the circle, if you aren’t already in it. The circle in H1Z1 shrinks slowly over the course of the match, just as you’d expect, except here the threat you’re avoiding is depicted as deadly poisonous gas instead of an electric force field.
Since the entirety of H1Z1’s design is predicated off of ramping up the action, the looting of the countryside is greatly compressed relative to most battle royale games. The good news is that there’s never a dull start – during my time with H1Z1 I’ve rarely needed to check more than two or three houses before I had all three weapon slots filled, a helmet, a backpack, and a thrown item like a grenade or molotov cocktail. That’s enough to carry me to the end game when the crates of really good stuff start to fall. The bad news is that there’s little variety: even though the locations of the houses I loot may change, the loot cycle always stays the same.
The good news is there’s never a dull start.
The one extra layer to the typical looting phase that H1Z1 introduces is some light crafting elements. You won’t be building an entire base like in Fortnite, but you can break down basic items like shirts and backpacks into pieces of cloth that can be turned into bandages for healing, or combined with duct tape and sheets of metal for body armor. It’s a shallow idea that never evolves into a full crafting system like the one found in Just Survive (H1Z1’s spin-off sibling) and could have honestly been left out with little consequence.
Grabbing more ammo never hurts, but there aren’t any attachments to search for or ultra-special weapons of any kind to stumble upon. Most people roll with an AR-15 as their ranged primary weapon, an AK-47 as their mid-range automatic weapon, and either a recurve bow with explosive arrows (if they’re lucky) or a shotgun for up-close blasting. Since I always ended up using the same few weapons every game, there was an utter lack of variety. Sure, I could’ve switched things up by choosing other weapons, but without hope of finding attachments that could make one of the others more enticing, there’s zero incentive to do so.
Once the first round of teams are killed off, that’s when the next phase begins, and it can either be the most exciting part or the most boring. Depending on whether you’re playing solo, duo, or in five-person squads, your strategy may vary a bit, but this is the part of the match where people drive around and try to pick off as many stragglers as possible. What makes this more exciting here than other games is that it’s an area where H1Z1 embraces absurdity: you cannot run people over, but you can jump out of a vehicle at full speed without taking damage. Those two facts totally change the dynamic of facing off against a fast-approaching car in favor of the on-foot player, making it closer to a fair fight. But if you don’t evade the incoming fire from passengers and take out the driver before they close the gap they can pull up right beside you, hop out, blast you with a shotgun, then jump back in all in one fell swoop.
Depending on how much of your team is left at this point and how confident you are in your aim, this phase usually turns into either an intense bloodbath or a tedious game of hide and seek as you evade the roving bands of car-equipped marauders. For me, too often it’s been the latter, making a third of a typical H1Z1 match feel like a waste of time more often than not.
Going for crates is terrifying and risky.
One way or another, the objective is to get down to the last 15 or so people left, because that’s when the third phase kicks off and the good stuff starts to happen. By then, the circle is usually too small for vehicles because anyone driving around in a loud car will get shot immediately. Meanwhile, crates containing ultra-powerful rifles, snipers with scopes, and more begin to fall, creating irresistible bait that can either be looted or camped. Going for crates is terrifying and risky, but if you don’t upgrade your gear you’re at a big disadvantage in the final battle to come.
While I found myself enjoying H1Z1’s fast-paced rounds (on average they last around 15-20 minutes, as opposed to upwards of a half hour or more for PUBG), it’s a harsh place where death can come so suddenly and quickly that it risks being off-putting to new players. A surprising number of people who are playing H1Z1 right now, especially in solo, either have some of the most incredible twitch reflexes I’ve ever seen or are hacking (or some combination of the two). In most matches, even with body armor and a helmet equipped, it seemed like I died far more quickly than I was used to in similar games. If you struggle at first I highly recommend playing in groups, even with random people, or trying out the Combat Zone mode to hone your skill on a map with unlimited respawns.
There’s no element of pay-to-win in play.
Beyond developing your skills there’s no actual progression to H1Z1 outside of pure cosmetic options, which, to its credit, means there’s no element of pay-to-win in play. Between matches you can buy cates full of skins using one of three different currencies: crowns, which you pay real money for, skulls, which you earn by completing challenges and finishing games, and scrap, which you get from trading in skins you don’t want. Overall, it’s one of the better loot-box systems I’ve seen – on par with Overwatch – in terms of offering optional value without requiring it or being too in-your-face about it.
There’s a massive variety of skins, and virtually everything your character can wear or use in H1Z1 can have a skin assigned to it, including gear, weapons, and even vehicles. The great thing about this system is that two characters would have to go out of their way to look the same, and your main skin will auto-assign itself to items you find in the game world. That ATV you just hopped on? It’ll swap skins to match the one you’ve got picked in the main menu. It’s also fun to pick up the guns of players you’ve killed to check out which skins they were using. This creates an addictive reward system with an extremely satisfying crate opening scene in which you actively blast the hinges off to see what’s inside.
It’s a Mad Max-meets-Twisted Metal-style affair.
As a sideshow to the main event, H1Z1 has launched with a beta version of an excellent new mode called Auto Royale. It pits dozens of cars, each filled with a driver and up to three gunners, against one another in a Mad Max-meets-Twisted Metal-style affair that’s full of even more bombastic explosions than the traditional battle royale. Teams pick either a slow and sturdy armored truck or a faster and more maneuverable sedan to embark on a quest for total vehicular carnage. That’s not a ton of variety, but it’s enough to give Auto Royale at least a few different tactics to explore.
It’s a clever translation of battle royale mechanics into the arcade driving genre: instead of looting buildings, the driver runs over bright, glowing power-ups placed around the map, Mario Kart-style, and all of the gear gets dropped into the shared trunk. There’s also a liberal sprinkling of ramps that let you get some serious air and pull of exciting flips and rolls using a spring ability, if you want to get cocky.
There’s a lot of pressure on the driver to know the map well and adapt to the environment, keeping enemies guessing, and that’s a serious skill that can be developed as you play. I found that it’s usually better to be chasing someone, as opposed to being chased, because it’s easier to react and keep the enemy in front of you than it is to fight while trying to evade at the same time. But if you’re in the lead you get your choice of the pick-ups in front of you, including repair kits, and leave only the scraps for your pursuer. In terms of being proactive about your defenses, you can use a boost to evade them, or you can pick up landmines, which are devastating if a car drives directly over them.
If you’re not driving, then you’re a gunner. Aiming your shots is extremely difficult when in the back seat of a fast-moving vehicle, but it’s satisfying when you really light someone up and watch the car explode into a ball of fire. Auto Royale retains the same fast-paced, action-packed DNA of H1Z1 proper, but with a bit more flair and excitement due to the car-focused mayhem. The strategies are different, and it actually has a lot more variety with two different roles, more items, and a totally reworked landscape to explore.
There’s nothing else quite like Auto Royale out there at the moment and it actually has enough meat on its bones to easily stand on its own as a separate release if Daybreak ever wanted to go that route.