Early Access: Szone – You Have Left The Zone

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If gaming has suffered in any way from the MMO industry shift to free to play, it is through the saturation of what I’ve referred to as mass-market shovelware, MMOs that seem to exist for no other reason than to show up, exist for a while, and then hopefully leave with a little profit. These are games piled out by the thousands, mostly by devs in Russia, China, and Korea of no reputation and no discernible talent, throwing out games riddled with bugs, unfinished content, hackers, gold farmers, and a surprisingly filled out and functional cash shop.

The latest genre to be tied down and mercilessly tortured comes in the form of online clones of the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R, by GSC Game World, and while my patience with the developers of these games is growing thin, I will gladly admit that I have enjoyed one or two of their offerings. I genuinely enjoyed, and continue to play, Survarium.

You get an idea on just what kind of experience Szone Online is when you first load into the world and find that you are weaponless. The first NPC you meet, the blacksmith, tells you to come back later once you’ve gotten more experience and he’ll give you some stuff. Head inside the closest building, talk to an NPC, and he’ll give you some rusted weapons. Now the real frust-fun starts.

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Try to shoot the gun and you’ll get an error saying “no ammo.” Double click on the ammo and see the message “this ammo is already loaded.” What you need to do, and I figured this out through trial and error, is to unequip your gun and use a magazine on it in the inventory. Go through the long list of Steam reviews and you’ll see this issue pop up a lot, with new players put off by the simple lack of explanation on how to initially load your gun, disregarding a needlessly complex and convoluted method.

Szone Online is the first game I’ve seen where it is conceivable to “lose,” in that you’ll run out of ammunition and money, rendering you useless in combat and unable to make that money back. That being said, I don’t see myself playing long enough to fall into this trap because the game itself just isn’t fun.

The four hours of Szone that I managed to get in consisted mainly of me running from NPC to NPC, killing large swaths of dogs and rats, in what feels like bad fanfiction of the GSC STALKER universe. Just read a bit of the description.

This is a story of human pride. Time is at hand when, in their utter desire to study the world, people will start destroying it. Tests of high-energy heavy particles accelerators will result in billions of microscopic black hole rupturing the structure of time and space. This will become the point of no return. The Earth as we know it will cease to exist.

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Szone isn’t a STALKER game, it just happens to be set in a post apocalypse, specifically in a “zone” in the Ukraine where players, or ‘stalkers’ seek out artifacts for the sake of science, glory, and profit.

The game plays about as poorly as it reads, likely owing to a combination of inexperienced programmers and a poor engine. Characters are clunky and will occasionally get stuck on geometry that they shouldn’t get stuck on. Jumping is a frustrating experience that will get you killed more than once since your character will simply not jump if you’re too close to whatever you’re jumping on. Animals seem to be able to reach you from distances they shouldn’t. Gun handling feels directly pulled from the numerous free to play shooters built partially to look and feel like Counter Strike 1.6, except without iron sights.

I don’t know which to blame for Szone’s combat, poor AI or bad netcode. Hit detection is horrible, with animals either often dying a few seconds after you shot them or just ignoring your bullets despite the splats of blood indicating a hit. Dogs are easy to pop off with one or two bullets, but once they start moving they become difficult to hit without spraying your automatic weapon everywhere. Shoddy netcode and poor hit detection often mean missing shots that should have hit, hitting with shots that should have missed, and dying because NPCs are warping around the map.

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And don’t be confused by the fact that the game is in early access, Szone has been up and running for years. I originally played this game back in 2012 partially to aid in my Russian language courses, when the game was known as Stalker Online. Crucial issues like the netcode, lag, weapons, etc, haven’t had any noticeable change in three years.

If Szone is with us for the long haul, it’ll likely be because the game survives not off of massive income but by maintaining a cost of living that is near nothing, similar to Alganon. You won’t lose anything for playing it, other than your time, but I’d be willing to bet you won’t come out ready to dive back in.

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