I'm sure some people will take me to task in even considering Urban Dead a MMO. In my view, however, it ticks all the necessary boxes to be a MMO:
- It's massive (over 40 000 players had signed into Monroeville)
- It's multiplayer
- It's online
- It's set in a game world
That it is action point-based, doesn't have fancy graphics or lacks a complex game lore doesn't exclude it from the genre in my opinion; in fact it is arguably part of the leading edge of web-based MMOs that ignore being pretty or being shallow, grind-based time sinks in exchange for being easy to log in to and easy to play.
I played on Monroeville, a 'hard core' server set up to help celebrate the launch of "Day of the Dead" on DVD. What makes this server 'hard core' is that once you become a zombie, you can't turn back into a human thanks to Necrotech science (which you can in other games of Urban Dead). Also, once a survivor gets to level 10 (not that easy in Monroeville), they can get the Headshot skill which will permanently kill a zombie. So, it's the perma-death server, although you get two goes at virtual life - one as alive, the next as undead.
The short of Urban Dead is that you start a character (classes are Military, Civilian, Scientist and Zombie, with sub-classes for the living classes) and proceed to level that character up by doing things that get experience points (xp) - for the non-dead, this is generally trying to survive while taking pot shots at zombies; for the undead, this is generally trying to make survivors uncomfortable and / or into a meal. Every 100 xp you can buy yourself a new skill to help make surviving / zombie-ing easier.
Each action takes up a certain number of action points and given that each character can only get a maxium of 50 action points per day (earned at a rate of about 1 every half a real-life hour) players have to be careful about how they spend their time. Running out of action points when out in the open is a good way to guarantee a survivor's death or a possible beating from other zombies. This is because characters don't log off just because you aren't online - a character has be to be inactive for 5 days before they are hidden.
That's about the depth of the game: try to spend your action points to gain the most xp while also trying to stay upright. My Civilian Firefighter, Union Sub, managed to make it for several days and got to level 2 before being turned into a zombie while I was offline. Although this annoyed me a bit, it underlines the difficulty in providing a survival horror experience in the online environment: if I can log off at any time to protect my character then there is little risk in playing in such a world. Not being able to hide my character, the best I could do was try to stay with other survivors, or hole up in locations I hoped that zombies wouldn't look. This does a lot to add an element of tension to an otherwise simple game.
Currently Union Sub is wandering the city of Monroeville as a zombie, taking bites out of whoever he comes across (and, at this point, it is a lot easier to chomp on zombie than living flesh). No new characters can be created on Monroeville and at some point this server will be coming down and existing accounts rolled into Malton (a non-hardcore server). Importantly, I'm still having fun. It only takes about 10 minutes at most to play through my 50 action points, but it is a short-and-sweet experience. My only major gripe is that the hit percentages in combat are set incredibly low so that whiffing dozens of attacks is unfortunately common; however, I understand the design reasons behind it (higher hit percentages means it would be easier to kill characters without using all your action points, which in turn would reduce the challenge of making combat decisions in Urban Deadi.e. "Do I spend my last 6 action points attacking a target I might be able to kill, or do I use them to run and hide?").
Urban Dead is fun, simple to get the hang of (once you understand what gives xp) and does what it does with a minimum of fuss. It will never unseat WoW, but it wouldn't want to - Urban Dead and WoW are offering entirely different experiences. Any horror MMO currently in development should take a look at what Urban Dead does and learn from it - it already shows how a number of challenging game design decisions (e.g. characters being killed while players are offline, making survival interesting, permadeath) can potentially be solved.