Subterrain is a poorly named, but surprisingly excellent indie-ish game that came as part of the April Humble Monthly bundle. It is essentially a top-down survival horror crafting game, minus any base-building. As someone with an interest in survival-type games, this one scratches the itch very well.
The premise is that you are a researcher on a Martian base who gets thrown in jail, and then the power goes out. For a week. You eventually escape the prison and work your way to Central Command, and try to piece together what happened and why there are infected zombies and other creatures running about.
I’ve spoken about Economy of Design before, and there’s a compelling, intuitive call to action in this game. Specifically, the complex’s powerplant is slowly grinding down. There is already too much damage to sustain power to every single zone, so you have to choose which zones to send power to, with the others getting no Oxygen or Heat (assuming their Oxygen and Heat generators are even online). As it turns out, the infection plaguing the colony spreads faster in cold, non-oxygen environments. As each zone gets more infected, more powerful enemies appear, and at 50+% infection a bunch of zombies appear in Central Command and try to destroy the generator. So there is a race to find materials and blueprints to craft replacement power plant cores to power more zones and slow down the infection.
You have to balance the running around implied above, with more mundane concerns like food, water, sleeping, and even toilet activities. Each zone you enter typically needs to have Oxygen/Heat generators repaired too, so you have to bring along your own temporary supply of both lest you suffocate/freeze while exploring. There are enemies too, of course, so having a good supply of weapons and healing supplies are a must.
All the while, the clock is ticking and the infection is spreading…
To be honest, despite the above, it’s difficult for me to say how much fun the game actually is. I’m certainly enjoying it thus far, as it pressing a lot of my buttons in terms of survival and crafting and planning shit out. Fighting enemies is pretty easy, and exploring becomes quicker once you realize that 99% of everything is shit not worth sorting through. To an extent, I hate how formulaic it gets in the mid-game, where I’m at. I’ve unlocked everything in Tier 1, for example, and now to get the Shotgun v2 and Improved Nightstick (etc) I have to unlock Engineering Software v2 and Research Software v2, both of which were found in the 5th floor of X location.
In the meantime, I’m spending my time playing this instead of Destiny 2 because I like collecting all the things regardless of the pointlessness of the activity.
Regression Towards the Mean
I’m sure that 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a rather niche topic of interest to most people here, much less discussion about experimental Alpha builds of an Early Access titles, but I feel like the things going on with its development are applicable more generally.
When the first Alpha 16 (A16) experimental build arrived, it was transformative. Sleeper zombies seems like a minor change, but it fundamentally changed how you interacted with buildings. Prior to A16, you knew pretty much instantly how many zombies were inside a given structure, and once you killed all of them banging on the doors trying to get out, you were free to loot the place in peace. That is no longer the case – now you must actively sweep each room, and double-tap each body on the floor to ensure it stays where it is. There are still some bugs with these Sleepers suddenly spawning right behind you, but the overall effect is that nowhere is safe until you make it so.
Then came the balance changes.
First, since the Sleeper zombie system necessarily increases the amount of zombies one faces, zombie loot was decreased across the board. This makes sense, as if prior loot rates stayed the same, you might end up getting more loot from the zombies inside a building than the building itself.
In practice though, reducing zombie loot makes fighting zombies considerably less fun, especially on Horde nights. Zombies essentially become resource drains, to be avoided if possible. Which… maybe makes sense. Games like Dying Light featured that model, with zombies that functioned as speed bumps and possible death traps, nothing else. The problem is that Dying Light also featured impenetrable home bases, whereas even a few ignored zombies in 7DTD can bring down the strongest base in time.
Another change? Resource gains were reduced significantly. Up to this point, there was a “last hit” bonus drop of resources when you finally cut down a tree or smashed a boulder. Not only were the bonus resources great, but it was also viscerally satisfying getting that last burst of stuff concurrent with destroying the object you were mining. Apparently it made the early game too easy for the devs’ tastes however, so they got rid of it. Now when you fell a tree, you get the same 2-3 pieces of wood you got from whacking it the first 30 times.
