Written by Alex Mickle | Edited by John Gerritzen

Population Zero is a game that tried to do so many things, and in the process forgot to do any of them correctly. This title is a desolate landscape in both intentional design of the alien planet Kepler, but also unintentionally in a player base that has abandoned it so soon. Although an early access release creates the expectation that a game will be unpolished, it is clear that Population Zero was worse than many were led to believe.

A Letdown Far, Far Away

You have to respect a game with ambition, which is surely the case with Population Zero, the recent early access release from the Developer/Publisher Enplex Games. After three years of development, and a seemingly endless string of promotional materials, May 5th came, and with it the ability for players to begin their journey on Kepler, an alien world. The development team painted a beautiful and haunting landscape of man’s desperate struggle for survival in a world decidedly not their own and invited people to join this struggle in a title pitched as a hybrid MMO/Survival title that would change how we thought of both going forward. Unfortunately, ambition can be a crippling thing, as many developers have found out over the years, and that ambition often causes titles to miss the basic features that make games great. This appears to be the case with Population Zero, if hundreds of thousands of users who have experienced it are to be trusted.

Distant Landscapes

Let’s start with the good that the title brought us: aesthetic design. The world created by the Enplex art team is stunning, and whoever had creative control here looks to have a very bright future in all things game design. The promotional art displayed on the website and Steam store pages shows a minimalist design style that is full of eye-popping color,contrasted with massive alien beasts. It highlights what was clearly in the minds of the development team at the core of this project, and does so very well. The cinematic shorts that tell the brief story behind the title are crisp and very high quality, whisking the viewer into the same world that they grew accustomed to in the art, and within the developers own small updates over time. These elements, in addition to a video diary from the developer showing the progression of the game engine over the last three years, helped grow the hype on this game to monumental proportions and encouraged many to become early supporters of the title through ‘Founders’ packages. Undoubtedly, these aesthetics did their part on this title, but where this stunning art design succeeded, almost all other elements of design failed.

A Tangled Yarn

Upon launching the game, you begin in a cave with a few items in your inventory that have little description but are meant to aid you in your fledgling journey for survival. You have just been notified via a two minute intro video that you are on an alien planet and you must find a way to build and fight for your survival within a seven day in-game period. You are in this predicament because man bungled their use of the same alien technology that got them to Kepler and are paying the price for it by being stuck there. This is the most lore that you are going to get from Population Zero, so even though it seems somewhat nonsensical, it is the foundation the developers decided on and it really sets the tone for the rest of the experience.

After wrapping your head around this ethereal lore for a few seconds, the title takes you through a rather rudimentary tutorial cave that teaches you to gather, build, fill up your water skin, and fight, before loading you into the world of Kepler and the massive world that you will be sharing with all of the other people struggling for survival. If you are lucky, you will make it to the starting location outside of the tutorial cave with relative ease to accept your first quest. If you are like me however, and countless others, you will freeze an innumerable number of times, leading to a cycle of restarting your computer to end the program, lowering the graphical settings to the lowest settings (which strangely didn’t seem to change anything at all in terms of visual aesthetics), and then ultimately stop playing until a patch released two days later.

A Single Step

Once at the hub (starting location), you can accept the first of many fetch quests that take you across the entire map. This early quest system is similar to many MMO’s, so veterans of the genre will not be caught off guard, especially as this is how many early game items are granted, and a skill progression tree is introduced. The quests quickly take you far across the map into different biomes that range from basic and require no additional armor, to snow, and desert, which require you to learn to craft items to prevent hypothermia or heatstroke. Although you level quickly, allowing you to learn how to create the items to survive in these biomes, it seems that the materials to craft the armor for survival are often in the regions where the armor is already needed.

