Once Human Preview: Hands On With Steam’s 11th Most-Wanted Game

3 weeks ago 30

In my Once Human demo, things got really weird when I wanted to ride the bus. And that's because the bus had legs. In a post-apocalyptic open world where an outbreak of cosmic energy called Stardust has sent everything a little wacky, even the public transport is bonkers.

Once Human is currently Steam’s 11th most-wishlisted game – a multiplayer open-world survival game in which players can battle creatures or each other, build and defend shared territories, indulge in OTT combat or just chill with friends at their base. Ahead of its final closed beta test (which starts April 3) and planned Q3 launch, the development team at Starry Studio gave me a private glimpse at what’s to come.

But first, back to the bus. Once Human’s monsters are a fantastical nightmare of Lovecraftian creature design, organic-machine hybrids with weird and wonderful forms that can be dangerous or useful. The bus is the latter – essentially a benevolent monster that will not harm the player, although it may inadvertently trample the base you foolishly built in its path. You can ride the bus for safe passage, with scheduled routes along bus stops throughout the Nalcott Continent’s massive open-world map. When it arrives, it might already have a contingent of Deviant baddies on board, whom you have to quickly kill before clambering aboard, presenting an element of risk and reward.

Once Human - Spring 2024 Screenshots

The walking bus encounter is weird, fun and densely constructed, itself a microcosm of what to expect from a game that lets players do pretty much anything. While Once Human has a story and a path of main missions, you can ignore these completely and play at your own pace.

Peng “Victoria” Sun, Once Human’s world and content designer, explains, “We want the game itself to be fascinating. Everyone loves the bus, and the monster designs and the gameplay designs are already proving intriguing to people.”

The upcoming CBT will be a scaled-up version of what we’ve seen so far, with up to 150,000 participants compared with the 20,000 who participated in the previous test, and a new server added in Europe to improve the experience for players in that part of the world. And among its many features, one new element will be the ability to harness the power of Deviants.

Deviants are the mutated monsters that stalk the open world, from humanoid creatures with spotlights for a head to towering terrors, and defeating them allows players to collect Deviant Powers to use in battle. Once Human will feature some 40 types of Deviations, which are companions you capture from defeating Deviants that can be put to work in your home base territory. Some types may aid you in combat as backup warriors, while others will work the land in your farm. Others still can add an element of fun or weirdness to your camp.

For example, in my demo, I was shown one of the game’s new social events, which are PVE events that any player can join freely. This particular event revolved around a Deviant music festival. A horde of mutants were blissfully worshipping haunted disco balls that hung in the air, and by getting a group of around 10 friends or randoms together, players could solve a series of environmental puzzles by using a combination of combat and specific dance emotes to clear out the enemies and capture the Deviation disco balls. Once in your possession, you can place disco balls in your camp to increase the happiness levels of the other Deviations there, evolving their abilities.

Meanwhile, another event takes place at an amusement park with a possessed Ferris wheel. Defeat this abominable attraction and players will be able to merrily ride it, making for a short but fun optional scenario that can be replayed over and over.

This mix of player cooperation, lateral puzzles, and persistent and non-persistent events seems to be typical of Once Human’s highly social gameplay. Each server will have a maximum capacity of 4,000 to 5,000 players, which is a lot; each of these will be divided into six different worlds, which you can switch between with your friends.

“We really want the game to be for almost everyone, so we have PVE combat for people who want to defeat monsters, and PVP areas for those who want to battle other players,” says Sun. “We also have a huge map for architects, so if you want to come construct a huge and fantastic base you can always find your own space, along with your own safe island on the edge of the open world where you can build whatever you want and nobody can destroy it.”

You can play alone, of course, but there is safety in numbers. Once Human offers multiple options for cooperative multiplayer action.

“When you want to go on a raid or a dungeon, you can put together a team of up to four players – you can invite your friends or use the matching system to build a team with people you don't know,” explains Sun. “We also have a Hive system which allows you to build a team of four people and build a base together and share your resources, which is more closely united.

“And then we have Warbands, which is much bigger – up to 40 people to start with, but you can upgrade it to up to 80 people. A Warband is a closely united group of players, and you can fight against other players or mine for resources together, competing against other Warbands to control better mining areas around the map.”

