Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Once Human - Closed Beta - First Impressions

A lot better than I was expecting.

Will that do? 

Can I get back to playing it now?

No, I guess not.


Okay then. Let's begin at the beginning, which just happens to be where the very few things I didn't like occurred. 

It wasn't the easiest of onboards. The download went by quickly, all 36GB or so of it, which isn't that big for a game of this kind, but then it kept patching and checking and repatching until eventually my whole PC froze and I had to reboot. 

Second time went a lot better. I pressed "Play" but of course I didn't have an account yet so I had to make one and that didn't go any too smoothly, either. 

You can use Google or Facebook or Discord or you can go to the website and make a dedicated account just for the game. I picked Google and naturally the process balked at having to use Firefox, which seems to be par for the course these days. I don't know how much longer I can carry on without cracking and going to Chrome.

Eventually I persuaded the three of them (Mozilla, Google and NetEase) to talk to each other and I was in. In to Server Select, that is. 

There was a list of servers that scrolled off the bottom of the screen. The main difference between them appeared to be what stage of the current Season they were enjoying. There were a couple of Preferred servers at the top but the preference was clearly due to their having just started the Season not, as it usually is with these things, how many people were playing there. 

All the servers were either Medium or Low but then again, it would have been the middle of the night in the USA. Every server was on the West Coast. I checked all of them, hoping there'd be some on the East, where I always get good ping or, failing that, Europe. No dice. West Coast or nothing.

The indicator wobbled between a single bar and a red cross, which presumably meant no connection at all. I was less than optimistic about the prospects but having no choice other than not to play at all, I picked a server at random and logged in.

And that's when it all went right. From then until I logged out a few minutes ago it was a smooth (For beta) and extremely enjoyable experience. I had a great time. If I didn't need to get a post out, I'd still be playing now.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail because all I've seen so far is Character Creation, a bunch of cut scenes and the instanced Tutorials. I'm now in the gameworld proper but only just beginning what appears to be yet another Tutorial, this one on gameplay, which I'm guessing will go on for a good, long time.

Let's begin with Character Creation. It's excellent. One of the best I've seen anywhere - with the caveat that it's one of those Character Creation suites that's so detailed it might as well be a game in itself. Obviously, you could just click through in a few seconds and take whatever it gives you but you'd have to be a lot better at resisting temptation than I am.

I didn't start out with any particular appearance in mind but as the possibilities began to make themselves known I thought about the premise and setting of the game and decided to go for a character who looked as though she'd Seen Some Shit. 

The final result is at the top of the post. She's still young and reasonably good-looking but compared with the unmodified version immediately above, I think you could say she's been through a life experience or two. That said, even the original looks more shop-worn than the average video game character. It's almost as though someone thought about the setting.

The number of sliders and options is enormous but for a change I didn't find the amount of choice overwhelming, mostly because it was very easy to see the immediate effect of pretty much all of them (And I did try damn near everything.) I'm used to sliding toggles up and down and staring at the screen trying to figure out what's supposed to have changed. Not so here.

I was very happy with the character I'd made, which always gives any game a much better chance of getting on my good side. I also got the second name I tried, another good omen. Consequently I went into the game itself feeling a connection with my character, something that built nicely during the really rather good introductory sequence.

I'd say there are just about the right number of cut-scenes but if you want to skip them the option's right there on the screen, which is thoughtful. I watched them all. The story is well-worn but also well done. The on-screen text and voice-overs both are in perfect English; not the least hint of a translation although the occasional appearance of a tool-tip still in Chinese suggests there must have been one.

The voice acting is as I prefer it; underplayed and unexaggerated. Particularly for a bleak scenario like this one, that seems hugely preferable to the sort of histrionics and badly-accented pastiche we too often have to endure. 

About the only thing I didn't entirely warm to was the voice of my own character. Absolutely nothing wrong with the voice acting - it just didn't sound quite how I'd imagined my character would speak. It did make me wonder if I'd missed an option in Character Creation to choose a voice. I might have to make another character and check.

From Character Creation you go straight into a cut-scene and then into one of those typical Escape Room scenarios so beloved by game designers. In this case I found it worked well and it was welcome for me to have a calm, contained space to work within since, as I've said repeatedly, shooters are not my preferred genre. 

In the case of Once Human, though, I'm not sure "shooter" is really appropriate. The only weapon you get at the beginning is a knife and even though you find several other weapons before you leave the Tutorial instance, you can get by perfectly well with the knife and a monkey-wrench.

I did experiment with other weapons all the same. A couple of handguns were very straightforward to use but the one I really liked was a suitcase. Or it might have been the head of a creature I killed. Not sure. Whatever it was, it floated by my shoulder, gripped by my telekinetic hand, firing bolts of energy every time I pressed LMB.

If that all sounds positively surreal, that's the vibe they're going for, I think. They repeatedly use the term "New Weird", which I confess wasn't something I'd heard before but I googled it and it seems it's an established literary sub-genre. Well, sufficiently established to have a Wikipedia page, at least. 

Somewhat embarrassingly for me, the term seems to have been coined by one of my favorite authors, M. John Harrison. Given that and the fact that I'm a bookseller by trade, you'd think I'd have heard of it but in my defence I can only say I'm pretty sure we aren't categorising any of the authors named in the Wiki article as "New Weird" where I work! Most of them we'd just shelve in Sci-Fi.

That Wiki piece also mentions some games, including Disco Elysium and somewhat unconvincingly Morrowind, but it doesn't namecheck by far the two most obvious points of comparison for an MMORPG player - New World and The Secret World. Honestly, for the couple of hours I was playing, it felt like those two had a baby and Once Human was it.