More recently, the devs have also messed around with Stamina gains and losses. Stamina has always been a bit weird in 7DTD. There are a lot of Perks that correspond with Stamina gains – from making Sprinting cost less, to making Stamina recharge faster, and everything inbetween – but none of them really felt necessary. There was even Coffee and Beer items one could craft to recharge Stamina faster, but why bother? You could get into trouble being chased by a bear after cutting down a tree, but Stamina otherwise served the purpose of preventing you from Sprinting across the map 24/7.
Now? Iron/Steel tools will pretty much instantly drain all of your Stamina. Setting aside the more realistic concern of whether a steel shovel would make digging a hole easier than a stone shovel, the change seems rather ham-fisted. Yes, by making it virtually impossible to complete any tasks without Stamina Perks, the devs have made Stamina Perks relevant. But I’m not sure any thought was spared regarding whether Stamina Perks were a good idea to begin with.
Waiting around for Stamina to recharge is boring gameplay. It is literally no gameplay. Even if the idea is for the early game to be more “dangerous” or difficult, even if the goal is to tangibly demonstrate how improved your character gets over time, this is NOT the way to do it. Having Sleeper zombies haunt every house already shoots the difficulty of the early game through the roof. Reduced Wood gain has made crafting your own base impractical for the first few in-game weeks. Making early lucky finds like an Iron Pickaxe practically pointless until well after the point at which you could create one yourself? Mind-bogglingly stupid.
Experimental builds are experimental, and all this could be reverted tomorrow. Still, it remains concerning to me that the devs are placing such a high premium on “older” ideas rather than iterating on what actually feels fun about the game currently. Half a dozen Stamina Perks do not feel fun, nor does funneling skill points into them. They seem committed to keeping them simply because they had them already, in some weird Sunk Cost Fallacy manner.
Hopefully, things will change – if not soon, then by the beta.
As you may or may not have heard, SOE is coming out with a zombie apocalypse MMO called DayZ Online H1Z1. This was, in fact, what Smedley was talking about vis-a-vis the MMO that SWG veterans “could come home to.” Because… crafting? Whatever.
By the way, I’m with Syp on pronouncing H1Z1 as “hizzy.” Because just with the Xbone before it, these companies need to take a little more thought with how they name their products.
The details of the game are sketchy. Not in the ambiguous sense, but rather in the “there’s no possible way that will work” sense. Right off the top, this is a F2P full-loot FFA PvP game. In fact, the Tweets (sigh) are suggesting that the current design is permadeath, but I have a hard time imagining rerolling an entirely new character each time. I mean, if your character’s facial features and other customizations are somehow saved, is that really permadeath? Another feature is player housing that exists in the world, and people can set it on fire, presumably even while you are offline. That sounds totally reasonable, amirite? There will also be “trading,” which I understand as a euphemism for looting things off the corpses of traders. There are also no levels, which combined with the F2P aspect, seems to indicate the potential for an infinite firebombing army to reduce all player-owned structures to cinder at 4am.
Now, conceivably, these are solvable problems. Smedley has mentioned the existence of different server types, some of which will likely be PvZ-only. Some might even offer player housing protection on by default ala Minecraft. I have little doubt that we’ll also see housing immunity (or at least insurance) for 2000 Station Cash. The question mark is whether they’ll sell items directly, which could become problematic with a full-loot PvP system. “Hah, I totally ganked that dude and stole his $10 golden revolver.” [Fake edit: you keep your customization]
Speaking of monetization, Smedley has a Reddit thread up right now asking for ideas. No, seriously, he does. Currently, he seems pretty adamant that A) they will not be selling weapons at all, and B) they have a “preference” to not selling anything that helps with survival. Everything else is conceivably on the table… other than just asking for a goddamn subscription or box purchase. Many of the ideas so far revolve around pets, animations, clothing, and in-game advertisements ala Battlefield 2142. To his credit, Smedley shot down that last one, although ironically that would be something that made complete sense in the context of the game.
As far as the map size goes, well, here is Smedley:
I’ve seen a bunch of people asking questions about the Map size. Forgelight is built to handle arbitrarily sized worlds. Our plan is simple – we’re building the core of “anywhere USA”. When we first open it up to users the map will be huge, but nowhere near as big as it’s going to be in short order. Our Map Editing system allows us to quickly add massive areas. We want to make sure we clearly understand how the players are playing the game before we do that. On Planetside 2 we made a mistake by making multiple continents before we had a strong enough idea of what worked and what didn’t. This game is different. We’re doing it smarter. […]
So not to worry. Zombie Apocalypse isn’t going to be any fun if it’s like Disneyland on Spring Break and super crowded. We want remote.. haunting… being scared when you see someone. Your first instinct needs to be to hide. If there are 20 players in your view it’s not a very convincing Apocalypse :)
Ah. So… an MMO where actively avoiding other people is the only sane way to play. Hey, at least I already have a lot of practice doing just that.
