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Michael Bitton: Project Zomboid -- A Steam Summer Sale Gem

Column By Michael Bitton on June 26, 2014

Like many of you, I have the first world problem of being frustrated with Steam’s epic summer and winter sales due to the fact I already own most of the games I would want. Also like you, I probably haven’t played most of those games.  That said, I have managed to pick up a couple of things so far during the summer sale, but I found an unlikely gem amongst them all in Project Zomboid.

I never got caught up in the zombie craze. Sure, I enjoy most of the usual suspects (Left 4 Dead, Killing Floor) and I dabble here and there, but I can’t say I’ve been consumed by excitement at the notion of the next best zombie title. Even as a sandbox fan, and with many zombie games being a sandbox affair (e.g. DayZ and clones), it’s just never been a big deal to me.

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A bit of peer pressure from my group of friends got me to break down and pick up 7 Days to Die during the sale, but I did not last long with that title. What it did do for me, however, is give me a bit of an itch for a zombie game experience, and that’s when I noticed Project Zomboid on sale for $10.

Project Zomboid is an isometric zombie sandbox ‘survival’ game in early access on Steam. I say survival in quotes because this isn’t a zombie game where you can stock up on resources and survive indefinitely. Surviving indefinitely in Project Zomboid is almost impossible, but you may last a while. You'll likely find the world full of resources at the beginning of the apocalypse, but time is not on your side. As time passes, perishable resources will rot, the electrical grid will give out, and the water supply will dry up. At first, you’ll find yourself comfortably finding shelter in houses with full lighting, working refrigerators and ovens, and an abundance of water available. If you manage to survive long enough, expect to find a whole lot of darkness, rotten food, and many infected water sources.

If you join a multiplayer server, many of these variables can be tweaked by the admin to create an easier or even harsher experience. For example, the grid and water supply can be instantly disabled, the climate can be set to be very cold and rainy, zombies can be beefed up in power and density, and so on. You can play the game on your own, host your own server with the aforementioned tweaks, or find one of many existing multiplayer servers (including roleplaying servers) that fit your fancy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s an MMO experience, but if you’ve got a hankering for a potentially brutal multiplayer zombie sandbox experience, you might want to look into Zomboid.

What really impressed me about the game was the delightful level of nuance, especially since the title is still under ongoing development. It’s a bunch of little things. The game’s contextual crafting system allows you to right click items in your inventory and instantly find out if you can make something out of them. You don’t need to spend time learning recipes; in most cases, if it makes sense, you can do it. Even in wackier examples like, “Hey, I wonder if I can put this pool ball in a sock and beat zombies with it.” The answer is yes, yes you can. You’ll find more practical examples as well. For one, you can use sheets to cover windows (zombies and players operate on line of sight) or attach multiple sheets together to create a sheet rope useful for rappelling out of a window to ground level. You’re almost always finding new ways to combine the items found in the game and I have to say it creates a truly satisfying sense of discovery.

Another thing Zomboid does to distinguish itself is not shy away from layering RPG mechanics into the experience. Visual character customization may be somewhat limited at the moment, but there are some interesting possibilities available to players in gameplay customization. This all starts at character creation where you can select from a large list of traits to give your character. Some of these traits are beneficial while others are not. Each trait is assigned a cost (positive numbers for negative traits and negative numbers for positive traits) and players’ sum total of trait costs must equal zero in order to finalize character creation. This means if you want to have eagle eye vision you may also have to opt for a debilitating case of claustrophobia. Figuring out the right balance of traits in order to come up with the character you want is a fun level of customization that I am not used to seeing in these sorts of games.  You can also choose a profession your character had before the apocalypse (police officer, construction worker, etc.) and these all confer various bonuses to your character. Policemen are better at shooting, firefighters can use axes more effectively when cutting down doors, and so on.

There is a progression system available in game, too. Most things you do will award you experience and once you’ve earned enough overall experience, you’ll level up, granting you a skill point to spend. Skill points can then be spent in a variety of skill lines that level up independently through usage. Cook enough and you’ll be able to spend a point in cooking, use blades enough and the same is true there. I don’t know what ranking up a skill line actually does for you, since there aren’t any descriptions available in game just yet, but I imagine someone with a high level in Aiming is pretty surgical with a shotgun.

The one caveat to Zomboid is the game’s aesthetic. If you’re thinking Zomboid bears an uncanny resemblance to something like RuneScape, you wouldn’t be too far off. Like RuneScape, Zomboid is one of the few games out there coded in Java, and it shows. It’s not the most beautiful game out there, but for whatever reason, I find the game’s aesthetic endearing.  Still, the game’s developers have utilized what they’ve got well. The world is detailed (and massive!), animations for both players and zombies are convincing, and even the sound effects and music are spot on. Mod support is also a big deal in Project Zomboid and there are already full-fledged community created maps available to play in. 

Project Zomboid is currently available for a moderate discount on Steam, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it hit $10 or even lower again over the course of the event. Keep an eye out!

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB

 

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