I have always been intrigued by the concept of open-world survival games but have also been intimidated by the learning curve. The idea of grinding and surviving only to lose all of your progress due to making a mistake makes it difficult to invest myself in the genre. However, when I heard about Enplex Games’ survival game Population Zero and how it is meant for players of all skill levels and playstyles, I was eager to check it out. I got the chance to take an early look before its early access release, and what I found was a conceptually interesting game that had a lot of complexities and nuances that were unfortunately bogged down by an overall lack of polish.
Population Zero has a sci-fi setting, with the premise being that you were on a spacecraft that crashes. This event left you and other human passengers on an unknown planet. You are then left to explore an unknown frontier, gather resources, and build up a colony. It was refreshing to see a survival game set in a 70s inspired science fiction setting, and I found it really helped add to the concept of surviving the unknown since literally, everything in the environment was foreign to me. Having to learn what different materials looked like and where to gather them helped with the immersion.
Population Zero features a PVE mode, which is meant to give you the layout of the world, the mechanics, and teach survival skills. Each new campaign gives you seven days to progress the story and develop your character. Over the course of the seven days, you will complete quests and objectives that will offer you skill points that allow you to go down a trait tree and unlock new recipes for crafting.
Additionally, you will unlock perks that can be slotted to improve aspects of the character, such as greater combat damage, resource gathering proficiency, and hunger-reduction. There are a limited number of slots available for perks that allow you to keep them even after death, but a majority of the slots for perks will be lost if you die. This adds a roguelite feel to the game and makes it a bit easier for newer players since you won’t lose all of your progress.
The PVE mode also includes other people who can help by trading resources, fighting enemies as a group, and sharing information on what you’ve discovered. I found this added a lot to my experience as we were all asking questions and helping one another survive this mysterious planet. Learning and exploring alongside other players gave me a sense of camaraderie and made it feel more immersive as it reflected the spirit of the setting.
However, there are some quality-of-life elements that I would like to see added to make this portion of the game even better. Chatting with other players is difficult due to there only being a single chat feed. You can’t really tell who is talking or where that person is on the map, which makes teaming up and playing with other people difficult. There’s also the absence of a party system, and only one person can pick up loot from a defeated enemy.
PVP in Population Zero is a separate game mode and one that is geared towards veteran survivors. I didn’t get to check this mode out, but from what I understand, it shares a lot of the aspects of PVE, with the significant difference being that you only have one life and will lose everything upon death. However, one thing the game does differently in PVP is that dying increases your mutation level, which will eventually turn you into a monster called a Void. Turning into a void gives you a major power buff, and you can go around getting revenge on the people who killed you. I think this is a neat addition to the genre as it gives a bit of a positive side to dying.
Interestingly, playing Population Zero gives your overall account experience. Leveling up your account unlocks new game modes and game mechanics for you to try out. While I didn’t progress far enough to unlock any of these features, I think the concept is cool since it means no matter what, you are progressing in some shape or form just by playing.
It is worth mentioning that since Population Zero is in early access and is still under development, it definitely feels rough around the edges. There are some bugs, glitches, and wonky animations that may hinder your overall experience. The main issue I had was with the combat, which involves dashing, dodging, blocking, and hitting enemies with weak and strong attacks. There’s a stamina bar here that gets consumed with every action you take, and once you drop to zero, you need to pause until you gradually regain it, which worked out fine. However, the animations of the characters made it difficult to understand hitboxes and ranges. It made combat feel tedious and unsatisfying, and I hope that it gets tightened up in the final release because it is a major part of the game.
Population Zero still needs some work done; the content offered in the early access build made me very interested in seeing where this game goes. There is a myriad of features and mechanics to explore, and it amounts to a lot of potential. I will be following the development of Population Zero to see where it goes. Still, from what I have already seen, I like the general direction of the unique survival sci-fi adventure.
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