This is the part of the post where I balance the negativity of the preceding paragraphs with some halfhearted praise. So… uh… well. I liked State of Decay? Using the PlanetSide 2 engine means they will have a quick development cycle, although it also means there won’t be any actual physics. The “play as a zombie” mode sounds like it could be fun. And… yeah. I feel kinda bad for The Forest guys, although maybe I shouldn’t – at least The Forest doesn’t feature full-loot PvP.
H1Z1 will be up on Steam’s Early Release program in 4-6 weeks for $20. Why are we paying money for the privledge of alpha-testing free-to-play games? Because fuck you, that’s why.
Review: State of Decay
Game: State of Decay
Recommended price: $7.50
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: 18 hours
Buy If You Like: Grand Theft Zombie, Sandbox Roguelikes
State of Decay is an open-world zombie sandbox game originally released for Xbox Live Arcade and ported to the PC. You take control of a randomized character and thereafter do your best scavenging buildings for supplies to build up your home base while recruiting additional survivors whom you much switch to after your character becomes tired or injured. Or killed, given how State of Decay features permadeath and auto-saving checkpoints. There is a fairly standard plot you can run through to beat the game, but it can be ignored for however long you wish.
I want to highlight the “PC port” part of this game again, because State of Decay unfortunately takes some hits from both angles. First, the game can be buggy. Zombies inside buildings can sometimes clip through the walls and start trying to give you a nice hug while still being immune to bullets to the face. During one play session, the NPCs on escort missions decided they would just stand there at the end of the mission instead of running to the “end mission” zone. Since the game won’t save until a mission in complete and there isn’t any way to cancel a mission in progress, I was stuck until I tried the outlandish solution of physically moving them inches at a time by bumping into them with my character. It worked, by the way.
The second PC Port hit comes from the fact that the game… well, it could use some work mechanics-wise. The core gameplay itself is rather amazing and refreshing. The map very much feels like a real set of small towns, and you can explore and ransack 99% of the buildings you see. As anyone who has read this blog might know, I have a (un)healthy obsession with looting stuff in post-apocalypse games like Fallout, and State of Decay definitely scratched that itch.
The problem is that some shit doesn’t make any sense, gameplay-wise. When you’re looting a house and come across a crate of supplies (Food, Medicine, Ammo, etc), you can load it into a duffel bag and take it back to your base to deposit. You can even drop the duffel bag and pick it up later if you want. What you cannot do, apparently, is load the duffel bag into your car trunk. Or have the NPC that accompanied you into the house to carry something. Or drop off the supplies at an Outpost you created, even though it has a Supply Chest that gives you access to all your gear no matter the distance to your home base. While you can call in scavengers to sort of auto-loot the house, the fact that they travel on foot and are fully exposed to the zombies you likely drove right past means looting the next town over is pretty much 100% up to you.
Also, I’m getting real tired of games where you can loot items from containers, or leave items in containers, but cannot put items back in containers. “Oh, I suppose I have to destroy this perfectly useful baseball bat because I picked it up first instead of this handgun.” That sort of nonsense is nothing more than lazy programming.
The game also doesn’t quite seem sure what type of challenge it wants to present. Your character can sneak around and even perform stealth kills on zombies, but said stealth kills aren’t really stealthy at all – it always makes enough noise for other zombies to investigate. That’s… realistic, I suppose, but it makes stealth gameplay mostly irrelevant. And while it is frighteningly easy to die when mobbed, for the most part killing zombies is EZ-Mode; melee attacks interrupt zombie grabs, and homemade silencers make gunplay perfectly safe. There are stereotypical “Freak” zombies with extra abilities, but the open-world nature of the game means that most of the time you can lure them outside and then run them over with a car.
