17 January 2012

Review: Fort Zombie - The awesome game that never was

How does one start a review which doesn't primarily consist of whining like a spoiled brat? Oh, lovely. I'm already doing one of my least favorite vidya reviewer cliches and being meta in my introduction... Ok, let's try this again.

Fort Zombie is an RPG. It goes like so: Zombies have happened. They have taken over your small town of Piety, Indiana. They fucked it up good. You find yourself in the middle of all the chaos and decide to take over a building for use as your stronghold, scavenge supplies and gather survivors, and make a last stand against the zeds.

It's 3rd person. There's skills that increase as you use them. You need a search skill to discover supplies, you can pick locks. Each weapon also has its own skill: Suppose you have an M16, your final skill is determined by your "M16 skill" (starts at 0 and increases as you use the M16) + your assault rifle skill. This is a great idea- it's not too complicated, it's not too simple, and since weapons are scarce and you don't often have much freedom deciding who gets what gun, this leads to people developing favorite weapons that they are very good with. You often get situations where you find, say, a shotgun better than the one you have, but you are so used to the current one, that sticking with the old one is a better idea. This does wonders for naturally making your team organic and differentiated.

You embark on expeditions to the town everyday, the town layout is procedurally generated. You can find food, medicine, supplies (to build base defenses), fuel (to power base defenses) and survivors. The survivors will not want to join up with you if you don't have good social skills, or if your entourage has high attrition rates. Sometimes you can find random quest NPCs.

There are many types of zombies. Now, I don't really have a zombie fetish like a certain group of people out there. I think the idea of a zombie apocalypse is stupid for many reasons, which were quite well described by Yahtzee in his Dead Island review already. Zombies are stupid, the transparent escapist power fantasy aspect of it stupid, and they don't really make for particularly interesting stories. I don't hate them, though. I think zombies are a great game concept- they're a slow, lumbering, dumb cannon fodder which is only threatening through sheer numerical force. They are a perfect antagonist whenever gameplay relies on hordes or waves of enemies: They are capable of making decisions, but not too smart, they are numerous but not fast, they are durable but not powerful. They have no self preservation instinct and no apparent leadership. But best of all, they have all these qualities without seeming dumb and illogical like an army of slow zerg, or a horde of human soldiers running to their death would be.

Fort Zombie uses zombies very well. The zombies in this game are supposed to go on doing whatever it was they used to commonly do in their former life: You get jogger zombies running after you, footballer zombies tackling you, cop zombies shooting you. It makes for a nice variety of enemies. Their AI also has the right idea: They'll chase you, and try to overcome obstacles, but break line of sight and they forget about you instantly, like the brainless idiots that zombies should be.

Also, not all missions this game generates are winnable, many are not worth your time and ammo. You often encounter powerful groups of zombies that you cannot beat. The game makes little effort to scale the difficulty- you have to choose your battles and know your limits, and know when a fight is winnable but still a waste of time. It's done very well and makes for a very fun, strategically complex game, especially for someone sick of the mainstream's dire fear of ever having the player lose or walk away from a fight.

Altogether, Fort Zombie is a wonderful little game. It's as if someone took one of the "awesome video game idea"s that everyone inevitably comes up with thinking about zombies, and made it real. It does everything right. It's gritty, it's harsh, it has lots of detail in places you want and no pointless micromanaging of things which don't matter. It's pretty much perfect... Pretty much.

You see, there's one unfortunate flaw: The game is unplayable. It's broken. It was never finished. The whole thing came out of Kerberos Productions's efforts to create an engine for their party-based space game Northstar, when they realized the engine they had could be quickly turned into a nice zombie game. The graphics are like those of a 2001 game, which isn't a big deal by itself, if only the game didn't also run like an 2001 game on 1999 hardware (and the game is quite recent, being released in 2009). There is a mod that removes physics, which supposedly speeds up thing quite a bit (I haven't tried it).

It also crashes, often and unexpectedly. To be sure, the autosave isn't awful, so you don't lose that much progress, but the long loading times make the each crash quite painful.

Strangely enough, there's also no music, except for the menu. And, while the silence does add to the atmosphere a lot of the time, there were certainly points when I felt like some music would have made the game seem less sterile.

So, it's a bit of a predicament, really. A great game, but I just wasn't able to play it. The controls are clumsy, the follower AI gets stuck and lost easily, the load times are too long, it crashes too much and the graphics performance is really sub-par. If only development on this continued...

If you are feeling brave enough to give this a try, you will need the wiki, because vital info is missing from tooltips. If you feel like you can't handle it, I would definitely recommend watching a Let's Play series. Even though the game is difficult to play in its current state, the kind of game that it was supposed to be is quite unique. There are probably others out there which are quite decent, but I was watching Revocane's videos. Incidentally, he rambles and mumbles like a paranoid schizophrenic, quite aptly given the game and character he is playing. Anyhow, good luck, and enjoy!

Score: 4/5

Bias: Would be 3 if this wasn't a Paradox game (MARRY ME PARADOX).

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