I am wandering down an empty road in a snowy, forested landscape and rustling through every pile of rubbish I see discarded in the gutter. Behind me, in the distance, I can still hear the groans. When I started playing 7 Days To Die, I was sceptical. The crudeness of the graphics and the presentation in the trailer suggest some kind of rough hewn Minecraft clone, a bargain bucket DayZ. But one (in-game) week into this blocky zombie apocalypse and I am thoroughly enjoying myself, finding the game still has lots to offer. Years of videogames should have taught me by now that visual quality means nothing when it comes to how the thing actually plays. As the old saying goes: “You should never judge a procedurally-generated doomsday scenario with extensive crafting mechanics by its cover.”
In the beginning, there was Blapchap. He is my pig faced, malproportioned character. There are a surprisingly large amount of customisation options for your avatar, so I set all of Blapchap’s to maximum setting, except the ones that governed his legs. With that done. I seed a new world and drop into the apocalypse proper.
I have spawned between a verdant woodland (chirping, sunny, stags bounding around) and a depressing wasteland of urban death (leafless, ashen, strewn with cinder blocks). Any normal human, given the choice, would instantly seek out a quiet glade in the peaceful forest and settle down on some picturesque lakeside. Obviously, I am not a normal human. I head to the ruins.
The zombies are slow and gurgling. You can change the settings on your undead foes when you enter the world, so I have set mine to be classic Romeros, rather than speedy 28s. “I can deal with this,” I think. “Walkers are manageable so long as I stay cautious.” I didn’t make allowances for the zombie dogs. One of these spots me and closes on me fast. He savages my ankles and the game warns me that I have started to bleed out. I sprint away, climb inside a building, and quickly apply a bandage. The game gives you a little starter kit on your first life. Let’s see what else is in here? A torch! I whip it out and wait for the dog to reappear from the steps of the building. He comes round the corner yelping and I batter him with the torch, setting the mutt on fire. More zombies have seen us fighting and are starting to arrive from all around. I run out to the highest high rise I can see and climb up to the roof, where I find a corpse and catch my breath. There is a faint buzzing noise. Looking up, I see a wasp flying around the rooftops. It looks huge. Some kind of mutant? I’ve got to get out of here!
I clamber down the building and try to find my way out. Groans are pretty much constant and I begin, unwisely, to ignore them. I hear moaning much closer than before and turn to see a zombie cheerleader coming around the corner. I take out my torch and start swinging but I am backed up against a ledge. I manage to kill her but my torch is no longer setting things on fire and another zombie, a woman in a red dress, has arrived from behind her. I’m out of breath, I swing fitfully at her, striking her shoulder, her sternum, oh God, oh God!
I’ll say this for 7 Days To Die: although it essentially borrows from every conceivable survival game source, Minecraft especially, it does a much better job at putting you under intense pressure from the first minute. In Minecraft, your first day is also a race – but it is a race against sundown and, if you lose, you can always burrow into the ground with your bare hands and wait it out. In 7 Days, such safety would be enviable.
I died twice more on my first day from blood loss and blunt trauma before I finally struck upon a system for survival. By using the sneak button, you can semi-effectively hide from the undead. In the woodland, I scrambled everywhere in this crouch mode, scraping up the stones, grass and twigs I would need to make a primitive axe and crossbow. Periodically, I would raid the fallen nests of birds for feathers, so that I could create crossbow bolts.
The important thing was always to keep moving and if a zombie saw me to run far away and hide until it “forgets.” Hiding is an interesting feature. Zombies who see you will “hunt” you for a long time across the map but will “forget” if you run far enough away and hide again. You can set the zombies memory time in the world options and I have helped myself by setting it to its lowest limit of 30 seconds.
Night falls and I climb onto a boulder in the forest, by a long river. I crouch there all night, making as little noise as possible.
