It was yesterday morning that I first read about the latest indi title to be hitting up the forums of the inter-tubes, generating a similar sort of underground buzz to that of Minecraft. Kotaku had an article on it, describing how in Project Zomboid (a name that I’m still struggling to speak out loud in a serious fashion) the writer had died from burning some soup. Ha, what a noob I thought, and fired off an email to the creators, requesting a code to give the game a try. Being the high powered, executive journalist type that I am, (of course) they were nice enough to oblige me.
The game is currently only playable with one of these alpha codes, which you can get hold of by purchasing one of their previously developed titles for a nominal fee (this is down to Google checkout issues). This is a clever method and the ties to minecraft are clear: release a basic version of a game with a unique premise and boat loads of potential for a small fee, and voila, you have your development money. Those getting their hands on PZ at this stage will receive updates and support for the life of the title, with no extra costs incurred. If you think you’re the type to get hooked and keep coming back to open world RPGs – especially if there’s zombies involved – you might want to check it out.
Booting up the game for the first time you’re treated to a short developer written introduction which makes it clear from the get go that the game in its current iteration falls far short of where they hope to take it in the ensuing weeks and months. They want it made nice and clear, this is an early Alpha. After a couple of darkened screens of basic exposition the first in-game scene loads, showing a man standing in the upstairs room of a small suburban house, looking down on who we soon learn is his wife; and she’s not doing so good. She’s got a broken leg that’s bleeding badly and after a few sentences of quite well written dialogue, your first mission is to find something to bandage it with. However, don’t expect to just find some bandages handy, as PZ quickly introduces you to the game’s gathering and crafting system. Utilising a similar, but nicely simplified version of Minecraft’s item creation, dragging some bed sheets into a simple flow chart style panel gives you strips of cotton. You can then use these to stop the bleeding.
The game has a very old school look to it and even plays in a similar fashion, with movement limited to the 8 directions you’d have sent your character on old D-Pad controlled titles. However, while this doesn’t emerse you in the same way that Crysis does, the title’s hauntingly tragic music and believeably dialogue quickly sets the scene for your emotional involvement. Having your first task be to care for your injured wife also makes a change from most zombie titles that are focused around the bloodbaths that can be had when you don’t care about your victims; and when they shuffle along at 2mph. As any good zombie based movie, book or comic will tell you, the strength and variety of a undead based drama is how people react to it; the zombies themselves are relatively one dimensional.
After you’ve dealt with the immediate problems your injured spouse faces, it’s off to the tool shed to get some wood and your trusty hammer and nails. With these you’re able to barricade the windows and doors. This feature alone is something that I am very excited about, as I can perfectly imagine taking an axe to tables and chairs in a frantic need for more wood to shore up my defences as the horde approaches. As it stands, you can barricade the aforementioned entry ways, giving more strength to your house and making it harder for the zombies to get in. However, they don’t last forever. When you have a pack of zombies on your front step, you can watch as the health value of your defences gradually diminishes, with a satisfyingly terriying thump as they attempt to break through. Expect to jump the first time they do, 30 zombies suddenly appearing in your living room can be quite frightening, and shows an impressive level of immersion for such a retro looking game.
Food and sleep are also things that need to be taken into consideration and is unfortunately for this reviewer the reason I ended up dieing; the first time at least. Yes, that’s right, I burnt the bloody soup. Keeping things as spoiler free as possible, I’ll just say that anyone playing this game should not be destracted by radio broadcasts too much; make sure to switch the oven off if you leave the room.
There are other aspects of the “tutorial level” which I won’t go into now as they’re more narrative based than anything, but once that is complete, or you take a somewhat alternate route to skip them:
You enter a portion of the game known as free roam, where you’re able to do what you please. This includes running down half deserted streets, investigating nearby houses, raiding them for food and finding shelter when the sun goes down. Light and dark play an important part in this game because as difficult as it is to survive while dodging hordes of the undead in the daylight, when the streets go pitch black, it’s nigh on impossible. I’m excited by the prospect of players getting themselves some security lights for their compounds, hooking up generators for power and more; though Indiestone has also said that they plan to have randomised events as well as time based ones that will see most food rot beyond a certain time, power to be infrequent and eventually stop completely as services we all rely on begin to shut down in the wake of the outbreak. Imagine these events being noted through radio and TV broadcasts; how frightening will it be when they too cease for good?
There are quite a few things that arn’t present yet that will be soon and will probably be necessary for the game to maintain a fan base beyond the hardcore; some sort of save system being at the top of the list. But there are also things you might not expect, such as the fact that if you’re bitten but don’t die straight away, you have a chance of coming back as a zombie and joining the hordes; though most of my outings have ended with either a shotgun shell in my head, some burnt soup marinading my overcooked corpse, or my chest eaten out by you know who.
This is also the core of something that PZ does that 99.9% of other games don’t: it begins with telling you that this is the story of how you died. It’s inevitable, as the developers themselves have put it; you will die, it’s just a matter of how and when. Of course with players becoming more experienced and without the inclusion of unfair difficulty curves – which isn’t out of the realms of possibility – Project Zomboid is likely to have a few that manage to stave off death far longer than expected, but this isn’t what the game is designed for. Indistone have started with a principle that the short, sweet stories, of how you fought off a horde only to be gunned down by a crazed NPC survivor are far more interesting than the simple hard fact that you survived for 100 days, 200, 300 or whatever. In the same way that MMOs without real loss feel empty and pointless, this game is designed in a way that without the eventuality of death it too would somehow be less fulfilling and exciting. If the end is inevitable and decided, then it matters more what you do before it happens; if the destination isn’t so certain, the journey is perhaps less important.
Indistone have released the beginnings of a game which I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on. The potential for a game like this is massive, with calls for multiplayer already showing up on many a message board. While it is expected that the developers will get to that at some point, in the meantime they want to get “crafting” the single player to make it as strong as possible. If they could just add a second door to the main bank lobby though I’d really appreciate it. My last run for supplies ended with me holed up in there, unfortunately there was no way out; and the game ended once again with me dead on the floor.