Of course, New World already owes a huge debt to TSW in terms of atmosphere and vibe but OH looks as though it's going one further, trying to graft the "Everything is True" premise of Funcom's game onto the mechanics of Amazon's original, survivalist vision, albeit thankfully minus the non-consensual, open-world PvP. 

There seems to be a conspiracy theory and some governmental or extra-governmental agencies in the backstory and the precipitating incident has resonances with what little I remember about the how things got to be the way they were in The Secret World. There are even butterflies where TSW had bees. That really did make me do a double take. 

All in all, it's a mish-mash, but I like that in a narrative. We could be polite and call it referential or metafictional, I guess. Or we could just acknowledge that all these concepts are just tropes now. We're going to keep seeing them all over the place. The real question isn't are they new or original but are they done well and on the very brief exposure I've had, in this iteration, I'd say they are.

Once free of the Tutorial Instance, something that involved a lot of exploring, no small amount of research, a bit of straightforward slaughter and some very unexpected platforming that turned out not to have been strictly necessary, I found myself in...

...another Tutorial Instance. It might have annoyed me had it not been so intriguing. It's a house with all kinds of curious facets to discover. Some, like the Territory Terminal, and the Secure Unit are crucial to gameplay; others, like the upright piano you can play and on which you can record your own compositions to listen to later, probably aren't.

There's also quite a bit of plot development and background information to be gone through before a scary boss fight with a really quite impressive monster. I think this is staged so you can't lose although I'm not absolutely sure. 

I was doing okay, plinking away with a handgun and zapping with the odd weapons I picked up from the fallen hordes, when I suddenly got knocked out or killed or whatever the story is and had to revive back at the house. I was about to be a bit miffed about that, when I noticed a big-ass Gatling gun on the ground that I'm sure wasn't there before. I picked it up and blasted seven hells out of the approaching monster, something that felt very satisfying, and that was the end of the battle.

After that it was through a portal that dumped me in mid-air about half a mile above the Earth. Fortunately my bird companion flapped out of my backpack before I could fall more than a few meters and I glided down, hanging on to his feet. He's a very strong flier, apparently.

He's also the consciousness of a former teammate from when we were both in some sort of super-secret security force but my character remembers nothing about any of that. She has selective amnesia because of course she does! It wouldn't be a video game if she could remember anything much before an hour ago, would it?

This makes the third game I've played where you arrive in the gameworld high up in the air. No, actually the fourth, I think: Fortnite, Chimeraland, that Battle Royale spin-off from Ashes of Creation and now this. I don't mind it but I'm not sure it's an improvement on just waking up in a village somewhere.

You can control your flight so it's up to you where to land. I picked somewhere nice and flat and open, which in retrospect may have been a mistake because so had everyone else. Since the next item on the agenda was the start of an extensive in-game tutorial on how to scavenge resources to build your own base, it might have been better to have landed somewhere a bit less populated.

That, though, is probably a tale better left for next time, by when I hope to have seen enough of the basic gameplay loop to have something meaningful to say about it. What I've seen so far gives me considerable hope it could be quite a bit better than these kind of things usually are, which could also stand as my general first impression of the game as a whole.

Other than the aforementioned login issues, the only other negative I have to report is the apparent lack of an screenshot function, let alone one of those nifty in-game camera gimmicks I really like. I couldn't even find a way to hide the UI, which is why all the screenshots in this post are either cluttered or cropped. 

That's probably something that's only going to bother bloggers, though, and we know how important a demographic they are in 2023. And anyway, I still managed to take nearly ninety screenshots in just over two hours so I guess I don't have much ground to complain.

Even that West Coast ping turned out not to be the problem I thought it might be. I didn't disconnect once, I had no lag and the only sign of any delay was a handful of times when the game informed me it was verifying something with the server. Nothing that impacted my enjoyment in any way.

Whether I'll be able to play any more today is uncertain. There seems to be a hard cap on how many players can be in game at once, possibly the 20k I mentioned in yesterday's post. Last night, when I tried to log in, I was told there was no room. This morning, though, when most of the USA would have been asleep, I had no problems. 

If I can't play tonight, I'll play tomorrow morning. I'm looking forward to it. The only thing holding me back is the knowledge that everything I do now will have to be repeated when the game goes live. It looks pretty likely I'll be there for that.

Then again, according to Steam that won't be until Q4 2024 so I guess I don't really need to hold back. I'd have to say that for a game with another 6-9 months to cook, not even allowing for the inevitable push-backs, Once Human looks rather promising.


  1. I gotta say, this looks very, very intriguing! Looking forward to your gameplay report. :-)

    1. I wasn't really expecting much but so far I've been very pleasantly surprised.

  2. This post reminded me that they had an "open" beta, but when I went to download the client, there was an apology letter saying that they basically ran out of room. Missed the window by hours. Ah well, I'll just be following your posts extra closely. ;)

    1. I never got any notice of an open beta , either. They seem a bit slapdash on sending out the invites but better than than puting all the effort into marketing and forgetting the game.

  3. The character creator (or at least the character itself) reminds me strongly of EVE Online's, without the whole click-and-drag-to-3D sculpt part. But the character could have been pulled straight from it.

    1. That's interesting. I've never played EVE but I've seen plenty of avatar shots and they do look hyper-realistic. I can see why there was a faction that wanted Walking in Stations - seems a shame to have such detailed character models and not be able to see them in action.


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