And make no mistake – the Nalcott Continent’s map is huge. You start with a small area to explore, and you can venture outside of this and unlock new areas at your leisure. However, you may find yourself quickly overpowered by Deviants or players in higher-level areas, so unless you really crave that extra challenge, it’s better to fully clear the first area and level up before wandering too far.

That said, you will definitely want to explore. The scenery is utterly gorgeous, both in terms of design and graphical fidelity (I was playing on PC). Rolling vistas draw the eye far into the distance, while the rural area I explored is populated with verdant sunlit mountains and placid lakes that draw a variety of fauna, from cute bounding bunnies to majestic deer to leathery crocodiles. You can chop trees for wood or hunt wildlife for meat, with a rich natural world to plunder, and enemy encounters galore.

“We wanted to turn the modern world into something weird; that’s how we arrived at this aesthetic,” says Sun. “As for the beautiful landscapes, we want players to enjoy the intense fighting and Deviant combat but also to give them a nice place to build their base and to foster their own identity in this world. So we picked a combination of both.”

Indeed, the balance between the familiar and the strange varies by location. Concentration of Stardust in each area dictates how weird things get, and by extension how dangerous each area and its inhabitants are to the player.

You can always spawn a motorbike to cover ground more quickly, including steep hills and rough terrain. Elsewhere in the game (I didn't get to try it), you can even turn your camp into a wheeled RV, taking the whole base on the move.

I only got to try a little bit of PVE combat, but I was impressed by the variety on offer. Guns feel responsive, while melee attacks feel punchy and visceral. The aforementioned spotlight-headed Deviants can freeze you with their light beams, but defeating them allows you to pick up the spotlight unit and wield it against other enemies, freezing them in their tracks for a follow-up attack. And while I mainly faced low-level enemies, getting mobbed by too many of them proved fatal, suggesting that the game will offer a decent challenge (and plenty of incentive to band together with friends, who can fight alongside you and revive you when you fall).

There are of course boss battles and other surprises. As I approached a loot chest placed in a conspicuously open spot in front of a large digital billboard, I soon realized it was bait, as a huge monster burst out of the screen. I could have stood my ground to try to defeat it and claim the loot, but, well, my character was still only level 1, and running away is always a decent option.

Want to level up? You’ll have to play for it, because you can’t pay for it. Once Human is a free-to-play game, but Derek Qiu, head of overseas operation, explains that the business model will be refreshingly non-predatory. “There are no pay to win elements at all, so the monetization system is all based on cosmetics,” he says. “You can purchase decorations for your home, vehicle skins, gun skins and cosmetics that are purely based on appearance.”

Once Human’s strongest weapon is its densely packed open world, which sets the stage for a wide variety of roleplay as players create their own fun. Starry Studio are highly prioritizing fan feedback, learning from their players’ excursions and leaning into the craziness.

For example, during a past beta test, when fans exploited a bug that allowed them to create palaces in the sky or set up their own car-racing events, the development team decided to implement these as official features. In another example, the Balloon Dog Deviation can be captured and used to make furniture placed around it float, originally intended only as a cute visual effect; but when players found a way to use the Balloon Dog to create their own makeshift fighter jets, the dev team were inspired to tweak this Deviation so that its final evolved form is now a rideable vehicle.

“Players can set up their territory as they like, and we’ve seen some of them create their own bar area where they can hang out with friends, or car-racing circuits, becoming immersed in the world and creating their own roleplay,” says Qiu.

As you’d expect, there will also be themed events throughout the year: Get spooky over Halloween, play in the snow around the Christmas holidays, and so on. These will even be localized to some degree – for example, players in Japan will get to enjoy cherry blossoms in April.

If it sounds like a lot, it is a lot. Once Human’s promises seem almost too good to be true, but each CBT seems to deliver, with a growing community of enthusiastic fans. Time will tell whether Once Human can keep players invested for the weeks, months and years it will need in order to become a mainstay in the survival game market, but my short time with the game left me intensely curious to explore in more detail. As someone who loves open-world games and freaky creature design, I can’t wait to see how weird things get once things get weird.

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