What exactly is Once Human? Whatever it is, it's really good

Once Human Stardust infected creatures attacking the player.
Boss fight time! Boss encounters feel weighty and meaningful. (Image credit: Future via Michael Hoglund)

Once Human is a video game; it's definitely a piece of software that players can download and play. You might be reading that sentence back and thinking, "What on Earth are you talking about?" At times, me too, because I can't precisely answer what this game is, but I know that I want to play more of it when it finally launches into early access in July. 

"What the hell is happening?" was the one and only question I kept asking myself. I was even holding a Northern Pike as a melee weapon; this game was getting fishy. I went off catching spirits and placing them in electrically powered glass Ghostbusters containers. Again, I repeat, what the hell is happening?

Whatever it was, I was hooked. The reason is something I can't outright explain, either. There's no one particular reason that stands out over the others. It's not like there's some Grand Theft Auto level-breaking feature that sets this game out amongst the others. For Once Human, it's a culmination of all its parts that come together to make something that, at its core, is fun. What's better than that?

What is Once Human?

Taking on a boss that's 100 times your size in real-time is awesome. (Image credit: Future via Michael Hoglund)

Let's talk about what Once Human is on paper. The game is a PC-only multiplayer open-world survival game set in a post-apocalyptic future where Stardust, a mysterious element from beyond the fray, has polluted the world. Through this pollution, various forms of meta-humans have been born. Basically, mutants.

That's where the player comes in. You're a meta-human who's come of existence in the labs of some corporation where Stardust was used to experiment on people. Out of it came the monstrosities of enemies you'll fight, as well as the savior you'll come to be. The narrative is one of strangeness that becomes fun to follow in a cult-classical fashion.

Honestly, during the cutscene I had no idea what this represented, but it looked cool! (Image credit: Future via Michael Hoglund)

Players can select from two distinct modes, either PvP or PvE, before jumping in. This choice will make or break your experience. Playing solo in PvE is easier, but PvP as a solo? Let's just say I had a lot of fun compared to some of the people I found in the world!

The objective after selection is simple: you're placed in a world with others and tasked with catching and defeating Deviations. These are potent creatures from another dimension powered by Stardust. You can use these creatures as forms of magical abilities with a proper cooldown. Each Deviation offers distinct advantages from one another, at least the ones I was able to find during this demo.

Once Human: What makes it good

She's an ally, don't worry. Not an evil angel. (Image credit: Future via Michael Hoglund)

The first question anyone should ask is whether a game is fun or not, and I'm pleased to report that Once Human is indeed a fun game to play. The culmination of systems offered to the player comes together in a well-rounded and fascinating way that provides a great hook as a live-service game. If you're worried about games with live service embedded into their DNA, then don't worry; from what I saw, the battle pass offered in this title doesn't create any P2W advantages. It remains cosmetic, much like other live-service games such as Sea of Thieves. We'll discuss more later.

The combat felt satisfying and worthwhile; different weapons offer a variety of playstyles for players to flex. I ran a simple sniper shotgun combo, preferring to pick off patrolling enemies of an area before sprinting in like a madman needing his next fix. I never felt like the central systems at play were janky or riddled with annoying bugs. Players can switch to other weapon types like melee, bows, SMGs, and assault rifles.

Enemies reacted to axe blows and bullets alike. It was refreshing to see foes that had natural physical responses. The player's action felt fluid and intentional, rather than being forced into a dynamic forced on you by the game. In a title where 80% of what you'll do is combat, I'm glad to report it's more than serviceable.

The whole premise of the game feels like a more streamlined version of Ark. Rather than having to worry about capturing and maintaining an army of dinosaurs in your efforts against the world and other players, you get to focus on capturing Deviations and flexing their extraordinary abilities. Action takes the forefront, and while there are certainly a slew of survival aspects for players to dig into, nothing is overly complicated, acting as a doorstop in the way systems in Nightingale can for many.

