"I think me and survival games have some unfinished business," Dean Hall told me as we looked over the truly terrible, ramshackle wood hut I'd just built. We were standing beside a pristine river running through a forested valley, ringed by mountains cutting across a cloudless blue sky. This is the planet Icarus in the upcoming survival game of the same name from Hall's studio, Rocketwerkz, although it looks more like Yosemite National Park than an alien world.
Rocketwerkz recently gave GameSpot a chance to play about an hour of an early build of Icarus with Hall, the creator of DayZ. He showed off a bunch of the game's elements, including its tech tree, building capabilities, wildlife, and weather systems.
"I think there is an innate human understanding of the need to survive, and I think that that's a fascinating and under-looked-at area," Hall continued, explaining what keeps drawing him back to the survival genre. "I also think that a lot of people haven't taken it seriously because they haven't had the resources, and this is a real serious attempt--a long-term attempt to have an ability to build a survival platform where we can introduce different experiences while still linking you with this broad progression."
The idea that Icarus could be a survival platform as much as a survival game is possibly the most fascinating thing about the project. Rocketwerkz's approach to Icarus is based on game sessions, taking a page from games like Escape from Tarkov or Fortnite, rather than putting you in a persistent world where you work to survive endlessly. In Icarus, you play as a prospector who's traveled to a new world from Earth, where special materials called "exotics" have been discovered. They're exceedingly valuable, but the planet itself is hostile; Earth scientists attempted to terraform it to be just like their home planet, but the exotics caused the terraforming to fail. Your job is to drop from an orbital station onto the planet for set missions, in hopes of gathering the resources that might make you rich--but if you don't make it back to your drop pod in time to leave, you'll be left behind, which means certain doom.
Missions drop you in for variable lengths of time--anywhere from less than an hour to days, tracked by an in-game mission clock--and you're stuck using whatever you can on the planet to survive until it's time to go. Since you're playing these mission sessions, things in Icarus aren't persistent for the most part. But that mission-based structure allows Rocketwerkz to solve a lot of the problems Hall says he first saw in the survival genre when he helped popularize it with the Arma II DayZ mod, and has continued to see since he left developer Bohemia Interactive in 2014 while the studio was developing the standalone version of DayZ.
"A lot of survival games, including DayZ, really struggle with scale," Hall explained. "So you're building all this awesome stuff...you build a big castle, and the castle starts to lag, and you end up with all these problems with survival, both technical in terms of performance. But in addition, the game starts to break itself, because the only way back from that is to destroy the player's structure, but that's a very negative thing. So what we do with Icarus is we say, 'Okay, we're giving you this goal. Go do these things.' You need to build some infrastructure to support that goal, and that means that every time you play a session you're getting new reasons to build new buildings. You don't have to invent them, you don't have to be like, 'I'm going to build the most awesome looking thing here so that it gets on GameSpot, or PC Gamer,' or whatever. You actually have real important reasons to build different kinds of structures to support your operation, particularly as you advance as a character."
The session-based nature of the game gives Rocketwerkz opportunities to control Icarus and build its particular experience. Our hands-on time put us in a valley that Hall said was eight kilometers square, where every single tree could be cut down, every rock could be mined and broken apart, and every bush could be harvested. Some elements are procedural in a drop, Hall said, such as whether certain locations like caves are accessible or not, but the rest of the map is hand-created.
In practice, Icarus is pretty similar to other survival games, and in particular feels a bit like a first-person take on something like Valheim, but in space (Hall said he even feels like Valheim is a "cousin" to Icarus, with both games addressing similar survival experiences). As a prospector, you exhausted most of your resources just getting to Icarus, so every time you drop to the planet, you're scrounging whatever you can to keep yourself alive. Just about everything you do, from cutting down trees to harvesting minerals that help you keep your spacesuit oxygenated, earns you experience points, which allow you to progress up Icarus's tech tree and unlock the ability to craft more and more stuff.
Your focus is on keeping yourself fed, hydrated, breathing, and sheltered, like in most survival games, but you don't have to worry as much about dying--at least, not right away. Cooperative players can revive you, but even alone, my experience was that getting taken out by an animal only resulted in a short period of being rendered unconscious. The real failure state in Icarus is being left on the planet when your mission timer runs out. If that happens, you lose your character--along with any skills you've unlocked for them, anything they've built or brought down from orbit with them, and everything they've learned. Things you left in orbit and the "planetary" tech tree you advance by playing survive, but if your character gets left on Icarus, it's like you're starting over as a different person--and that person has to learn everything your previous prospector already knew.
The biome we wandered around was the Earth-like forest, which was home to raccoons, deer, wolves, and bears deposited by terraformers. Armed with only a bow, Hall and I fought off a few animals as we talked. Later, a powerful storm swept in, pelting the buildings and bridges the developers had created ahead of our session with rain and wind. The extreme weather tore off chunks of the buildings and knocked down trees, and Hall said lightning strikes could even lead to forest fires. This, he said a few times, is Icarus's safest biome.
Hall said Rocketwerkz really wanted to emphasize the sense that it's you--and, potentially, your friends--against the planet. Icarus, like Valheim, puts a lot of emphasis on cooperation, and while it's possible to smash buildings with trees and wreak other destruction, at least right now, it's all about working together.
"The cooperative side of survival has been massively neglected," Hall said. "We just really wanted to ramp up the drama of the world. Storms, and fires, and there's so much challenge, and just exploring, and just surviving."
That doesn't mean Icarus has to be wholly cooperative, though, Hall said.
"There's nothing stopping us having game session modes that aren't as cooperative," he said. "That's a huge advantage of sessionizing this experience."
The same is true about the possibility of more persistent drops, where players might create lasting structures. Hall said Rocketwerkz is working closely with a group of early Icarus players to determine what they might want or need out of the game. Because of the sessionized approach, Icarus can deliver a variety of experiences, he explained.
While individual drops will be divided into sessions, it sounds like Rocketwerkz's overall view of the game is taking a similar approach, with Icarus releasing chapters over time. Hall explained three of those chapters. Chapter 1 is called "First Cohort," sending you into the forest biome as one of the first prospectors. Later chapters can open up additional biomes and send you to other locations.
"The second [chapter] is New Frontiers, which is where they start opening up some of the more dangerous, more alien prospects," Hall said. "This was a failed terraforming experiment, and it failed because of these exotics reacting with the enzymes they released. And so the next phase starts to open up to the areas that didn't get properly terraformed, and finally we end up in Dangerous Horizons, where you'll face... well, let's just say some pretty fearsome creatures and pretty insane challenges."
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That sort of episodic approach also gives Rocketwerkz a chance to do something that might be unique among survival games: develop its story. Already, the studio has laid some of the groundwork for what the tale of Icarus might be with an eight-minute documentary style video. It catches up with a group of First Cohort prospectors some 20 years after their time on Icarus, and while it explains what the game is like and what players will face, it also crafts a tale of how Icarus was explored and some of the intrigue about what might be going on there.
"We have an incredible concept team, an incredible team in our world-building and our lore-building, with an insane amount of experience," Hall said. "That's been a big focus, not only to craft really interesting survival mechanics, but have you actually explore a world. And sessionizing the survival gameplay makes that a lot more straightforward for us to do, because we can give you all these new scenarios to do without breaking your world while still giving you that player story progression through your character that builds between it, and binds them like mortar binding bricks. So absolutely, there is a whole universe. And I think when you watch the in-universe documentary, it will leave no doubt in your mind that we have some pretty aggressive and ambitious plans for storytelling."
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