Have You Played… Urban Dead?

Browser-based biting

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

Urban Dead [official site] is the zombie apocalypse MMO I’ve always wanted, stuck in the body of a web browser game. Back when I played, you’d begin life as a doctor, fireman or just a mall rat. But inevitably you’d forget to board up the house you’re in and log in to discover yourself a walking corpse, only able to communicate to other players through groans and grunts. With some luck and compassion, however, those human players might actually understand you.

The zombie “language” of Urban Dead is great. You type in your sentence and the game scrambles it up with “ggrrrrs” and “hhharghs” and “bluurgs” before broadcasting it to other people. If you learn how to anticipate the changes in the lettering, you can construct sentences as close as possible to English. This meant you’d find the odd player who had done their research shambling up to protected buildings and speaking in a weird half-understandable zombielang, asking to be revived and brought back to human form – something that can only be done by another player with a specific device.

The trouble, of course, is that this is all done in a browser with old HTML buttons and the need to constantly refresh the page (Nexus War was another good one of these, but it’s now defunct). When I was younger, this only added to the sense of a city where things can go wrong quickly. Survivors and zombies would engage in big “refresh battles”, boarding up windows and doors with every click, or clawing and smashing them down in opposition. You might hit a button one moment, with the building secured, only to click again and discover you’ve been bitten to death and thrown out of the safehouse with the other unlucky souls.

It’s still running, something of which the prolific creator Kevan Davis can be proud (he’s the developer who also made the original Zombie Infection Simulation). And though I probably wouldn’t have the patience for it today, I certainly won’t forget those sieges at Caiger Mall.

34 Comments

  1. davebo says:

    Oh man does this take me back. Some people on forums I read used to just invade this game every two years or so and over the course of a month take over the entire map, then just quit. It was probably the most fun I’ve had with a text based browser game. Harman Harmbargers!

    • Artist says:

      Fancy. And what else do you dream about?

      • davebo says:

        You actually got me wondering if maybe I was remembering through rose-colored glasses so I had to look it up. Amazingly the guy who runs this keeps hourly stats on the game going back to 2007, and in both 2007 and 2008 there were spikes of about 10,000 additional active players. Given that there’s usually relative parity between living and dead in the game, it was more than enough to turn the tides. Kudos to good record-keeping.

        link to urbandead.com

  2. gburchell says:

    Urban Dead was awesome. One of my favourite gaming memories was playing with friends, one of whom was murdered by two survivors.

    We spent all our points getting to the area and scouting around eventually finding the guy that did it.

    Over the next 48 hours we kept them talking, convincing them we should team up and were in a good place to use as a base.

    I can’t remember why we waited, it may have been to accrue enough points for us to attack him simultaneously.

    We arranged to log on at the same time and sprang our trap. We delivered a “payback” message and then we murdered them, chucking their body’s out in the street before legging it.

    AMAZING.

    Even took a screenshot of the “payback” message which you can see in the following link :)

    link to ibb.co

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    james.hancox says:

    Good grief yes. I helped kick off the infamous “Mall Tours” after a game change turned malls from impenetrable fortresses into fragile eggs full of delicious, delicious harman brainz. Great times.

  4. poliovaccine says:

    It seems like “the zombie apocalypse game I’ve always wanted” is basically the same immersive, detail-intensive, emergent-drama-driven sandboxish concept between all of us, but even so, when it comes to generating its material incarnations, people vary so wildly as to what they like and don’t like, or want and don’t want, that it’s really pretty interesting to behold, and it brings things down to differing preferences, on otherwise common ground, in an interesting way. Like the game in this artice, for example – I suppose from a designer/programmer’s perspective making an HTML game is an appealing way to do lots of detail without lots of assets, from that end I totally get it… but I also have this identity as a player, see, which finds that idea just way too skeletal, and so simply unacceptable. But that’s also just me, coming from my own gaming history, which has always had at least some graphical representation beyond the interface.

    I mean, another example is State of Decay. I love that game – *that* is the zombie apocalypse game *I* had always wanted, and I got it and now I’m not very curious about any else. And yet it seems like that’s because there’s no clear way to iterate on the basic formula – the only thing to do is mix it up and crossbreed with other genres, a la everything from Left 4 Dead to Fortnite, with stuff like DayZ and 7 Days to Die in between. Even their names all seem to come from the same random assemblage of key terms out of a hat. But in any case, other people *hate* State of Decay, for specific reasons, *gameplay-specific* reasons, not just cus they hate Microsoft or it performed badly before patched or something… and yet they seem to (have always) want(ed) the exact same zombie apocalypse game as me. But State of Decay is *it* for me, and so not for them.

    I just find it interesting how the idea, “the dream,” is basically crystal clear and eminently possible, but almost to the point where it’s defined *so* specifically that there’s plenty of room for idiosyncratic variance – for instance, some peoples’ ideal zombie apocalypse game is all the same features as my ideal one, but theirs is topdown and turn-based. Like, if only 5 new games came out every year, or if we still saw games like we did back in the 90s, and something like State of Decay came out..? I feel like it’d be as big as… well, as GTA3. But now we’re so spoiled for choice in this… genre? subgenre? offshoot of a subgenre? that we can basically afford to be crazy picky.