Gathering resources felt fun and manageable. I wasn't out running marathons for logs or having to hunt down deer until the sun came up. Easily attainable upgrades to my gathering tool continued to speed this process up. I was back at the base and doing the entertaining stuff, building, and crafting. 

What I loved most about Once Human is the culmination of systems working together. While they were wild in their use, like the fact I can attach a motorcycle garage to my house with basic mined resources you'd find in any survival game, the chaos in combination is hilariously good. I'm being serious, what's here is so freaking weird, but it performs fantastically.

I can't wait to jump in and explore things like the leveling system. I felt like I barely started to scratch the surface in my 12 hours of play. Things toward the bottom of the trees were blurred out until later, but the opening systems were instinctive and well-paced. Everything unlocked at a rate that felt balanced and carefully planned.

Once Human: What needs work

She's talkin', but those lips ain't movin'. (Image credit: Future via Michael Hoglund)

While the game's combat and central systems felt smooth, there's a lot of 'jank' found that can either detract from or enhance the experience, depending on how likely you are to laugh instead of critique it. For example, the dialogue system as a whole felt unfinished. For the first 30 minutes, my character never spoke. Instead, he flailed his arms a bit after I selected a dialogue option while the camera humorously panned to him. I figured this was par for the course until he randomly started speaking during some dialogue choices, and it gave me a slight jump scare.

Other times, the character's mouths didn't move. After approaching an NPC out on a mission and opening a dialogue with them, their mouth wouldn't move. It felt cheap, and it seemed like some of these things were being added at the last minute without any proper finish applied.

While there are a few other systems that felt a little tedious to work with, the only one worth mentioning now came down to controller support. Almost highlighting this feeling of things that were overlooked, controller support wasn't even enabled for the demo. Even though it's verified to work on the Steam page, it doesn't work. Discovering that bummed me out after swapping over to my laptop to do some light-hearted work on my PvE character.

The real sense of concern comes from how Netease and Starry Studio plan to implement microtransactions in Once Human. While the developers are on record saying that they will never put pay-to-win transactions in the game, I'm only cautiously optimistic. It's the publisher that has me worried.

Netease has a mixed history when it comes to releases in the last couple of years. Diablo Immortal launched in almost a meme state, given how much money players had to spend to reach maximum upgrades. Then there was Dead by Daylight Mobile, which has skins players can buy that provide better stats and killers with perks that are fully locked behind paywalls. While Bloodstrike, another Netease Game, is heralded for its cosmetic-only microtransactions. Let's hope Starry Studios wins the ideology debate.

Once Human: Summary

Oh, I didn't even mention it, but you can totally use this crow named V like Mary Poppins. (Image credit: Future via Michael Hoglund)

Like I've said multiple times throughout this preview article, Once Human is a joy to play. There's nothing that should keep players from jumping into the game when it drops next month on July 10. It's free-to-play with the promise of no pay-to-win, that's an automatic download from me.

Doing a little research, the demo build that was available was an older one. The build was even older than their last beta playtest. I'm told much of the "jank" I experienced here are things that are either already polished or planned for release. I guess we'll see in a couple of weeks.

Plus, the game won't cost you anything to try. It's one of the few survival games over these past couple of years that's hitting full release without Early Access on Steam. While it did go through a few betas over the last year, all of those were closed and free without any microtransactions. Not only does this game have the hype by word-of-mouth, but it seems like it has a competent and confident developer behind it.

I can forgive the bugs here and there, especially when a game feels this good otherwise off the rip. After watching previews from YouTubers like Force Gaming over the past year, I wasn't sure if this was a game I'd even like. Now I'm convinced, and others should be too once they try it for themselves.

Once Human launches on July 9 for Windows PC on Steam and Epic Games Store. The game will be free-to-play.

Michael Hoglund

Michael has been gaming since he was five when his mother first bought a Super Nintendo from Blockbuster. Having written for a now-defunct website in the past, he's joined Windows Central as a contributor to spreading his 30+ years of love for gaming with everyone he can. His favorites include Red Dead Redemption, all the way to the controversial Dark Souls 2.