Expedition Zero Preview – If the monsters don’t get you, the cold will

Gare – Thursday, February 24, 2022 4:47 PM
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I’m generally not a massive fan of games that tend to lean heavily into survival elements, as I prefer not to have to deal with a myriad different stats and systems that each need to be carefully managed for the player to be able to even play the game. That said, if it’s done tastefully, and is paired with other interesting mechanics, I can be swayed – and so, when I sat down with survival/horror game hybrid Expedition Zero to take it for a test spin, I ultimately came away very pleasantly surprised. The game combines just the right amount of atmospheric exploration, resource scavenging and unnerving scares, allowing even a relative survival newbie like myself to have a very good time in its nightmarish locales.

Into the zone

Expedition Zero’s titular expedition puts you in the heart of Siberia and tasks you with investigating a dangerous anomaly zone surrounded by a wall and several searchlights, all intent on keeping things inside. You start working for a mysterious person as it’s your only ticket out of this place, but that also means having to brave whatever dangers await you inside the zone’s haunted forests and abandoned facilities – and let’s just say that the elements (the biting cold, most of all) are not your only enemies in the dark. It becomes immediately clear that something horrific and potentially supernatural happened here, but all you have for clues are scattered journal entries and other documents… as well as bits and pieces of environmental storytelling. There’s a sense of mystery surrounding the world, which I enjoyed.

Expedition Zero’s audiovisual design also helps elevate its terrifying atmosphere: strange noises, distant howls and various other sounds make the player feel constantly vulnerable, even in areas deemed relatively safe. Meanwhile, the zone is covered in ominous gloom, with only the dark, distant contours of buildings to help in navigation; during my time with the game, I felt like I was constantly being watched, and found myself repeatedly startled by bizarre sounds and dancing shadows.

Scavenge, explore, survive

Gameplay-wise, Expedition Zero mixes horror-adventure basics with survival mechanics: you’re expected to explore each zone and find clues, but your actions are limited by both your resources and the harsh elements. The cold is the most important factor, as it serves as a subtle time limit – the more you explore, the colder you’ll get and the more your temperature bar will drop; if the mysterious, lightning-fast forest creature doesn’t get you, the weather will. As such, scavenging for firewood and finding campfires or functioning stoves becomes an essential part of survival, as does collecting scrap material to be used at crafting stations where better equipment – including better insulation technology or larger backpacks – can be created. You’ll also have to keep an eye out for recharging stations, as the battery of your flashlight (an important tool for efficient exploration) is similarly limited. This, of course, requires you to leave the relatively safe confines of your home base and venture into the unknown, creating a tight balance between risks and rewards, as well as a core gameplay loop that I ended up enjoying a lot more than I thought I would.

The call of the unknown

It feels like there’s a lot more left to explore in this world, and I’ve yet to full piece together every part of this terrifying puzzle. I am, however, intrigued. Haunting notes left in abandoned houses, inexplicable, ghost-like entities huddled together at a dark church, and oddly mutated, undead workers shuffling sluggishly between tents meant for children – these are just some of the fascinatingly head-scratching experiences I’ve had with Expedition Zero, but if the brief slice I’ve played is any indication, this could turn out to be a genuinely atmospheric, well-put-together survival horror experience. I, for one, can’t wait to see more.

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