Within this progression tree, there is a building mechanic that could, in theory, save you from the aforementioned issues within the map, but it is so basic that even the upper level crafting mechanisms can’t be built on your own and you must use the benches in the hub to craft anything of importance. Additionally, you must reach level 9, out of 10, to be able to build the third tier of basic walls and foundations. If you want to build, finding materials is tough and they seem to be just about as sparse as anything else you look for. Although the mechanic exists in the title, the real question is why. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason to build anything at all. It will not save you from the running to and from the hub, and it feels as though it was included because most good survival games have a building mechanic, so it was thrown in.

Tooth and Nail

In addition to running all over the map to try to find ways to craft things to run all over the map more successfully and complete missions, you get the luxury of fighting a wide range of monsters that are unique to Kepler; by wide range, I mean to say seven different monsters, and their biome variant. From the moment you leave the hub you will meet these monsters and must work with the combat system in Population Zero, which is a nightmare. You have a simple string combo system that is clunky and has laughable hitbox recognition from the enemies you fight. Enemies are incredibly powerful early on, and you end up leaving most early fights with 50% of your health gone. Health regens when your food and water meter are full, and seemingly only completely full, which is functionally impossible to maintain at any given time because hunger and thirst are a decay system. This creates a counterintuitive model that means you are usually running away from any fight instead of engaging. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that it takes a LOT of resources to make any medical items, and usually the trip to gather these resources takes more health than you stand to gain after creating them.

PVP combat is even worse, as whoever gets the first hit off usually wins the battle, unless the losing party has a medkit hotkeyed and then it's just a matter of who can dash, dash, hit first and then spam attacks till the other is overwhelmed.

Waiting Game

When you find yourself adequately equipped from an armor, food, water, and weapon standpoint to actually begin collecting the quest items requested without simply running as fast as you can past everything to survive, which I would recommend regardless of equipment anyway, you will run into the next challenge Kepler has to offer: item spawn times. Spawn timers make sense to some degree in some games, especially large scale MMO’s, to prevent players from exploiting the system to bend the game to their will. In Population Zero they do not. It almost feels like the reasons the spawn timers exist is because there is a limited supply of the fetch quest item in one biome, and just enough to complete the quest in the other biomes when running across the map to them. This gives the impression that quest item locations are meant to imply that there is more to this game than there actually is, artificially inflating playtime.

Coupled with a skill tree that is unbelievably linear in modern gaming, and quick math showing that you can exploit the quest system to earn XP on PVP servers to level up faster than what would ever be possible following the traditional storyline, Population Zero very quickly loses its luster. One of the hallmarks of a true MMO game is the ability or spell system that allows users to create ‘builds’ that match their desired gameplay style. Common archetypes people might be familiar with are the Tank, DPS, Healer, etc. roles. These systems do not exist in this game, which is unfortunate, because it limits not only the time a player would spend on the title overall, but also the personal attachment that they would feel with a character they spent time and energy customizing to their own specification. There is no variation in combat, no satisfying skill unlock tree, no builds, and certainly no elements of customization. Generally there doesn’t seem to be anything happening correctly in this game at all.

Server Population: Zero

If there was ever a sure sign that a game, especially an MMO, was not where it needed to be at launch, the desolation in player activity should be the surest sign of all. There is not a bustling of activity within the hub with people looking to team up or trade items, there are just cardboard NPCs that offer little to no conversation.

There is a lot to dislike about Population Zero, but the one shining beacon of hope in the development of the title is the world. It is smaller than it should be, and frustrating in the way that you traverse it, but it is unique and beautiful in its own way. Much like the art style that got people interested, there is a clear vision behind the way it was built. If the team takes cues from the artistic direction and puts emphasis on building out the skill tree, creating a diverse world of storytelling through the NPC’s, and fixes the combat system to function in a way that is even remotely enjoyable, then there may be a chance for redemption. This may still be possible, as the developers seem very receptive to critical feedback, and have created a roadmap for fixing many of the reported issues. This is a benefit of an early access release, and players will more than likely give the developer the benefit of the doubt, as long as active change is present.


The Verdict: Bad

As of now, in an almost poetic way, Population Zero nearly aligns with its namesake, as it has little to no population of people willing to play it in its current form.

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