Population Zero: Close to Describing the Servers
The intro to Population Zero was suitably promising, showing an impressive cutscene of an alternate reality where a mysterious alien power source has changed the world as we know it. Colonists have left an Earth riven with disunity and strife to start a new life on an Alien world. The one teensy problem with this new world is that without finding access to a cryo-chamber to hibernate in after seven days (real world time), the player turns into a mindless creature called a “Void”, doomed to travel the world endlessly, mindlessly attacking anything it comes across. Bummer! Once you’ve become a void you’ve got little choice but to start from scratch on a new server.
Despite this dire premise and oppressive time limit, I started off in high spirits, expecting the game to be an exciting survivalist adventure. After completing the tutorial I found myself atop a cliff, looking out onto a majestic panorama of an alien world, seemingly teeming with possibility.
I was recording this and was really looking forward to making a video on our Youtube channel. I met the Youtuber Jessusseron. We stopped to chat for a while at a cliff-edge, enjoying the panoramic view. I mentioned our Hey Poor Player TV channel had 2.2k subs, feeling suitably self-satisfied… then he mentioned how he had over 500k! That’ll teach me a lesson for flexing! Then I suddenly noticed his health declining. I urged him to eat something as I believed he was starving to death. In a panic, I dropped some meat I’d gathered earlier in hopes he could eat it and save his life. In fact, since the meat was raw, it actually gave him food poisoning, making his health decline even faster. As I typed out profuse apologies, he decided to leap off the cliff to his death rather than face an ignoble end from food poisoning.
Sadly, I was unable to make a video out of any of this because the game is so poorly optimized at this point it murdered my CPU and corrupted the recording (and it crashed plenty as well). This is particularly a shame because this interaction was the most fun I had playing this game. Little did I know that my experience of Population Zero was about to plummet faster than Jesusseron down to his high-velocity demise.
Quite soon I started getting to grips with Population Zero’s combat, and what a deep, in-depth pugilistic system it has! You can use the right mouse button to block and the left button to start a melee attack combo. The alt key performs a dodge. That’s it! There’s no stealth attacks, ranged weapons, counterattacks, or anything that would give the pugilism more depth. Also, the combat is as clumsy and frustrating as trying to disarm a bomb in a bouncy castle on the Moon.
The roster of enemies I faced when wandering across the vast wastes clocked in at a whopping two. The blue panther-like Kvar can frequently hit you through your block making blocking seem borderline pointless. However, dodging ends up flinging your character so far from the Kvar that you can’t counterattack anyway, nor can you use it to get out of an attack animation, so it’s equally pointless. You’ll just be trading blows until the Kvar (or more likely you) die.
At first, I felt rather frustrated with how I died making my way across a large expanse to a mission objective and then was simply teleported to the town where my objective was. I felt robbed of the satisfaction of making it there by myself.
Oh my God, how foolish I was to complain about this! As I was repeatedly struck down in janky fights I realised that when I respawned, I’d lost all of my crafting supplies and some armour and weapons. Amusingly, there is a percentile chance that you’ll lose your equipment when respawning. When I respawned back in town, I had to make a barefoot, pantsless ten-minute jog back to my corpse to recover my lost stuff. This might have been funny had it happened once or twice, but jogging back to my corpse to recover my gear became a tiresome ritual I had to complete every single time I died.
There’s plenty of scope for crafting the gear you’ll need to harvest resources, weapons, armour and supplies.
In fact, cooking food is a component in the best way to actually win fights. If you’re fully fed and watered, you regenerate health at a steady pace. Your best way to win battles against the Kvar is to engage them near some kind of elevated terrain and to jump onto it when your health gets low, meaning they’ll fruitlessly slash at the rock you’re standing on, unable to hit you while you take 30 seconds or so to regenerate. Then you can hop down and finish them off. It’s not a very fun or satisfying way to win fights, but “fun” and “satisfying” are not adjectives I’d use to describe Population Zero.
It’s pretty surprising that crafting has such a long timer. Making several strands of rope from gathered plant stalks can easily take several minutes. If I thought watching a slow countdown was entertaining then I’d just pop a pizza in the microwave and watch it spin! Not only would it be more visually interesting to watch the bubbling cheese, I’d actually get the satisfaction of
What was really frustrating though was the fact that the quest to gain access to the press (which allows you to make leather for the basic armour) was broken, not allowing me to turn my items in despite having triple-checked to see they were in my inventory.
I’m normally quite a gentle, forgiving soul when it comes to early access games, but this just takes the cake. It takes the cake, the tea biscuits, the butter tarts and the bloody Worther’s originals! If P Zero’s selling point is its crafting element then why should it be released to anyone in any form when the core crafting quests are broken?
Not being able to upgrade my gear added a hefty sprinkling of salty frustration to the tedious gruel of P Zero’s core gameplay of jogging across the scenery for ten minutes to fight the same monsters over and over, frequently breaking to rest as my stamina bar made the screen flash a gray hue when it ran out. As my screen repeatedly flashed monochrome, it was like the colour and joy was draining from my very life itself.
When you’re downed in combat, you’re giving a bolded onscreen offer of “KILL YOURSELF”, which expediates your respawn if there’s no-one around to revive you. The more I played the game the more tempting this offer seemed. Maybe this was the game’s foreshadowing of what becoming a deadened, mindless void is like.
I took a break for a few days since I’d gotten an email saying the developers would be fixing things daily. I went back into the game again to see if anything had been hotfixed in the last few days before the early access release.
To my delight, I found they had fixed the crafting bug. I did a bit of grinding and crafted myself a full set of desert survival gear. After completing the first fetch quest to gather the corpses of fallen voids throughout the map, I strode boldly off to the desert to find some mineral deposits. My spirits were soon crushed once again though as I found myself fighting these tiny, lightning-quick, spiky aliens who were almost impossible to land blows on because they glitchy jumped inside the scenery before leaping out again to take half my health off in a single dash.
Even when I barely managed to stagger away, I soon started rapidly losing health because my character was overheating, despite having only been in the desert for a couple of minutes, and still wearing full desert survival gear. I tried to find “cocoons” nearby, which would allow me to at least respawn a little closer after dying, but sometimes they weren’t where they were supposed to be on the map, even when I was standing directly on top of the map marker. At this point I genuinely could not will myself to play any longer.
At one point during my preview, I mistakenly got the impression that Population Zero was considered to be in a reviewable state. Fortunately though, after making some enquiries, I got an email confirming it was not intended for review for at least another year, making me hold back on doling out what would have been my lowest score ever (even beating out Wanking Simulator and Super Seducer). I was glad to hear this, as reviewing Population Zero at this point would be as unfair as entering sickly puppy into an underground deathmatch tournament.
So all in all, by far the most fun I had playing Population Zero was accidentally making a successful Youtuber kill himself by feeding him raw meat. Other than that, this game is such a uniquely diabolical blend of pointless, tedious, unintuitive and buggy to the point that playing it any further became a terrifying prospect. I would consider trying Donald Trump’s Covid-19 cure over playing another minute of it. I was relieved to find out they are taking another year to polish Population Zero because it certainly needs it at this stage.