Dark or Light

Red's Read: Population Zero - Questionable Census

Red's Read on the recently released Population Zero

Red Thomas Posted:
Columns 0

I really enjoy survival/builder games.  Part of it is probably some nostalgia for those crazy days when Minecraft was the only show and town and was so amazingly different that even in its simplicity, the game was brilliant.   Years later and with a growing list of games formed in the same image, developers are having to be more on point to compete for the survival crowd.

Luckily, a lot of them are doing it.  Every year or two we get a new survival game that sets the bar just a little higher for the genre.  The question before us today is whether Population Zero continues that trend or falls shy of the mark.   The short of it is that they’re not quite there yet, but you know me.   I don’t dwell on the negative, so there won’t be a lot of flame in today’s figurative fire-spitting.

Don’t let that turn you off either way, though.   I will go into a few of the issues I’ve noted with the game, because context is important.  I’ll also be talking, as usual, about the things that I do like about the game, and even offering some roadmap thoughts for the future of the project.  You need to know about the problems, but there are some good things to be found in Population Zero that might make it worth adding to your own catalog of available games.

Shaky Start

There’s no doubt that Population Zero kicked off with one foot behind the other and into a full-on face-plant as they rolled into their Early Access on Steam.  The words “total” and “cluster” were among the few that floated through my mind as I made my initial choice to take a look at the project a few weeks ago.

Something went very wrong and getting into the website the first day I tried really made me frustrated.

I’d tried the game during the Alpha events but walked away due to it just not being all that complete, as well as lag being a monster issue for me at the time.  Some of the initial bones of the game existed, but until more lately, not even enough of those were there to really get a sense of direction for the project.  Though, the more recent events revealed more of the design choices behind the game and gave me hope leading up to release or whatever they decided to call it.

I’d pre-ordered, so I should have had a copy of the Early Access client, but when I went to the webpage to download it, I couldn’t get logged in.  Between translating from Russian to ensure I was trying to login using the correct web forms and the login just not working, I started to give up.  I spent a lot of time bouncing between the forums (which I also couldn’t log into) and the main page trying to just get to my account.

Eventually, I was able to login from the main page, which didn’t help my confusion much.  I didn’t see anything under my account that would let me download the new client. I also didn’t see anything from googling that would point me in the correct direction, nor did I have any emails with directions on how to convert my pre-order to a Steam key.

Probably the worst of it was when I logged into Discord to find that my account appeared to have been reset.  I no longer saw the extra channels I’d seen in Alpha and not all of those are the sort I’d have expected to be deleted, so it was clearly my account that was the problem.  I was a little worried that I had a bigger issue at this point.

Then, I got ahold of one of the developers in Discord and was directed to a Facebook post with instructions on what to do.  I followed the instructions, got my Steam key, and now I’m cooking.  The obvious concern is the ridiculous amount of searching I had to do to never actually find the answer to my question.

There were so many mistakes in that initial situation that I nearly just walked away from the game entirely.  Not getting an email from the devs on the change and with instructions was a problem.  Changing the account system without allowing the users a path to get from their old accounts to the new one is another problem.  Breaking communication systems like the forums and Discord and blocking normal avenues of self-support is a totally unnecessary problem.

Once in the game, the tutorial does a decent job if introducing the most basic concepts in the game.

Confused at First

Once through that initial slog, I got into the game and was immediately confused.  For one, the options are just terrible.  They’re incredibly basic and have no way to tailor the visual experience past a simple slider to choose a range of graphic options up to “ultra.”  Things didn’t get better as I started a game and got to a screen that looked like a character generation screen, except nothing made sense.  The only thing I could really pick was gender, and what looked like options down below couldn’t be selected.

I now know that there’s an account level and what I thought were options are actually unlocks you get access to as your account levels up.  I don’t mind the lack of options, but the lack of tooltips or anything on the screen at all to explain what you’re looking at is really frustrating.

I did like the idea of the tech tree and how it worked, especially after finding out about the other races in the game.

Once in the game, the tutorial wasn’t too bad.  It didn’t explain much beyond the very basic functionality, which should have a tutorial even though most players wouldn’t actually ever need it.  Once you get to the main hub where you pick up your first quests, the game starts to get better.  I think the post-tutorial missions were decent about introducing you to new concepts and walking you through it, but there were also a few gaps.

For instance, you can’t get access to some of the crafting stations until you do a quest to repair them.  The mission involves acquiring several materials, and some of those materials you’ve yet to see.  Unlike the storyline quests, these don’t give you a place on the map to find what you need.

I both like and don’t like that because I don’t like the modern trend of placing a marker precisely where you go for each question.  The flip side is that I do like getting a general direction to go, such-and-such resource can be found in that given biome, for example.  I like those general directions that still leave exploring up to me, but then not having a map that’ll tell me generally which direction to travel in which to find that biome is really frustrating.  I spent a lot of time exploring what turned out to be the edge of the map, because I thought the tundra I was looking for might be up above the ridge.

Other mechanics aren’t really explained at all, such as the void infection you build up over time by dying.  I could see the meter filling up as I died, but I didn’t know what it meant.  I eventually triggered a mission that explained what I’d already observed and additionally noted that the same would happen at night if I wasn’t safe in the hub but revealed little more about the mechanic.