At the end of the day though, I enjoyed my time killing zombies and looting things in Trumbull Valley. The skeleton of an amazing game is definitely there; the devs just have to flesh it out a bit more. What I would like to see is a full-fledged sequel called Nation of Decay or something, in which I can load up the back of my Camero with supplies, pop a 80s rock ballad in the tape deck, and slam a zombie with my car door as I speed down the highway into the sunset.
Can There Be Too Many Zombie Sandboxes?
In fact, the default answer to any question of “Can there be too many X games” is No.
A game does not magically get worse because there are a lot of similar titles on the market; you might get tired of playing the same theme/setting multiple times in a row, but whose fault is that? I will take a thoroughly unoriginal knockoff game that is actually fun over the groundbreaking original snoozefest any day. The key is that each otherwise copycat game that comes after needs to be better than the one before. Do that, and you’re golden in my book.
I bring all this up because I just read Keen’s brief write-up of a zombie sandbox pseudo-MMO called The War Z. Not to be confused with World War Z, the bestselling 2006 book, of course. Or DayZ, the zombie sandbox mod that caused me to purchase ArmaII during the most recent Steam sale. Or The Dead Linger, the fairly recent zombie sandbox pseudo-MMO Kickstarter that I originally thought was what Keen was talking about. Or Dead Island, of which I have logged 30 hours playing in the last 10 days. Or Left 4 Dead 2. Or…
…well, there have been a lot of zombie games, eh? Technically even Minecraft.
But you know what? Zombies still have some life in them. If these upcoming games are actually fun, I say bring them on. I just signed up for The War Z’s beta, so we’ll see how that goes.
Posted by Azuriel
I have been playing some more 7 Days to Die (7DTD) now that the Alpha 17.1 patch came around. There have been a lot of tweaks to the progression mechanics and Perk system, including some level-gating on Iron/Steel tool recipes. The biggest change, however, was to zombie AI.
In short, zombies are now impossibly smart… and impossibly dumb.
It’s been long enough that I don’t even remember how zombies behaved in prior patches. What zombies do now though, is behave in perfect tower defense intelligence: the shortest distance between them and you, with walls adding a virtual number of steps. Zombie are also perfectly prescient, knowing exactly which wall blocks have the lowest remaining health, and will attack that spot en mass to get to you. At the same time, zombies prefer not attacking walls to X extent, if they can walk there instead.
The result? Cue the Benny Hill theme:
Essentially, the current 7DTD meta is to not create bases at all, but rather mazes that funnel zombies into kill zones and/or large drops that loop them around until they die of fall damage. The devs have added a “zombie tantrum” mechanic to try and get some damage on looped mazes – zombies will attack anything nearby when they fall, possibly weakening your support pillars – but that will be metagamed away with multiple platforms or deeper holes.
To be clear, the prior zombie meta was solved by simply building an underground bunker. At that time, zombies could not dig into the ground, and disregarded the Z axis entirely – it was possible to hang out in the middle of a bridge and often have a nice grouped pile of zombies directly below you to hit with a Molotov. I played the game enough to recognize which Point of Interest had a pre-built bunker located underneath it, and often sought it out immediately after spawning so I could all but ignore the titular 7th day horde attack.
That said, how smart should zombies be?
The only way to answer that question is to ask what the game you’re making is supposed to be about. When you add tower defense mechanics, you get a tower defense game. This will preclude people from building nice little houses in the woods, and instead opt for mazes and obstacles and drops. It becomes a much more technical game, solvable with very specific configurations. Having dumber zombies frees up a lot more base designs, on top of possibly requiring a lot more attention to one’s base after an attack, as a single “dumb” zombie could be weakening a support in an unused corner.
My initial “solution” would be to mix and match, but I think that’s actually the worst of all possible worlds. Instead, I think zombies work best as environmental hazards. Bunkers might make you invulnerable to nightly attacks… but you have to leave sometime. Shouldn’t the punishment for hiding underground be the simple lack of information of what’s going on, combined with having to spend your morning hours slaying the zombie hordes milling about outside?
I guess we’ll see what the devs eventually decide. At present, there simply seems to be a maze-based arms race at the expense of any sort of satisfying nesting. If the 7DTD devs want to double-down, well… thank god for mods.
Posted in Commentary
Tags: 7 Days to Die, AI, Game Design, Tower Defense, Zombies