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  • Breaking News

    Human Element: Element of surprise

    As fans, we’ve never been more interested in games’ construction periods. we read dev blogs, scour twitter feeds, search for linkedin posts, buy into early access betas. where does the insanity end? at some point, a desperate neogaf-er will post the contents of cliff bleszinski’s bins and we’ll all have a bloody good go at working out whether a balanced breakfast means he’s making a moba. we’re now so used to knowing exactly what we’ll get at the end of development that playing games runs the risk of becoming more like fact-checking than an adventure which is why it’s increasingly pleasant to see studios take long-held ideas and chuck them away wholesale in favour of something new and unexpected.


    Human Element has been in development for years by this point, but that didn’t stop director (and ex-infinity ward veteran) Robert bowling and his studio, Robotoki, changing the game’s genre, look, format, even its commercial strategy in pursuit of something better. “when we first started out, we were creating a gritty, photo-realistic and very inaccessible experience, with little ‘hand holding’,” he explains. “it was also free-to-play on Pc only and relied on in-game purchases. Ultimately, that monetization got in the way of a lot of the systems that were making the game fun. we decided to move away from free-to-play and instead make a premium experience focused entirely on just the systems that were the most fun, such as vehicle combat, stealth, fortifications, fast zombie strategies and looting.”

    The result’s a five-on-five first-person shooter that combines tower defence, capture the flag and domination while playing out across massive maps peppered with ai bots. alongside that comes a brand new art style, pitched up somewhere in the space between Mad Max fanart and the bright, bold cartoons of Overstrike (which went in an opposite direction by becoming the yawnsome  Fuse). all of this from a title whose original ambition was, more or less, to be “a bit like Day Z”. that unusual setup comes from the purest kind of game design playtesting.
    alongside its creator, we take a fresh look at human element, the zombie shooter that’s risen from developmental death
    “When we moved away from free-to-play we decided to let the game tell us what it needed next,” explains bowling. “through daily playtests with the entire team, we would play and have meetings afterwards talking about the stories that happened. ‘oh man, when i was having that firefight on the airfield, and you came through and took him out with the bike, that was awesome!’ these stories really made it clear what features stood out and what was creating the most fun experiences. as we started focusing on polishing the features that made for the best stories the tone of the game really shifted away from the ‘walking simulator’ we’d had to a more fast-paced experience.”

    It’s a fast-thinking one, too. both teams set out with the ambition of collecting five critical resources from the map, each of which, when taken back to their home base, gives the entire team various stat buffs. collect all five of them and you win. Simple enough, until you take into account that once one resource is in your base, the other team can simply steal it from there. which is where the ai component comes in.

    “There are definitely a lot of defensive strategies to how ai is used,” says bowling. “while there are ai survivors who are constantly putting pressure on your outpost and defences, we also have more strategic static guards that you can place throughout the map. for example, when you first start a round, it’s smart to defend your first resource by placing guards on the walls of your outpost, which will engage any enemy trying to take your home outpost. as you’re out scavenging, you might find a really key location where it’d be great to have a sniper holding off enemies and create a little choke point.“

    But even these circuit-brained guardians come with a twist, as the game’s most interesting mechanic makes them a legion of double-edged swords. as bowling spells out, “in the universe of Human Element, everyone is already infected, meaning death brings with it a whole set of strategies that impact the game. any character who is killed without a headshot will turn into an ai-controlled fast zombie, that will attack whatever is closest, regardless of team alliance. this creates chaos in a heavily guarded outpost just take out a few guards and let them turn on their colleagues while you pick off survivors or sneak your way in. with a good sniper,  turning a few guards creates the perfect diversion without having to spend all your ammo.”
    Those carrying resources can’t ride the rickety ratbikes, so you’ll need a getaway driver
    Seemingly unwilling to accept any limits, bowling and co have added even more on top of this already expansive base level. base fortification lets you shore up defences or create ramps for a speedy exit from your bases. Roving hordes of ‘slow zombies’ can be lured to strategic (or just chaotic) locations. Various player-character factions act as the game’s classes, from out-and-out fighters to stealthy outpost thieves (“You can win an entire match without firing a shot if you’re good,” says bowling). most interesting is a particular focus on vehicle use those carrying scavenged resources can’t ride the game’s rickety ratbikes, meaning you’ll need a getaway driver along, bringing to mind the glory days of Halo’s capture the flag escapades.

    It’s a cocktail of components, and a fine addition to a growing number of multiplayer games (Evolve, Rainbow Six: Siege) that prefer the intricacy of ideas to route-one firefights. “i see it as being about strategy and effectively getting into where the resources are and getting them back to your outpost,” enthuses bowling. “i’m most excited for players to see just how many different ways there are to play this game once they get in, get used to all the systems and start pulling off strategies that we never even imagined. our teaser trailer shows off a bombastic approach, but that’s literally the most obvious strategy it really doesn’t take into account all the unique ways you can approach this game.”

    The benefit of all this work to create something unusual is that, no matter how much we see of it before its release in november, we simply won’t know just what it’s like until we’ve got our hands on it. Human Element ’s already made itself something of a surprise, and it’s seemingly got far more in store.  watch this space.

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