Just after midnight, I am troubled by some nearby noises. I point my newly fashioned crossbow into the treeline. But it isn’t a zombie – it’s a pig! I have to get this hog killed, it will surely drop some food. My hunger meter is nearly empty and I am just as thirsty. If either of these meters gets too low, it starts to affect how much stamina you have and how the maximum level of your health bar. Stamina is probably the most important, since it drains when you sprint or swing your weapon or tools. There is a deeper system at work here too but more on that later. Right now, I kill the pig.
I butcher it and place the pork into my satchel. Groans begin nearby. This is worrying. The game informs me that carrying smelly food will attract nearby zombies. I need to get this cooked and eaten. But for now I wait out the night by the riverbank, where my visibility is best and creep up and down avoiding zombies as much as possible, many of whom keep catching a whiff of the meaty treat in my bag.
Eventually day breaks and I creep back into the city. I have decided to sneak up to one of the taller buildings and set up a kind of nest. I would rather take my chances with the wasps that fly around than the things down here. On my way in a cop zombie spots me. I freeze. He lurches forward an inch then stops. He gurgles. He belches. And finally, he vomits at me. A huge projectile of green slime. I was not expecting it and I take a hit but whip out my crossbow and shoot him in the noggin.
But now other zombies have heard or seen the commotion. I dash to the top floor of my desired building, grabbing a chair on my way up, and climb a ladder to the roof. I get out the chair and pop it on top of the hatch. The zombies below keep groaning. Unfortunately, although I am hidden, the pork in my bag still reeks and they can sense it. They wander around on the floors below, battering the walls in an ill temper.
On the roof I set up a fire and a furnace. I want to cook the pork but I don’t have a pot and I am short one iron pipe from the ability to make a grill. Without a cooking implement, you can’t roast anything. After tidying up a little I hide the smelly pork into an air conditioner on the roof and the zombies quieten down. I lift the chair and make a break for it to one of the other high rises. But stop when I see what’s on the other side. A gun shop! I approach it warily and can see through the barred windows that there are some zombies inside. But the door is locked and reinforced with some scrap barricades. I think about this for a moment, then stand up and run around to get the attention of the zeds inside. The zombies get rattled at me and slowly begin taking down the door. Once its down I fell the helpful jerks and creep inside. I make sure the place is clear and put my trusty chair in the doorway as a barricade.
Finds: can of chilli, loads of gun parts and in the back of the shop: a pistol! But most importantly, I find another iron pipe. Now I can craft a grill. I pocket it all and get to thinking. This gunshop is probably more secure than the rooftop. But my pork and furnace is all back at the rooftop. I have also run out of water and night is closing fast. I high-tail it to the riverside and manage to get some murky water in empty jars but if I know if I drink this I will probably get sick. It is definitely that kind of game. I sprint back through the dying light, not even trying to keep quiet, and climb back to the roof. The new grill works well on my campfire and I wolf down some grilled pork – the first thing i have eaten in 2 days. I will need to find a pot to boil the murky water in, however, so I am still thirsty. I let night pass and put the chair over the hole.
I die a lot today. But luckily I found a mattress in the building I inhabit and it spawns me back there (or nearby) when I die. I go on a lot of runs to get things but the best place is one of the big apartment blocks. I stack up on some hay bales I found in the gun range at the back of the arms shop and use them as a makeshift stairway to climb into some fancy apartments. The place is full of bottled water, food, everything!
Then, good God, could it be? I see an airdrop from a window. A little trail of orange smoke coming from a parachute in the distance. It looks like it landed in the city. I can’t contain myself and I act before I think. I make a dash for the airdrop but my stamina is so screwed that I quickly run out of breath and become surrounded by zombies. I spot a ladder on a nearby petrol station and take to the roof. But the zombies simply follow me up. Shit. This is all going wrong. I decide to use the 9mm I found. Thankfully, I still have about thirty bullets from that policeman I killed. Twenty-five. Twenty. They just keep coming.