    Anyway, it’s interesting in itself how the zombie apocalypse scenario has sort of mutated into a genre and set of conventions/mechanics as much as anything – like, what began as a plot and a concept for certain sci-fi/horror movies is now its own framework for all kinds of media. Within the zombie apocalypse scenario you can do plain action (Resident Evil 6), drama (The Walking Dead), straight horror (Resident Evil 1, really any number of examples), sci-fi horror (Dead Space), turn-based strategy (Dead State), comedy horror (Dead Island, Dead Rising 3 or 4), open world and/or simulation (State of Decay, a few others), even parkour apparently (Dying Light)… I mean, as much as we’re all sick to death of the damned zombie stuff by now, still, talk about yr pregnant concepts..! The idea’s had a lot of miles out of it.

    Something like this browser game just seems too much of a distillation down to bare mechanics for me personally, not enough room for the sort of chaos I enjoy seeing in a physics-simulated 3D environment or with groups of intelligent, independent AI… so for me, State of Decay is the way to go.

    That said, it’s to my point that, for as much as I love State of Decay, it’s almost weird how much I don’t love Dead Rising (the first had more in common w SoD than the rest of the series, which totally pulled a Saints Row with its progression). So similar on paper, but in reality the difference is vast. Kinda like acid vs. mushrooms.

    Anyone know what I mean? It’s a nebulous point, and I’m sure it could be made better. But for some reason seeing the zombie apocalypse boiled down to its hard, pebbly core as a browser game just sparks this line of thinking. Anyone else feeling that?

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      fegbarr says:

      State of Decay came *this* close to perfection for me. I didn’t like the way the storyline forced you into busier and busier areas where bigger and better stuff became more and more common, so suddenly each house you broke into was full of machine guns when not a week or two ago a bit of pistol ammo was a celebratory find.

      If they’d only made the same game but with a finite amount of realistically-distributed stuff and no storyline to move you on (just the impetus to move when your locale runs out of food and supplies) I’d still be playing it today.

      You’re right, though, it’s amazing how we would all describe our perfect zombie game in the same broad terms but it’s the little things it boils down to that make all the difference.

      • sairas says:

        So you’re still playing Breakdown. Right?

      • TheAngriestHobo says:

        My issue was the jarring discrepancy between how capable the player-control character was and how pathetically useless every other survivor seemed to be. The constant calls to rescue AI-controlled morons who had wandered into infested areas or fallen down a well got old really fast. Why do I always have to be the one to pull their asses out of the fire? Can’t someone else do it?

    • Artist says:

      Anybody remember when a lot of people thought H1Z1 would be “that one game”? Haha, still laughing my ass off!

    • HeavyStorm says:

      Hopping in just to mention that SoD is the one that gets closer to what I dream of, but the one with most potential, to me, is Project Zomboid.

      Last time I played, however, it was still lacking for a number of things (early access woes) so I’m holding on.

      (oh, SoD doesn’t get the title because of some tiring repetition that I think could have been avoided if they had more money / time / maturity)

  5. Dezmiatu says:

    All praise the Toothy Lord. May the faithless shamble mindlessly through the world, never to know His Healing Scaly Caress.

    link to wiki.urbandead.com

    • Artist says:

      Mrrh!
      Strangely that exactly what my cat answers when I ask her if she wants food..

  6. maninahat says:

    I had a couple of good memories. I remember tracking down a habitual player killer to his lair and attacked them. The player must have seen what was happening, because they did a runner, and I had to chase them across the city, eventually taking them down when they ran out of action points.

    The other good memory was shacking up at a bar that had its own gang of survivors, and a toothless pet zombie whom no one would harm. Then some newb would visit, kill the zombie on instinct, and we’d have a kerfuffle trying to bring them back inside.

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    fegbarr says:

    I have very similar memories to Brendan – those desperate battles to board up the walls faster than the zombies tore them down, the realisation that malls were suddenly vulnerable. The weird queues zombies would form when they were after resurrection. Definitely the best browser game I ever got involved in.

  8. FMAN71 says:

    I really love this game, it has a neo-nostalgic feel to it. Urban Undead is a simple concept done well with a passionate fanbase. If you check out their wiki page each building has its own history with player and group events written into them.

    What killed the game for me was the player-killer (PKer) groups. The game is hard enough when it’s human vs zombie. You barely have enough actions points to kill a zombie and return to safety. Once you are in shelter, PKers just kill you for no reason, without any roleplaying or saying anything. A couple times I hunted down those who had done me wrong all to get mostly likely reported to the larger PKer group and then I was killed again.

