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Should I be excited about… Project Zomboid (PC)

There are some really talented people behind Project Zomboid, and they talk intelligently about the game. They seem to know what they are doing. Why then is there so little for ME to say about Project Zomboid? Probably because there is little reason, at this moment at least, to play Project Zomboid. Its lack of ambition is only matched by its lack of polish.

It makes me wonder if the developers know. They must know that it’s not okay to put the game out to Greenlight in its current state and to charge for it. They must know it’s not ready. Right?

Coming into the very competitive market of zombie survival games, Project Zomboid finds itself faced with titles like State of Decay. That’s unfortunate, because Project Zomboid lacks the exciting emergent scenarios, drama, visceral action, excitement, dynamic encounters, character development and polish of State of Decay. Indeed, the list of what Project Zomboid actually has going for it is short.

Project-Zomboid-627x246bLets start with the positives. The games scant explanation is delivered by a cute racoon. It might only be seven or eight broad and vague tips for the player, but it’s neat and is reminiscent of Pip Boy; that’s some black humour that sets the experience off to a good start.

The music is excellent. From what I’ve heard in Project Zomboid, Zach Beever is a talented young composer and someone to watch in the future. While the epic scope and scale of his score ill-suits the amateurish visuals and basic gameplay, just leaving the game to idle and taking in the soundscape is a pleasurable experience. Certainly preferable to playing the game at any rate.

Oh, and the game says “This is how you died” when you start playing. That’s morbidly engaging for the player.

Once you get to the actual game, it’s a real mess. While the primitive visuals make you think of a Sim game or a Baldurs Gate style RPG, you control the character directly with WASD. This is infuriating, as the isometric-style view feels clunky when you are directly controlling your character. You constantly feel like you should be able to click to direct your characters movement. Indeed you can right click then choose “move to”, but that’s one step too many. Controller support would have been welcomed as an alternative, but in truth I struggled to get the game to accept new key bindings. Perhaps the controls are simpler than they seemed to me, but I couldn’t get to grips with them at all.

Project-Zomboid-627x246I also had serious issues with crashes and system restarts when changing resolutions, and throughout my time with Project Zomboid the game was always on the verge of keeling over. I found my best chance of preventing crashes and restarts was to avoid touching menu options as much as I could. The game also cruelly kicks you to desktop when you die, which may be some kind of intentional statement on failure from the developer, but which only made me less likely to load up and play again.

Your goal in the game is survival, but with crucial character animations either too subtle for me to detect, or missing altogether, it’s hard to care when you are being attacked by the zombies. Clearly the game is trying to stress the importance of managing your stress and health (lots of little indicators and icons appear when you’re attacked), but when your avatar barely reacts to the zombies gently rubbing his arms, the dramatic tension is killed completely.

Once you find your feet you’ll be looting houses, making a base to defend yourself, finding weapons and fending off flu and colds. If you manage to play that long though, you really begin to wonder why. Every aspect of the game (with the exception of the music) is downplayed. Combat is simplistic and poorly animated. The generated environments are basic and ugly. The enemies are all very similar. The menu’s look like a bad Winamp skin. Nothing feels finished, there’s no love given to the games appearance and no consideration of the players experience.

Project-Zomboid-627x246aTo give an example, when you pick a book you start reading it. In most RPG’s, you would simple click “read”, and behold, you have a new skill! A simplification, but one that benefits the pacing of the game. In Project Zomboid, you wait for a bar to fill up as the character reads. It moves slow. It’s not just kinda slow though, it’s so slow you swear the developer is laughing at you. What exactly did this concession to reality add to the game? Nothing. Nothing at all. There’s nothing to do while this bar slowly fills. You can watch it, or you can give up reading the book. Or better yet, you can play Teleglitch, or State of Decay or Rogue Legacy or any other of those games that crafted good gameplay experiences for the player.

I hope I’m missing something. I hope Project Zomboid will be great when it’s finished. But…

In the tv show Dragon’s Den, there’s often a point where a likeable young person is obviously wasting their time and effort on a terrible idea. When the creaky old Dragon’s begin to feel a tingle of emotion, in this case empathy (a vestigial remnant of their previous human forms), they often plead with the young hopeful: “Please, forget this terrible idea. You’re young. Don’t waste your life on this.” With so many talented people working on Project Zomboid, I wanted to offer them the same advice.

Deep down they must know….

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