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Project Zomboid Early Access Preview: All Men Must Die
It’s all gone wrong for Arya Stark; she’s nauseous, bleeding, exhausted, in tremendous pain, oh and slightly peckish. Unfortunately there’s not so much as a rotten radish in this toilet cubicle and the growing zombie horde scratching at the door have a very different kind of cuisine in mind.
I’m playing Project Zomboid, the zombie survival RPG developed by The Indie Stone and currently in Early Access on Steam and Desura. The fact that my character is named for little Miss Stabby Stark says a lot about my apparent lack of imagination in the field of character creation. This is my second character, my first, named after myself, met as quick and as violent an end as I realistically would in a zombie apocalypse. However Arya has, until now, proven quite the match for the end of times. All that sword fighting practice (or more accurately the fireman profession I chose for her) has given her a mean swing with a fire axe and her graceful trait means she moves like a cat (this doesn’t mean she occasionally stops to mark her territory).
Project Zomboid’s simple character creation starts with a choice between six professions, each of which gives a small bonus (unemployed doesn’t, but let’s be honest it should probably carry a negative). This is followed by a pick n’ mix of positive and negative traits, with the idea that positives must be paid for with negatives. Want to be super strong? Well you’ll need to pay for that by being noisy, or sickly. After you’ve built your character, and chosen one of the two starting towns in the vast section of rural Kentucky that makes up the game world, you’ll be dumped into a random house with only a brief series of tooltips to help you avoid being immediately eaten. Each new game starts with the words, “This is how you died.” There are no illusions of winning here and the only objective is to survive for as long as possible.
Arya has survived until her first winter, after clearing a farm on the edge of town she built rainwater barrels for when the taps stopped flowing, she planted crops and happily ate raw cabbage morning, noon and night. Unfortunately, I forgot the Stark motto (you saw this coming didn’t you?) and before I knew it, winter was here and a previously unseen moodle appeared on my screen: she was cold. Seeing as she’d ripped every piece of clothing that she wasn’t wearing into bandages and the vest she had on clearly wasn’t cutting it, I decided that a shopping trip was in order. A trip to a big clothing store she’d seen a couple of hours away. So after a good night’s sleep, a gulp of old rainwater and a couple of raw cabbages she set off to find a fabulous new winter look.
Although staying constantly on the move, eating preserved foods and sleeping in a different bed every night is a viable tactic initially, the game does encourage you to settle down. The robust farming and crafting systems, which tie into the game’s RPG elements (for example, a high level farmer can glean more information from their crops), both require tools that are too heavy to carry everywhere. Sometimes the game feels a little like The Sims: Zombie Apocalypse, the moodles in particular evoke Maxis’ life simulation behemoth; spend too long indoors and your character will become bored, stay too close to zombies and they’ll become stressed. The former can be cured with a good book or a spending some time outside. The only quick cure I’ve found for the latter is smoking, which I feel can’t be a good idea when cardiovascular health is suddenly so important.
To get to the clothing store Arya could go through some forests or down an open highway. I’d already found out that pushing through the thick forests was both tedious and dangerous, Project Zomboid uses a sense-based detection system for unexplored areas and zombies: if it isn’t in your field of vision or close enough for you to hear, it doesn’t appear on the screen. Therefore pushing through trees limits your visibility to a couple of feet, not good when there could be a zombie just waiting for you to blunder into it. This is a system that could only work with Project Zomboid’s top down style, and it creates some great jump scares when a zombie suddenly appears a foot behind you as it enters your field of perception. So, because I’m a bit of a coward, Arya went down the middle of the highway, dodging the occasional zombie and running until she was out of breath each time one lunged for her.
There were a few times I probably should have given up on this particular trip. The first was when I saw the size of the horde surrounding the clothing store, but graceful Arya skirted it easily enough. The second was when I considered that there may be more zombies hidden in the trees which grew close to the store on two sides, but they had no reason to bother her. The third was when she accidentally broke the window with her axe instead of opening it silently. Although that didn’t attract any attention, in her haste to get inside she was already in the middle of the store picking out sweaters when the alarm went off.
Project Zomboid has three gamemodes; a last stand survival mode where you hold a house against endless hordes, a survival mode with predesigned rules, and a sandbox mode where everything from the capabilities of the zombies to how long it takes for the electricity to break down can be tweaked. I was playing on sandbox mode so that I could alter the rate at which the infection spread, but unfortunately for Arya I’d left the zombie’s hearing on the default. On default firing a gun in the middle of the town is practically suicide, and setting off a store alarm in a store surrounded by zombies is certainly suicide.
So that’s how Arya found herself in the toilet cubicle with her adoring fans hammering on the door. Nothing to do now but heft her axe and wait. I’m already planning my next character, I don’t think she’d mind, she understands better than anyone. Valar morghulis.