The thing you must understand about 7 Days zombies is that, while a single blow from one of them is not so much harm in itself, they often deal horrendous debuff effects. One of the most common is a stunning effect, which renders you incapable of moving more than a few inches for a couple of seconds. As a result, you don’t fear the zombies hitting you, you fear them paralysing you in place, trapping you, then crowding round and finishing you off. It’s a great trick and it brings 7 Days’ undead shamblers very close to being the zombies we all know and love from movies. Slow, useless when alone, but fearsome in numbers and very graspy.
Halfway through my ammo I leap from the roof and try to escape into a multi storey car park. Then the worst happens. I am spotted by a dog. He joins the chase, much faster than any walker, and pursues me all the way to the rooftop. Why is my instinct always to get into a hgh place I can’t escape from? The dog leaps at me. I try to punch him but he is too nippy and bouncey. He eats me alive.
I take it easier on my next run, thoroughly going through all the fancy apartments with open doors. I have abandoned the thought of the airdrop in favour of not being eaten. By the time night falls I have found what I was after – a cooking pot. But the sun is down and I am forced to spend the night in a top floor flat. All I need to do is get home and figure out how to get my stamina back to normal levels.
On waking I decide not to go home immediately but build a stairway of leather couches to get onto the roof through the skylight. Sadly nothing there but a decent view. I leave the apartments again, via the hay staircase.
The rest of the day is spent searching for clay. You need this to create moulds for your furnace. With an iron ingot mould, you can create iron tools: a fire axe would be super handy right now. Eventually after trawling the riversides for half the day, I find some discoloured earth. Sure enough, it’s clay. On my way back home (haha, “home”) I think “the only bad thing to happen right now would be a dog” and, like magic, one of the canines appears.
My stamina is still screwed so I can’t sprint too long. I turn and swing and manage to clip him with a barbed wire club. Phew. Good thing I crafted this thing. I am beginning to revere it – it can take out many zombies with a single good blow to the head and I am getting better at dealing with larger and larger groups. So why not take on the dogs as well? Sadly, the mongrel gave me a good savaging before he died and I am so close to being dead that my health bar is invisible. Not a millimetre of red bar showing. I spend the night in safety, with a coffee table stolen from one of the fancy apartments up against the hatch, molding hundreds of lumps of clay (I got way more than I need).
I really need to figure out this health and stamina system. No Google searches or YouTube videos will explain to me why it won’t return to a normal level and doing even the simplest things is leaving my character out of breath. When you run out of stamina in 7 Days, your character gives this loud, weary sigh. Looking through tutorials and wikis, I am starting to mimic this sound.
Finally discovered why my health and stamina are so low. The game has a ‘wellness’ system and if you die as much as I have, you are penalised and your health and stamina is capped at about a quarter of its full potential. Unfortunately, this is one of those game designs that has the spiral effect, where if you start to do badly, you keep doing badly. Worse than that, it does this in a way that is not even immediately noticeable or explained to the player. So that’s a bummer – especially harsh for new players like me. The only way to get better is to stay hydrated all the time, stay well fed, don’t get hurt and, most importantly, not die.
The only reason I can think of for including the “wellness” system is to make the game as unforgiving as possible. I understand that choice but I disagree on its necessity. While telling the player “keep losing til you don’t” works in the case of something like Dark Souls, with its static geography, consistent enemy placements and fixed spawn points, it feels out of place in a game like 7 Days To Die, where you often spawn randomly, far from anywhere you’ve been before, possibly surrounded by blood-thirsty hounds imported straight from the kennels of Satan himself. To a seasoned player, death after death might be more unlikely but the game is still, I feel, a little too merciless to the newbie. And part of me simply wants to start over with a new character and a new world. But to leave Blapchap like that would be a travesty. I will keep on going.
After looking around, I decide to leave the city. The place is oppressive, full of garbage and rubble. Maybe the zombies will spawn less often in the countryside, or that’s the hope. I pack up and dash out of the city, heading into the cold wilderness to the south, following the main road.
