Saturday, 21 July 2012

Project Zomboid: An Undead Adventure - Michael Dodds

Zombies, like country music and films starring Nicolas Cage, are a well-hidden guilty pleasure of mine. It’s rare I bring them up as a conversation piece (unless in well suited company), but secretly, my bookshelves and game collections are packed with zombie themed delights. I’m not the only one. Zombie games, movies and television series are as popular as ever. Wandering hoards of zombie fans will gobble up whatever they can get their claws on with mindlessness that can only be described as ironic. I’m as bad as any of them.

Maybe not these people, though the guy wearing the gas mask in the top right would possibly be the least effective zombie ever.

This is why Project Zomboid interests me so much. Project Zomboid is an open world survival horror game by The Indie Stone. Although still in development, an Alpha version is available for a small fee. The player controls a male character through a zombie infested town (there is currently only one map available), collecting food, finding and defending shelter, and avoiding the zombie hoards for as long as possible. There are currently two game modes; the first in which you play an unnamed character who begins the game holed up in suburbia with his wounded wife, and secondly the “Free Play” mode, where you create an avatar and apply “perks” such as fitness, strength, stealthiness etc. dependent on how you want to play the game. While the second game mode (which we’ll be playing shortly) is more fun to play, the first game mode is much more atmospheric and engaging, as well as devastatingly depressing; a devoted husband and wife waiting to die.

Think Radiohead meets a Cormac Mccarthy novel depressing.

It’s a rather hard game to describe. As far as gameplay goes, the controls do not feel particularly tight, using the WASD to move your character around the world, and the mouse to use items and interact with the surrounding world. Certain elements of the game, such as crafting items and managing an inventory seem clunky and awkward, with overcomplicated and over-precise menus. This often makes the game frustrating, especially when you find yourself in a tight spot. However, its flaws are forgiven for now, considering it is still in Alpha. It is also possible that the controls are deliberately complicated to makes the game feel visceral, i.e. to make you panic and fumble about when you would be doing so if in the game environment.

“Go home zombies, you’re all drunk.”

Aesthetically, the game is rather plain. The character models are not particularly impressive, nor are the animations. The world looks copy pasted and slightly bland. However, the game limits what you can see to what your character can see, blacking out the rest of the world. You’ll not know if there is a zombie behind you until it’s nibbling on your ear. This is a mechanic I’ve always enjoyed, and really adds to the bleak atmosphere of the game.

And it is bleak. While this game seems (justifiably) underdeveloped in many ways, atmosphere is something this game has already nailed. The music ranges from a constant wail of violin strings and soft piano notes to screaming, indigenously tribal vocals. This game wants to constantly remind you that, while other NPCs can occasionally be seen scampering around (i.e. shooting you in the face and looting your home for booty), you are very much on your own. As well as hunger, your character must battle boredom, loneliness and depression. Combat is a deliberately tricky ordeal. With a high likelihood of things going tits up, and with weapons such as planks and baseball bats scarce (and unusable after a time), you begin to genuinely loathe and fear the zombie hoard which wanders the streets outside your hovel. And why do you do all this? So you can eventually balls everything up and die. 

This is the opening shot of the game. helplessness.jpg

And oh, how you die. While you can treat wounds, there’s usually little point. If you get too friendly with a hoard, you’ll likely be devoured instantly. In the event of escaping with just a bite, however, your character experiences a downward spiral of sickness and depression, becoming weaker and weaker until they eventually die. Alone. Every time I’ve been bitten in this game, I’ve drank several bottles of whiskey, loaded up a shotgun and marched into battle triumphantly, knowing that the alternative is so much worse.

I figure that the only effective way to demonstrate Project Zomboid is to take start a game and show you what its all about, which is what I’ll be doing in my next article. In the meantime, I seriously recommend you give it a go. It takes a nice break from the standard fetishistic slaughter of the undead, which often passes for “Survival Horror” these days, and reverts it back to the genre’s roots. I’m very excited to see the finished product.

-- Michael Dodds

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