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Wot I Think: Killing Floor

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Tripwire Interactive, the good chaps behind the Red Orchestra series, offered up their brand new, standalone multiplayer shooter Killing Floor last week. Well, I say brand new, but it’s an embiggening of an old UT2004 mod. A storm of hype exploded around this co-op survival horror shooter in the run up to release, so now’s the time to judge if it deserved such loving treatment. Indie zombie face-splatting? Sounds about ideal. Or does it? Impressions below…

If I was 15 and asked to describe the videogame of my dreams, I would suggest these things:

– Zombies
– Zombies with boobs
– A constant, screechy metal soundtrack
– Slow-motion, like in the Matrix
– A lady who makes bad innuendo whenever she talks to you
– Blood! Loadsa blood! And knives for arms!
– Chainsaws and rocket launchers and flamethrowers and and and… machetes!
– A boss with like guns for arms and like spikes in his chest and like a really huge gun and he’s like invisible and stuff

Gentlemen, I give you Killing Floor.

But then, I was never a terribly cultured 15-year-old. I have no idea as to the age or attitude of developers Tripwire Interactive, and thus cannot judge whether they’ve really made the game of their own dreams, or simply hope to appeal to a certain audience, but certainly, this isn’t interested in subtlety in its tone and presentation. It has a similarly brash, noisy attitude to many of those Doom 3 mods I looked at yesterday, but at the same time it’s a whole lot more complete – and a whole lot more fun too. This is monster mega-death, utterly geared towards instant, bloody thrills.

Its general air holds me back from entirely tapping into the raw joy beneath, annoyingly. It may, after all, only be my own tastes that precludes me from finding stuff like saying quitting players have suffered an aneurysm hilarious. Perhaps somewhere there’s an alterna-me that thinks medics repeatedly shouting “I’m trying to heal you, not to shag you” is something I would want to quote in my forum sig, or that Johnny Gun-For-An-Arm-And-Mouth-For-A-Chest in the screenshot above would make a nice desktop wallpaper. As it is though, I crave a little more finesse. Or, at least, something that really, properly goes for over-the-top offensiveness and excess – but this aims for somewhere in the middle.

But allow me to revert back to raw facts before I stumble off on a one-way trip into opinonland. Killing Floor is a co-operative survival-horror FPS, pitting a team of cockney, military human survivors against lurching hordes of zombies and other assorted beasties. The obvious Left 4 Dead comparisons are not unjustified, though it’s worth pointing out KF derives from a mod that predated Valve’s magnum brain-chomp opus. There’s much to separate the two games in their play styles, too – while L4D is about progress to an eventual escape, KF is about gunning down a fixed number of zombies in a fixed number of waves. In L4D, you’re the hunted, in KF you’re more like the hunter. A hunter in constant mortal danger, yes, but success absolutely positively depends on killing every last brain-chomperon the map.

It’s more akin, too, to a conventional singleplayer FPS, in that each zombie (especially the blade-armed, jumpy, invisible or sonic-screechy ones) is a pretty serious menace if it gets close enough, whereas L4D is more about managing the endless horde. There’s a spot of Counter-Strike in there too – your kills rack up cash, which you then get to spend on weapons and ammo, so long as you can stand to visit the trader after she’s made yet another schoolboy pun about liking ‘big ones.’

Ah, the trader – a curiously omnipotent and omniscient figure around whom the game’s entire structure hangs. She knows when the zombies are coming down to the second, and can shut up her shop and magically teleport to the other side of the level when they do. Her new location is your goal at the end of every wave – at least it is if you want a bigger gun or to restock your ammo. It’s a neat idea in terms of both how to get new guns into your hands and how to introduce down-time between the waves, but it’s so absolutely artificial. This is true of the game as a whole, really – whereas something like L4D offers something fluid, (relatively) logical and narrative-led, this wears its rules and numbers on its sleeve. For all the survival element, it’s really an arena game.

Which, that illogical trader aside, suits it just fine, really. It’s about bettering yourself, taking down those fixed-number waves ever-quicker and, over time, increasing your permanent rank in a variety of roles – e.g. shotgun guy, medic, machinegun guy… You select one of these roles – Perks, officially – which you either stick with semi-permanently or switch to another whenever you like, and it’ll grant you bonuses to stuff like damage and speed, depending on its rank. As with something like Call of Duty 4 or Battlefield 2, this becomes almost more of a reason to keep playing than the game itself – the endless pursuit of the bigger number. Given Killing Floor’s crudity and repetition in other respects, I’m going to cruelly predict that this oh-so-moreish upgrade chase may be all that really keeps some of the game’s currently large crowd playing for long.