    • PineMaple says:

      That’s actually an interesting perspective because it was the exact opposite for me. The human vs. zombie battle was ridiculously easy (barring the occasional mall siege) on the human side because there was simply no point in actually killing the zombies. You could use the majority of your action points to kill a zombie and get back to safety, whereupon the “dead” zombie would take maybe 10% of its action points to stand back up again. Or, you could use the same amount of action points to barricade up 5-6 buildings, something that would take the full AP economy of multiple zombies to undo. Outside of the organized sieges, the only times the game got interesting (or dangerous) for me were precisely those PKer vs. anti-PKer battles. Without that dynamic I’d almost assuredly have quit after a few weeks of play.

  9. sairas says:

    Sweet Zambah G-Zaz!

  10. rondertaker says:

    holy fuck, this post triggered a flood of memories i didnt even know i had. i was obsessed with this shit for a brief shining moment.

  11. Small Ivory Knight says:

    Oh wow! I fought at both first and second Caiger, I used to spend hours with this game. Farewell, my halcyon days. I miss thee.

  12. Crocobutt says:

    10 years later it’s still going. Wow.

  13. JonClaw says:

    Easily near the top of my past favorites list. I fondly remember being a part of the Ridleybank Resistance Front.

  14. John R says:

    Ah, the days of the Zookeepers. Good times. I ran into a mate of mine from uni I hadn’t seen in years playing UD (there was something in his description that clued me in as I recall), back before Facebook made it easy to find people.

    The (something) Arms Irregulars was the pub group with the zombie member, wasn’t it? We used to swing down and visit a lot since they were close by, and had a similar sense of humour. For such a basic (and repetitive) MMO, it had some great community people.

    Zambah grab harman banana.

    • emotionengine says:

      You mean the Burchell Arms Regulars? link to wiki.urbandead.com

      I used to hang around there as well but never got around to actually joining them. Just logged in again after ages right now to find myself literally one building south of the HQ, heh.

      • John R says:

        That’s the ones! Also, ye gods, our old UD group’s message board is still up, and occasionally still used. And a couple of old Zookeepers are still active in-game, by the looks of it. It’s like looking through a portal into the past.

  15. Sin Vega says:

    I have! I had a human and a zombie character going (separate areas, obv). Plucky human Fadge Jones did well until he got unlucky, I forget how. But good old Shufflin’ Steve went a good long while, until one day, he was minding his own business as usual when some arsehole “revived” him, forcibly turning him into a human against his wishes. He lay on the floor forever after that, refusing to move on principle.

  16. emotionengine says:

    Oh have I ever! It’s been eons since I last did, though. Now that you mentioned it, I actually went back and logged back in to find that my fully leveled and maxed out character is still alive after all these years :o

    Maybe a sign of the times that first zombie I came across today was this fella link to i.imgur.com

    EDIT: The Zed’s profile link to urbandead.com

  17. Sinomatic says:

    Wow, I’d forgotten about this. Memories are a little vague but I know that one of my characters took part in some mass ‘hold the mall’ type action at one point that raged on over a weekend (human vs zombie). It was strangely fun considering it’s nothing more than refreshing a page regularly.

  18. April March says:

    I sure did. It was a pretty cool game. And it had a kickass logo. But I eventually got bored – mostly because a group of people decided I was their enemy because I had a passing relation with another group of people, but mostly because there was nothing to do.

    I remember thinking then that it was a textbook example of the first kind of equilibrium predicted by Richard Bartle: killers and achievers in balance, and little for anyone else to do. I’ve always been an explorer, so the game had little for me. I remember that when I died I was trying to visit the four corners of the map.

    Now Nexus War was brilliant. It’s a shame that one went offline. (An even greater shame that there was a gigantic event when it went away, with the gods themselves coming down to the world, and I missed it, because I wasn’t actively playing any more… even though I was still active in the forums. I was just like, huh, the forums seem empty lately.) But I liked it a lot better because it had an actual sense of place. Urban Dead’s map is procedurally generated (not a guess, its creator has a lot of random toys on his site) which means it feels like a jumble of buildings rather than a city, and has nonsensical things like the L-shaped stadium. Nexus War’s many maps felt real. You could see the lore seeping from every corner.

  19. malkav11 says:

    I enjoyed it in the early days as it was rapidly developing and people were just enjoying the systems. Once massive groups started organizing out of game (e.g. the SomethingAwful led zombie horde The Many) I bailed because it stopped being any fun as a solo agent and for me using out of game facilities felt like cheating.

  20. Massenstein says:

    Grab arm, harm man!

  21. dylan says:

    Not only have I played the game to death, but for years my Urban Dead t-shirt fit better than any other. I don’t know what alchemy of measurements and fabrics created the effect, but pulling this thing over my scrawny 20-something torso was a damn miracle. It looked good, felt better, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since. The curse of knowing what a t-shirt can be, only to be constantly disappointed.

    Anyway, even if I hadn’t worn it to shreds the magic would be lost ever since I hit my thirties and fattened up a bit. Sigh.

  22. Ergonomic Cat says:

    This inspired me to log back in.

    My survivor was still human, safe in a building.

    And I went out to try to find fuel and ended up out of AP in the street outside my safe house.

    So yeah, nothing has changed. ;)

    Based on my profile, I was part of the Freeman’s Militia.