Project Zomboid – Alpha Release Impressions
A few months ago Push Start interviewed the creators of the upcoming indie game ‘Project Zomboid’. Since then, the buzz generated around it has grown and the pressure to release a playable demo increased for Lemmy and Binky. They were a little late, but they’ve delivered a working, playable alpha version of the game. That’s a long way off a full release, but they do claim that the game will be updated and worked on as long as there’s interest, so it may never make it to a ‘finished’ edition anyway. With the blog, twitter and reddit hype, and the support of celebrity fan Graham Linehan (writer of Father Ted and The I.T. Crowd) the product certainly needs to be good to appease the thousands who donated to development, so… is it?
The Alpha build is essentially just a tech demo, and only released because it was pirated and released on torrent sites. This has led to the game being released in its basic state for free download, with future updated versions available to users who donate – which now involves buying some of the creators older games as an added bonus. With updates still being pirated the paid version is on hold, and the torrent has an .exe file which sets off over zealous anti-virus programs (I can confirm it’s perfectly safe). All of this is covered with plenty of humour and charm on the Project Zomboid site, which doubles as a wonderful insight into the ups and downs of game development. Anyway, enough plot-building, on to the game.
The game opens with some rather excellent music, which adds a level of pathos to proceedings sadly lacking in most zombie games. This music plays over a series of screens which culminate by informing you that ‘this is how you died’. Ominous, but it sets the tone for what follows. This isn’t a game with clearly defined goals or levels. It’s about surviving for as long as possible. This might be a little overwhelming if it were not for an excellent tutorial, which ties neatly into the minimal plot. Our hero stands in a room with his wife severely wounded on a bed. Something has occurred which has left them stranded and lacking any food or other tools for survival. The game uses this premise to teach you how to scavenge for items, use them and eventually craft them into something more impressive, all while implementing the day/night cycle and teaching the basics of combat.
The game reveals itself to be quite simple to play, but with remarkable depth. Just the tutorial is brilliantly inventive, with you learning to make and cook soup, barricade doors and survive with meagre resources. As you venture further afield and begin to find more items things become even more interesting, as you have a choice between hiding and protecting Kate (the aforementioned wife) or going out and trying to be offensive. At first the number of zombies seems low, but as you run around the small town setting it becomes apparent that there are many more than can be reasonably dealt with. Hiding ceases to help and you become trapped, awaiting the inevitable. That’s just in playthrough one.
Subsequent attempts encourage alternate tactics to ensure a longer life. Soon you become adept at creating helpful items. It’s almost like a far more grown-up Dead Rising 2, as you make a nail bat, assume it will be enough to defend yourself as you scavenge for medicine and food, and valiantly die under a horde of slow-moving, moaning zombies. Yes, they’re slow, and thank goodness as the game exudes a ‘Dawn of the Dead’ feel. It’s classic zombie movie, small Americanised town with streets on a grid, overrun by the nightmarish hordes of the undead. We can only hope that the finished effort has a mall to hide out in for the full Romero experience. Each playthrough lasts in the region of an hour or two early on, but it becomes longer with each effort as you begin to understand the intricacies of survival. This isn’t a typical game by any stretch, it’s grounded in reality and readers of the ‘Zombie Survival Guide’ may even have a leg up from the off, such is the cleverness of what the player is allowed find and do. I’m yet to find a gun, but I’ve made a Molotov and the sense of satisfaction upon its use was immense.
While following the tutorial is helpful at first, Zomboid begins to shine brightest once you move off-script. On one playthrough, while attempting to make soup, I managed to set the house on fire, killing both Kate and myself in the process. The fact that the cooker needed to be watched was a revelation, most games would simply allow the soup to cook and make a friendly ‘ping’ when it was ready. Zomboid offered no hints, it just killed me ruthlessly and made me try again, intent on getting that little bit further. It’s a little bit like Demon’s Souls in that regard, punishing, but incredibly rewarding. It’s quite dark really with death coming quickly, a truly morbid experience. Death is inevitable, and often comes from player error with arbitrary objects such as the soup, or running into the wrong building and becoming trapped in a room with one exit. In fact, to fully realise just how dark the game is, try using the pillow you find with the bandages in Kate’s room on her. It’s quite an affecting moment, and wonderful to see such options appear in a game.
Zomboid may have a long way to go before it’s finished, but if this is what the developers can manage in an alpha release, the full version should be on every gamer’s radar. Don’t let the graphics fool you, this game is as contemporary as anything boasting HD visuals. Full of smartly executed player choice, and without the pointless false consequence of a karma system. This is a game where the player chooses their fate, their play style and their story, and that surpasses the majority of big-budget titles which attempt the same. It looks dated, granted, but beneath that simplicity is a fully realised game of survival, where it takes genuine thought and creativity to survive. It might not be for everyone, but if you’ve played Resident Evil or Dead Rising and wanted something a bit deeper, or just wanted a game in which you must survive the post-apocalyptic world, rather than conquer it then this is most definitely for you.
This isn’t a review of course, due to the unfinished status of the game, and there are some bugs and occasional difficulties with certain elements. Figuring out how to eat something took a little effort, bizarrely (click on it, then click on the heart/health icon) and some of the combat and movement could be awkward at times, but these are issues that can be ironed out easily, and are really not much of a problem as it stands. If you’re interested in Project Zomboid you can play it here for free, and a small donation secures future updates – it looks like they’ll be well worth it as this is gearing up to be one of the best indie games of the year.