It’s fun, it really is. That essential bullet/monster-skull interface is appropriately splattersome and adrenal. But it’s so clumsily presented – the voice-acting grates, the run animation seems straight out of the original Counter-Strike, and the empty noise of the soundtrack is the kind of thing grandmothers probably think videogamers listen to 24/7 – and it’s drowning in this sad excess of juvenilia. Most especially, the slow-motion, triggered at random by a particularly epic shot, which is simultaneously applied for a few seconds to everyone playing, is an abomination. Sure, one guy gets to let loose a couple of cool headshots in Matrix-o-vision, but someone else will find their already agonisingly slow weapon reload takes twice as long, or they suffer a screen full of spinning mess as some zombie hits them around the back of the head in treacle-time. I didn’t find it lent anything to the game except outdated posturing, but it detracts badly from the flow and adrenaline of the experience. It’s like someone intermittently knocking the mouse out of your hand.

As a co-op game generally, it’s a little lacking in strategy – at least as far as my puny awareness of how to be hardcore suggests – which makes it at least very accessible. There doesn’t seem to be all that much need to work together beyond staying bunched fairly close, lobbing occasional heals and killing everything as it appears, so there’s less of the blame and recrimination inherent in an L4D session when someone tries to do their own thing. The more expert-level chaps will doubtless come up with some incredibly, fiendishly elaborate weapon combos and defensive placements, but reflex and accuracy seem far more important than forming a plan. Again, fine, and in some ways a blessed relief from teamgames’ usual emphasis on strategising just so. Sometimes, you just want to shoot a lot of stuff in the face, and this is most definitely the game to offer that. There is heartpounding excitement to be had from making a last stand against impossible odds, and the cheers of your team-mates when you do are a fine reward. Just as well, as the only other reward is another cocking slow-motion effect as the boss falls over.

Still, for all the wanton carnage it tries to stretch itself a little. For instance, there’s a curious welding system with which you can temporarily lock some doors to delay the onset of the horde from a given direction. Unfortunately, the speed with which the array of increasingly tough (and increasingly ridiculous, culminating in an outright stupid-looking boss) zombies can kick ’em down again come the bigger waves means everyone firing wildly rather than fannying about with a welding torch for too long seems to be the better approach. Of course, at the Hard difficulty setting it’s monstrously tough, so artful welding becomes that much more crucial to keep some of the wolves from your door. On a hard server, it’s also vital to spend every last bullet incredibly carefully, else you’ll be reduced to desperately flailing melee.

It’s a challenge that’ll feel super-good to conquer (and right now I can’t even imagine besting the Suicidal setting), but the fairly pre-set nature of the waves and the ugly-gloomy look of the thing doesn’t have me convinced it’s something a majority of players will want to tackle again and again after the first few highs. I’m quite sure there’s much I’ve overlooked or am yet to learn in terms of how to truly master the thing – but the bottom line is it simply hasn’t entertained me quite enough to want to doggedly pursue such skills over hundreds of repeats of the same levels and the same jittery combat. It’s not a game-world I want to spend much more time in. That boiling, bloody broth of intense assault and and hardcore gunplay will unquestionably draw a passionate crowd from elsewhere, however.

Do Tripwire deserve more pats on the back because they’re an independent studio making and publishing populist videogames off their own back, and lack the resources necessary to make a game as polished as a more veteran studio? Well, good on ’em and well done for getting this made, but such pluckiness doesn’t change that this is a game with a pricetag (albeit a semi-budget one), and that it’s enjoyed the kind of startlingly heavy promotion on Steam lately that far more underdog indies have not. Frankly, I’m not convinced it deserved quite so high a profile, at least not in its crude current state.

Killing Floor is entertaining enough as mass zombiecide goes, but it’s little more than a grab-bag of fun features from other games, squeezed awkwardly together without anywhere near enough cement between the gaps. True, FPS is hardly a genre known for its invention, but those that do simply tow the line require a crapload of polish to get away with it. Sadly, this feels like little more than a mod in everything from the spartan, ugly menu onwards, and while the price is low, when you can pick up Left 4 Dead for similar spondoolies or grab any number of free zombie mods for other games, it’s a little hard to justify. If it were still a mod, it would be a cast-iron winner: but those noble origins don’t change what it is now.

One thing’s certainly right – the name. It doesn’t imply the game is anything more than the shallow, happily stupid thing it is. It just isn’t for me in the long-term: I want more. I don’t have the slightest doubt that it will attract a furiously passionate audience, however, and am already braced for the comments to come… My early thoughts here are, of course, all based on just a few days of the games’ existence – so while I’m done with it for now, if I hear exciting things in the weeks and months to come, I’ll gladly check in to see how it and its scene are developing.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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