Recently there was an outbreak in gaming. No, gamers have not been getting Ebola (I don’t even know why you’d joke about that; honestly it’s too soon and in very poor taste). But gamers have recently been inundated with survival horror games. It’s difficult to trace the epidemic back to its source, but if I had to guess who our Patient Zero would be, I’d start by pointing the finger at Minecraft. With some world building elements and some endearing (yet equally terrifying) creeps to fend off, the world was exposed to the idea that there’s fun to be had in staving off an ever-present threat will building (or rebuilding) society.
That simple concept has spawned more games than I care to mention, several of which incorporate the word “Dead” into the title. Certainly zombies have been around in gaming awhile, and they seem the perfect shambling adversary to keep players on edge. So does Project Zomboid, an indie title still in Steam’s Early Access, really offer gamers anything unique that they can’t find elsewhere? After spending ten hours dying and surviving, I’m leaning towards Yes.
What PZ does that I appreciate a bit more than other titles in the genre is place an emphasis on character creation, offering a quasi-RPG system of perks and balances to choose from at the moment of your inception. With a few “job” roles to choose from you start out with a couple bonuses, and can then select from a list of positive and negative traits, where picking a beneficial perk means you’ll have to offset it with a negative one. Each trait is weighted with a certain amount of points, loosely based on how much of a boon or burden the trait is; if you want to be strong enough to carry plenty of scavenged items, you may need to also be clumsy, hard of hearing, or have a hearty appetite.
Once you dive into the game, you’re warned in advance that you’re going to die. The premise here isn’t that you build a superhero, but more that you learn from your mistakes, optimizing your beginning choices to work with how you want to play the game. The map is both fixed and persistent (though you can start completely over), meaning that even when you die and begin again, any time you invested into finding weapons, food or water won’t be wasted, assuming you can make it back to where you were holed up. It’s a system similar to State of Decay where you may have one person you preferred using (and whose skills you leveled up), but their death is something you’ll have to come to terms with.
Right now the game includes a crafting system which lets you do clever things like make ropes out of sheets, demolish stairs with a sledgehammer, chop down doors with an axe and use the resulting planks to construct a wooden fence around crops you have planted and watered (otherwise you’ll have zombies on your lawn). You can start up a server and work your way towards surviving on your own, preparing for the inevitable moment when the water and power turn off and the real surviving kicks in. Or you can join a hosted server and cooperate (or not) with other survivors as well.
For the moment the interface is a little cumbersome, and doing things like opening or climbing through windows and be difficult when both you and your character are panicking while being chased by the undead. While that frustration may be intentional, it can be hard to differentiate between objects and loot where you want to; on more than one occasion I attempted to place something on the stove to cook, and ended up throwing it on the floor or into the fridge behind me.
The graphics aren’t particularly stellar either, but they do function well enough to convey the atmosphere of the game, which is where PZ really shines. Given all the intricate elements at play in managing your hunger, thirst, panic, boredom and depression levels (through a unique little “Moodle” system), the game really draws you into its world. There are moments of tense action, made engaging not by gunplay or the (sometimes finicky) melee combat, but by how quickly you can get in over your head. You can try to be a super hero and go in guns blazing, but the noise will draw more zombies than you have bullets, and you’ll die.
Even in its unfinished state the game is worth purchasing, as it’s a zombie survival experience unlike any other; I know, because after playing Project Zomboid I searched desperately for another game that had better graphics and more visceral combat. The result? Although there are plenty of other titles out there that look prettier and have satisfying ‘splosions, those shallow experiences simply can’t match the depth of PZ’s survival systems that make this game so engaging.