March of the Living [official site] has a very neat elevator pitch – FTL meets The Walking Dead. As a survivor of a plague of the undead, you select nodes on a map, encounter random events and manage your fatigue and hunger levels while occasionally fending off a zombie attack. As is traditional in this kind of fiction, your fellow survivors are a threat as well – on my first run, I killed plenty of zombies but didn’t manage to survive a shoot-out with an angry biker gang. Thoughts below.
That’s a good trailer, in that it shows you how an entire playthrough might work out. Making friends, making enemies, dealing with loss, being oh-so hungry and desperate to find ammo and a place to rest. My experience wasn’t quite as interesting, plot-wise. I stumbled from city to city, scrounged for bullets and food, and repeatedly disturbed small groups of zombies and had to burn through ammo to escape. Didn’t meet anyone friendly – the only humans I did meet on my first attempt were the biker bandits – and even though I nearly reached the end of the first of three map sectors, nothing particularly exciting had happened.
Nothing wrong with the occasional run light on drama in a game that relies heavily on randomisation. But I was hesitant to recommend March of the Living because when I first played it last week, right after launch. There were two factors that dissuaded me from sticking with the game (I cut my fourth attempt short and died relatively early on the first three). One of those factors has been somewhat countered by speedy and useful updates by the developers, based on post-release feedback. The element they’ve tackled is the speed of the game.
It’s still a little too slow for my tastes, but one of the main issue has been addressed. Initially, after clicking on a node to travel you’d then have to watch your character walking as the distance counter ticked down. If travel were instantaneous, with random encounters interrupting at a certain point along the road, I’d have been much more readily inclined to return. Well, now there’s a fast forward button, which improves things a great deal.
Combat takes up a fair bit of time as well though. It’s like thirty seconds per fight maybe, but I don’t feel as if the decisions I’m making during those thirty seconds make the interruption to the actual journey worthwhile. You can click to move and choose which enemies to target, and switch weapons. If you’re using a gun, you’ll need to hit a button to reload and you can also choose whether to aim at the upper or lower body. With a melee weapon, your choices are limited to striking or pushing back, the latter being an attempt to free yourself from a grappling zombie.
There are some neat touches. I particularly like the chance-to-hit percentages, which are overlayed on the x-axis at the bottom of the screen, moving relative to your character so that you can always see accuracy directly as it relates to the position of your character and enemies.
After a week of patches and updates, the only major quibble I have with the game is the imposition of a big old character-based storyline. You don’t create a character, you play as a guy who is heading to the home of his ex-wife and son, hoping they’ve survived. There are other characters to unlock but I’d rather play with a blank slate right from the start. The plotline isn’t much more than an excuse to head toward the right hand side of the map, as far as I’ve seen, but I find the writing a distraction rather than a source of motivation. I find the zombies a compelling enough reason to keep moving and to look for safety, and I’d prefer the story of my character to emerge as I play rather than defining my goals from the outset.
Still, worth a look if you’re intrigued by the concept. And judging by the work the developers have already put in since launch, it might be even more improved a few weeks from now.