By John Walker on May 30th, 2011 at 10:00 am.
The Indie Stone’s calamitous path has finally brought it to a place where Project Zomboid is available to play as a cut-down alpha. Those who have pre-ordered the game (and more recently, those who have bought their other games to get a PZ pre-order) will by now have received an email with the link and password. Those who haven’t can pick up one of the older games and get access immediately. Is it something you should be interested in? I’ve had a play of it, and tell you below.
In the zombie apocalypse, I died of cooking soup. My wife was hurt, upstairs in bed. I’d bandaged her leg as well as I could, but we both knew what an injury meant. Having found wood, hammer and nails in the garden shed I’d put up defences on all the downstairs doors and windows, and then we slept.
Incredibly hungry, I set out to find food for both of us, the bleeding in my wife’s leg just as bad. The next door house looked empty, so heading in I made my way to the kitchen and encountered my first zombie. Fortunately the hammer I’d put the wooden boards up with was still in my hand (it pays to sleep with such a thing), so I bopped it on the head and emptied the cupboards. An apple, carrots, and a few tins of soup.
Getting back to our own new home, and after in paranoia hammering up new planks over the door I went through cupboards and draws looking for a pot and tin opener. Combined, and into the oven. Time passed. Very quickly, as it happens. It seems to fly by. I wasn’t sure if it was done. Pootling around in the kitchen I thought I’d check on my wife while I waited. It was with my foot on the first stair that I saw the oven explode in the kitchen. Running in, in my panic I thought to take the pot of soup out and then ran upstairs to my wife. By this point I was on fire, as was most of the house, and my attempt to carry her out of the building was already looking futile. And then I died, about a foot from the front door.
Project Zomboid is not quite the game I was expecting. I knew it was intended to be a survival zombie game, in which your character would have to improvise with what he could salvage, in order to live as long as possible amongst the undead hordes. I didn’t know it was going to have occasional story, a sense of being a real person with a real relationship. I also – I think because of the Amiga-esque graphics seen in the screenshots before release – didn’t realise how dark it was going to feel.
It’s a clever technique, the appearance of a wife. It goes from “man who hits zombies to survive” to “man who needs to stay alive to help wife”. (It would certainly be no bad thing to see the introduction of a choice of sexes at the start to get away from any needless tropes here, of course.) There’s a motivation from the first opening moments, and it’s not bravado. She even warns you not to try to prove anything as you venture out for the first time. It’s the sort of evocative you just won’t believe from looking at the pictures. It’s also important to note if the thought of narrative getting in the way sounds horrendous, this isn’t obligatory. In fact, this opening part of the game is the anomaly, the rest more freeform. There are also plans for alternative narrative openings, motivations, and so on. And a tutorial skip will be added soon.
This version of the game is a very early Alpha. After a run of misfortune of such extraordinary proportions, developers The Indie Stone next found their test code had been leaked on 4Chan, and so have rushed to get this code out to everyone who pre-ordered. Which means that to say it’s incomplete is not only to wildly underestimate, but also to widely miss the point. This is a project at its early stages, intended to grow enormously, with the guidance of those who are playing it. By the time you’re reading this a new update will have addressed my most immediate gripes (adding items to your inventory should get there with a double-click, and dying won’t leave you needing to refresh, I believe). If you’re reading this in three months I imagine the game will be unrecognisable.
Right now you have an inventory that slides out of the left side of the screen, including a button for bringing up the crafting window. Into this you can drop up to five items to combine them, like the soup, can opener and pot for a recipe to last a student at least one academic year. It would be good to see that crafting option a more permanent presence on the screen – in fact it would be great if all the key elements were available to be fixed in place, rather than a second click away. Oh, and I want to skip dialogue please. And…
I love the potential here. And I’m excited by how much has already been achieved. The atmosphere is immediately superb, a big part thanks to the bleak presentation of what is usually associated with such bright, cheerful games. Isometric, chunky pixels feel as out of place in such a world as a smiling doll in a post-holocaust playground. It’s a smart decision. Combine that with some really quite astonishingly good music (I’m leaving it playing as I write this, and fancy writing everything else ever to it just now), intelligently gentle weather sound effects, and a sense of foreboding from one of the best opening lines I’ve ever seen, and they’re onto something. That opening line, white text on a black background before you start: “This is how you died.”
Of course, while I’m excited about potential here, I am more tempered with what’s already on offer. Currently it’s very fiddly, and juggling menus is awkward. I’m also not sure how well suited WASD is to isometric, meaning running perpendicular to the world’s edges requires holding down two buttons at a time. Clearly there’s need for a mute button, and the option to save your progress seems essential. As it is, the narrative of the game’s tutorial opening moments doesn’t come to an end, leaving you with soup in hand. This will be updated soon, with a bigger update due in a couple of weeks that should add unscripted NPCs to the mix.
If you want to play it at this stage you need to pre-order the game. A demo is planned, but has been delayed due to a combination of TIS’s litany of disasters. Pre-ordering now is of course investing in the project, and means you’ll have access to the game immediately, and can follow its development with the frequent updates. To buy it, thanks to those aforementioned issues, you’ll need to buy one of TIS’s older games, which all come with a lifetime purchase of Project Zomboid at the same time. It’s looking like it’s worth the confusion. And when one of those games is Droids, for only £5, it’s a sweet deal. It’s worth noting that PZ plays in Java in your web browser. But it occupies the entire screen area.
So the next time I turned the oven off. My wife was listening to the radio, and I figured I’d hunt around for a bowl or something to serve it in, rather than have her eat directly out of the pot. Turning to go back downstairs I saw the front door was open. I’d definitely shut it. But I hadn’t boarded it back up. I’d boarded it when I was next door, because she was there on her own. But I hadn’t bothered when I came back in. I was running out of wood, and I just figured I should save it for when I’m not there. And now the door was open. And there was a man with a shotgun. He shouted at me. I pulled out my hammer. He shot me dead. And he went upstairs.