SGF 2024: Hands-on with PvE-centric sci-fi horror survival shooter MMO Once Human


For those who saw Once Human and thought, “Gee, that kind of looks like a mix of H1Z1 and The Secret World,” you’re not wrong based on what I saw during my hands-on with the game during last week’s Summer Game Fest. A bunch of “stardust” basically ends the known world, and as a “meta-human,” you’re trying to thrive but also not go crazy, I guess? The story details didn’t come out a lot in my short hands-on time, but the flavor certainly did, and boy was it funky!

As expected, it’s very much a survival game where you start off hitting trees and rocks and try to build a shack, but there are some neat differences if you prefer surrealist horror and sci-fi.

As my time with the game was cut a bit short, I did submit a few questions to the team, and in light of how our readers took the game, I asked the team about what other games inspired Once Human. Head of Overseas Operations Derek Qiu told me that the dev team “consists of avid fans of open-world survival games, making it difficult to pinpoint a specific game that inspired [them].” That being said, one of the main goals of the game was to  “revolutionize the open-world survival genre by offering players the opportunity to engage in PvE, dungeon challenges, RPG elements, survival building, PvP combat looting, and more within a massively multiplayer open world setting.”

That sounds like a lot, and while I don’t know about exactly revolutionising the survival genre, at the least I think Once Human ticks enough boxes to give it a shot in the arm, especially if PvP is a big reason you’ve avoided the genre to date.

During the short hands-off portion of my meeting, I asked several questions about what the game is doing differently than some others in the survival genre, and yes, a big one will be the PvE servers. I like PvP, but having to drink from puddles and eat raw meat in the middle of nowhere until some guy you can’t see headshots you with a sniper rifle isn’t fun and is probably a reason these games seem to come and go.

But here, we also have fast travel options. No, I don’t just mean vehicles (which you “level up”), but when you’re at a safe spot, you’re allowed to warp to certain areas on the map, like boss locations or your homebase. Since I’m mentioning vehicles anyway, I will note that the motorcycle I got to try was pretty interesting. Because it was at a low level, it wasn’t super fast and needed some time to accelerate, which was a nice touch. I could also ride into mobs to injure/kill them, but like I imagine of a real bike, the turning was sensitive, so I often missed my targets.

It looks worse in the light

In terms of real-world comparisons, my bike also wasn’t some semi-invincible state. When I first saw the human-horror-bus, I thought I could run over its fingers to hurt it, despite the size difference. I was very wrong and flew off my bike. I didn’t die, but as I had landed in a group of mobs, I ended up fleeing the scene and not knowing my bike’s ultimate fate. Maybe if I had a higher-level bike things could have gone differently.

Speaking of leveling, Qiu mentioned that despite having a leveling system, it primarily serves “as a means for players to unlock additional crafting and building options, as well as providing a growth target for newcomers to the genre.” I was also told that “leveling does not directly impact a player’s survival or combat capabilities” and that “there are various ways for players to gain experience, including combat, crafting, and exploration.” It’s hard for me to gauge that from the sliver of content I experienced, but I’m willing to trust the devs, as even though my character was kitted out for the demo, I did struggle against the waves of unworldly monstrosities that tried to eat my face.

Qiu also mentioned guns builds, which are “essential for navigating the diverse environments” you’ll see in both PvP and PvE battles. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution, allowing players to choose according to their own experience and preferences.” As my demo didn’t have other players populating the world, I can’t speak for PvP, and my PvE experience was fairly guided, so I didn’t get to play with this system myself.

While bosses are nothing new in this genre, having a cinematic story entrance for them is pretty new to me and also reinforces the feeling that this is a more PvE-based survival experience. I mean, y’all have seen the human-horror-bus, right? That thing isn’t an enemy! I was told some people just spend a lot of time taking the bus and building their bases around its path. It’s a very The Secret World feeling, just maybe a bit more horror-inspired than the bulk of TSW’s content.

The combat was much more H1Z1-esque like a typical survival game rather than an MMO like TSW, though the environmental stuff you can grab made things cooler. As in both games, at least from what I recall, different guns have different feels. I actually liked how my submachine gun’s sights would jerk around, forcing me to try to keep my aim steady. People who enjoy TSW’s combat may be a bit bored or overwhelmed since it is a shooter and requires aim, but just as in most games, glowy targets help reveal what to aim for.

Now, as some readers and players around social media have noted, there’s untranslated text in some areas and big differences between the audio and subtitles in others. I didn’t bump into those myself, but when I asked Qiu about this, I was told the team is currently conducting “comprehensive quality testing and implementing fixes for each language,” already making “promising progress” so far.

In terms of future content, Qiu noted that future content will be “in the form of scenarios, which will introduce new rules, gameplay scripts, and content-based seasons,” with the goal of releasing “one to two scenarios per quarter following the game’s launch.”

Again, I’m not sure if Once Human will really revolutionize the survival genre, but approaching it more as a fully optional PvP survival MMO in the surrealist horror genre does make it stand out more than a lot of the other games we tend to see. PvP players obviously can still play it, but PvP already rules the genre, as my last hope for the PvE zombie survival game genre ended up turning into arguably the biggest battle royale game. There’s clearly a niche to be filled, and I’m glad Once Human is there for those who want it filled!

MOP’s Andrew Ross is on the ground at Summer Game Fest 2024 – catch up on all our coverage!
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