Battle royale games have evolved rapidly in the past year with the likes of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite, but H1Z1's early access version captured the magic of the last-person-standing shooter well before the genre's current front-runners. With the official full release of H1Z1, however, it's apparent that not enough has been done to help it stay in the larger conversation.
H1Z1 drops up to 150 players (solo, duos, or squads of five) on a sprawling rural map where small towns, gas stations, and campsites act as points of interest for loot. In traditional battle royale style, everyone starts with only the clothes on their backs and rushes to find the best weapons and gear. Naturally, the fact that you have one life per match makes this type of deathmatch thrilling and rewarding when you find success, especially when coordinating tactics with a squad.
A number of gameplay elements factor into succeeding, like scavenging for the right materials to craft useful items. Among the essential items to craft are makeshift armor for much needed protection, ointment to stop bleeding, and explosive arrows that can really throw a curve-ball at enemy squads. Crafting feels more like a carry-over mechanic from early H1Z1 models, but it's a key component to winning, and thankfully it isn't very deep considering the fast pace of matches.
There isn't much time between each phase of the shrinking safe zone, and matches move quickly because of it. When employing the strategy of skirting along border of the deadly circle, there's a strong sense of urgency; if you don't find a vehicle or start running towards the new safe zone soon enough, your fate may have been decided well before the toxic gas envelops you. H1Z1 does incorporate a significant amount of predictability, which offers a different dynamic for players who want to jump straight into conflict. During the pre-match warm-up phase, you choose which grid of the map you want to drop in to start--this is called tactical deployment. A heat-map will also provide a general indication of how many others are planning to drop into each grid. Combine those elements with the fact that H1Z1 unveils the first safe zone in the pre-match phase, and you can essentially choose something that's more action oriented.
The fast-and-loose rules of H1Z1 shine through when you're shotgunned by an enemy that hopped out of a jeep going 100 miles-per-hour, made possible by the fact that you don't take damage when jumping out of fast-moving vehicles. Pulling off combat maneuvers like this are actually quite rewarding when you use them strategically. But by leaning into more outlandish action and a faster pace highlights a sort of dissonance in H1Z1, primarily because it retains the survival and simulation elements from its progenitors. Aside from crafting, players have to manage continuous health loss (with varying degrees of severity) after taking damage. This is complicated by the fact that first aid kits only replenish health gradually. Assault rifles also fire with such significant recoil that you'd think H1Z1 taps into realism or military sim roots. These mechanics aren't necessarily bad on their own, but they are at odds with the core of how the game is played.
A lack of variety also hurts H1Z1's longevity. One map would have been just fine if it wasn't for the emptiness of the fields between the plainly designed city centers. A few locations, like Runamok Lake's cabins and camping grounds, add some flavor, but overall you can expect little in terms of verticality or intricate structure layouts. This extends to the available arsenal; a shotgun, magnum, and two assault rifles are useful in the proper scenarios. Crossbows with exploding arrows come in handy although they aren't practical given that the arrows need to be crafted. A sniper rifle provides a long-range option, however, it's only available through randomized supply drops. There are no attachments or scopes to change up the limited set of firearms, and the excitement of putting a good weapon to use is hard to come by. Going into a first-person view on the fly allows you to use iron sights to get better shots in tight corridors, but there isn't much to use for long-range combat. It's an absence of parity in weaponry that's very apparent when battling it out in the map's open areas. Firefights still carry the intensity you'd expect from battle royale game, but lose some of steam when the available arsenal limits the depth of enemy engagement.
To shift gears from the standard last-person-standing concept, H1Z1 has a separate mode called Auto Royale. The mode itself is in beta, but it serves as an admirable change of pace. This team-based car combat pits 30 teams of four against each other by putting one player in the driver's seat and three others as passengers who shoot from their seats in an effort to destroy enemy cars. No one can leave the car, and it's absolute chaos. The battle royale structure is still in tact with a progressively shrinking safe zone, but teams sink or swim as one unit. Players can revive themselves if they get knocked out, so teams are eliminated once the vehicle is destroyed. This mode trades uneasy tension for carefree off-roading action.
Akin to Twisted Metal or Mario Kart's Battle Mode, item pickups litter the map, including weapons and ammo for teammates, diversions like smoke screens and oil slicks, or car repair kits to help stay in the fight. Ramps are also tacked onto the map for high-flying stunts in the middle of high-speed chases. Auto Royale is as absurd as it is fun, albeit only enjoyable in short bursts.
By nature of being free-to-play, H1Z1 unsurprisingly features microtransactions, which are thankfully limited to cosmetic items. Colorful skins for everything from vehicles and parachutes to guns and helmets leave a lot of room for customization. You're allowed to trade items with other players as well, so if there's a skin you really want, you don't have to rely entirely on the loot box system. Timed challenges give you something to work towards and serve as a means to acquire in-game currency, though there is a separate paid-for currency available.
H1Z1 predicates itself on eliminating the more random factors seen in other battle royale games, and it remains a competent execution of the genre. The game has its intense moments and exhilarating firefights; the thrill of besting 100+ players is very much present. However, the incoherent gameplay elements overshadow the better moments, and the lack of variety in both map design and weapon selection makes H1Z1 lose its appeal rather quick, especially in the genre it spearheaded.