Back to Red-Mode

The shame of it is that the infection system is emblematic of exactly how I feel about this game.  I was frustrated because I didn’t understand it and couldn’t really find much in the game to explain what it was or how it worked.  Once I looked into the mechanic outside the game, I found out that this is something I really wanted to know more about, though.

Void is effectively a new race or faction in the game, and it’s sort of a transitional race.  Once you become a Void, you then get a new mission and how you complete it will determine whether you turn into Technocrat or Xenobiote.  You can also choose to remain Void, which is an option as well.

Neat ideas like the Perk system need to be explored and explained a little better but do hint at some interesting future complexity for the game.

Suddenly, the choiceless character creation makes sense because the character evolves in the game based on player choices.  Each of the races has their own individuality with specific restrictions, advantages, and accessible technology.  That’s a really cool idea and I don’t know if I’ve seen a game that allowed players to evolve into a given race before.  I’m sure it probably exists somewhere, but the concept is new to me and I really dig new ideas.

I also think the technology system is pretty cool.  It’s a fairly sizable tech tree and some of the techs are locked behind a requirement for a specific level of science in Botany, Geology, Geodesy, or Zoology.  It feels a little under-explored right now because you get most of these points at a fairly obvious rate while exploring the world and finding new animals.   It’s all awarded for new stuff, but I’d rather see it changed so that you needed more of the points but could acquire them by doing some task.  Thus, the way a player played would further define the growth of the character.  Still, it’s a cool system amid other cool ideas and that’s what makes the game worth writing about.

The action-combat system is also interesting, and I believe to be a solid initial step.  Animations are a little rough and don’t quite match with the damage being dealt.  It could be a combination of hitboxes and lag issues, but I never really felt like the animations of either my character or the mob matched the health exchanged at any given time.  That said, I do like that the system is more involved than just clicking buttons for specific attacks.  Weapons feel like they have distinctive styles that are better suited for specific mobs, and the various types of attacks add further dimension to the game.  It does need a little work, but it’s a generally solid step in a really good direction.

I also found that the visual style was a smart decision because it’s forgiving enough to allow the developers to focus resources on game systems, which will be more critical to the project’s success.  While the slightly cartoony look to the game is fairly forgiving with respect to shading and light, the chosen color palette makes for some very pretty views in the game.  It was an intelligent design choice to go for stimulating color and cut back on the work needed for more complex graphics.  I think it’s well done and it feels like an intentional choice and not like a skill gap on the team, as it could have easily come across if done poorly.

Sound-wise, it’s a bit of a mixed bag again.   I don’t know that any of the sound effects or environmental effects stood out to me as being fantastic, and was rather barren if I’m being honest.  The game also doesn’t seem to have a finished soundtrack.  I’m pretty sure I’ve only been hearing the same track over and over.  That said, I do like that track a lot and if it’s indicative of the rest of the score, I think we have something else to which we can look forward.

There are several biomes, but I think they can do a little more to establish differences in those biomes and make them feel more unique.  More ways than just killing you through radiation, heatstroke, or frostbite, that is…

Final Read

I can’t really put the developers on blast for their initial problems moving into Early Access.  Mistakes were made, some of them big, and the leadership on the team needs to be called on the carpet for some pretty serious strategic mistakes.  It doesn’t kill the game for me, though.   In part because it hasn’t been that long since I spent weeks trying to get Red Dead Redemption 2 to even launch, much less connect and be playable, and that project had way better funding and access to a much larger team.

Based on other survival titles in the survival space, I think the Early Access is probably about on par.  There are some that have been better, some worse, and plenty about the same.  My read on titles at this stage of development usually centers more on the ideas and the rough execution of those ideas, which I think lends a lot of hope for Population Zero.

If they stay course by expanding on the current experience, cleaning up the UI and tooltips, refining the advancement system a bit more, and improve just a bit more on content, they could have a very solid game.  There is a lot that I like in the general idea of the game, the setting, and several design choices, and together these are things that really make this a title that I’ll be interested in following.

The real question is whether I’d recommend purchasing it or not, and that’s a mixed bag.  As always, your mileage will vary, and everyone has to make their own choices.  If you’re like me and enjoy works in progress, you may find this worth picking up.  There are a couple other games over the past decade that I watched from roughly the same state and both still get some of my time on occasion.  I see hints of a really solid game here, so I’ll be keeping an eye on Population Zero.

On the other hand, if you want a finished experience, this probably isn’t the game for you.  It’s a little buggy and definitely does not have that established patina to it yet.   Give it a bit of time and see how it shakes out before you buy.  I don’t think it’s as bad as some others have suggested, but there are some issues that need to be resolved before Population Zero is really ready for primetime.  Then, that’s also the way in which Early Access is intended to be used.

In the meantime, I’ll be following Population Zero and when the game approaches a more commercially finished state, you can expect a follow-up article.   It’s also possible you may see a few even sooner, because there are several aspects of the game as it exists right now that I’ve yet to really experience.  If you happen to be a fellow glutton for Early Access punishment, I’ll see you in game!


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.