After a long journey, I discover a cabin on the roadside. But zombies surround the area. I clear them out with my trusty barbed wire club and enter the cabin, where I jimmy chairs in the open doorways. I have been carrying some stew from the city, so the few remaining zombies can smell me and are coming to the doors. I have to hide the stew in a bookcase while I deal with them. After a while I feel safe enough to build a furnace and rest down for the night, carving sticks and sorting my bags out. I like this house much better than my last place. And there is a bed upstairs. I will respawn here from now on.
Today is the day. I am going to make this place a home. Starting with placing wooden spikes all around the stone foundation.
Ah, cosy. Trees and rocks are plentiful here, so I am never really too low on the basics. Wild animals will be common enough for food, too. But water might be a problem. I shoveled up some snow but I can’t seem to figure out how to melt it down in my cooking pot. Speaking of cooking pots, I went to the neighbours and found seven. Furious to think I spent days looking for just one in the city. I melted down these ones for scrap iron.
As I am extending my spikes, a frozen lumberjack comes out of the woods. I decide to test my traps, he walks into one of the spikes and starts doing loops on the spot. A second zombie comes and does the same. I stand, looking at them, confused. Then, out of nowhere, a plane noise! I rush to the other side of the house to see where the airdrop is landing but I am looking into the sky so enthusiastically that I slip off the stairs at the front of my house and fall into my own spike trap.
When I respawn the lumberjack has broken into my house. Time to stop faffing about. Pistol shot to the back of the head. I go outside and check the area. It looks like his friend died on the spikes and no more zombies are incoming.
The quietest day in Blapchap’s history. 4pm and only one zombie bothered to harass me. The rest of the time is spent digging, almost meditatively. I am making a trench all around my house and putting big spikes at the bottom. I even manage to put together two landmines from some gunpowder and mint tins. Landmines! I put them on the road outside and make a mental note of their placement. I finish all this home improvement with plenty of time before nightfall so I decide to go look around further up the road, perhaps find some more scrap iron.
I go a long way down the road and find a good water source, closer than the river anyway. On my way back, some zombies have battered a deer but have yet to tear it apart. I swoop in and steal their kill, cutting the flesh off and putting it into my bag. I pass a lot of zombies on the road but only deal with the ones directly in my way. I am not even bothering to sneak anywhere anymore. I feel way more confident about survival out here. I get back to the cabin in time for sunset. Time to settle down and cook some of this venison on the fire. Ah, home sweet home.
I am tidying my inventory after the day’s run when I hear some zombie calls outside. Probably a just a couple, like before. But when I look out my window what I see is genuinely frightening. A horde.
Shuffling in the darkness. Thirty, maybe forty of them, all coming out of the woods from the direction I had been exploring. Did they follow me back here the whole way? Did they smell the deer roasting on the fire? I get out my pistol. Somehow, they have clambered right over the spike trench (I would see later that they simply walk through, taking damage) and now they are smashing my wooden walls to pieces. It doesn’t take long for them to tear down the walls. I am completely panicked.
It looks like the cabin in the woods plan can only work for so long. I’m annoyed that my home has been overrun. But also kind of impressed with the game. 7 Days lulled me into a life of luxury and relative peace in the woods, then unleashed misery when I finally felt competent enough to handle things. It is also the closest I’ve felt to being kept on the run in any zombie game. I am sure there is a better method of defending yourself as well as a more sturdy place to hold out against hordes, but I am secretly pleased that the axiom of the Walking Dead – “never stay in one place for too long” – can also be true in this world.
Even now, as I run down this snowy road, back to the horrible city and it’s hellhounds, I am simply ignoring zombies. Which makes me realise what a good game this actually is. A true zombie survival game will make you not want to shoot zombies. To just run past, to hit them with something, to trap them, to secure yourself, or to ignore them as much as possible. 7 Day to Die, for all its crudeness and roughness, actually manages to do that. As I scramble in a black refuse bag for scrap iron, a zombie groans and stumbles towards me, only a dozen yards away. But I feel in control. I know I have another few seconds to take everything I need.