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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.

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Review: Dying Light

Game: Dying Light
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 75
Completion Time: ~30 hours
Buy If You Like: Dead Island meets Mirror’s Edge, Parkour, Zombies

Environments that, for the most part, don't feel contrived.

Environments that, for the most part, don’t feel contrived.

Dying Light is a less gamey Dead Island meets Mirror’s Edge. In other words, it is a zombie game in which you spend less time killing zombies for XP and more time parkouring along the rooftops to avoid them… for XP. It’s a game of movement, momentum, and generally avoiding battles wherever you can. Or mowing through zombies if you feel like it. Either/or.

The premise of the game is that you are a lone GRE agent sent into a zombie quarantined zone in an effort to resolve a rogue agent situation before it gets (more) out of control. In the process, you help people, sometimes not help people, and otherwise play Dead Island again. By which I mean collect crafting material and blueprints so you can craft increasingly unlikely weapon mods to help you separate zombie heads from zombie shoulders. There aren’t zombie health bars or numbers popping up after each attack, but we all know that they’re there, right beneath the surface. Especially once your badass electric katana inexplicably no longer one-shots random Biters.

Indeed, if there was one element from Dying Light that I felt fell flat (beyond the ending), it was the actual crunchy gamey bits. I enjoyed how the Skill Tree system was segmented into independent categories – you level up Power by fighting, Agility by parkour, and they have their own trees – but the crafting part was straight lifted from Dead Island, and otherwise felt out of place. Why is this Chef Knife dealing more damage than a Fire Axe? Oh, right, because the Chef Knife is purple. That didn’t bother me in Dead Island because I saw a cascade of “150 damage” pop-ups after throwing a Molotov, but it’s damn weird here.

Also, I hope you like the Fallout 3/4/New Vegas lockpicking minigame, because you’ll be doing that approximately a million times. Luckily, it becomes increasingly not worth it.

Fortunately, this sort of thing rarely gets old.

Conversely, this sort of thing rarely gets old.

Mirror’s Edge is the comparison everyone makes to any game that features parkour, but I must say that Dying Light gets the feeling closer than most. A lot of the more interesting maneuvers are gated behind level unlocks – including basic stuff like sliding – but even from the start things feel real good as you scramble on rooftops and vehicles. Indeed, once you start unlocking the rest of the tree (along with the grappling hook), you’ll start to feel like part Neo, part goddamn Spiderman. Even after 30 hours, running at a dead (har, har) sprint and vaulting onto a rooftop from the shoulder of a zombie trying to grab you never gets old.

One of the biggest gimmicks of the game is the Day/Night cycle, where especially overpowered “Volatile” zombies comes out to play. What is so curious about this is how utterly optional it ends up being; every Safe House features a bed, which you can freely use to skip Night segments, even when it doesn’t make much sense (e.g. something bad is happening in the next 24 hours… or next month, if you just want to sleep a bunch). The game makes a token effort to get you to venture out at Night via sidequests, but for the most part I ignored it. At least, I did until I unlocked the Grappling Hook and the “Camouflage” skill, the latter of which in particular removes basically all danger from Night escapades.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Dying Light. If you were someone who didn’t enjoy Dead Island, Dying Light is probably different enough to make it worth your time to try it out. Then again, since I’m one of those apparently crazy people who enjoyed Dead Island in the first place, it’s tough to be objective. All that I know is that it’s going to be difficult going back to any zombie game that doesn’t allow you to scale walls and Spiderman your way around town.

Or if I’m honest, any open-world game.

H1Z1-fit

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]

As a PS2 player, I wouldn't put this past them.

As a PlanetSide 2 player, I wouldn’t put this past them.

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

Even with shortcuts, the game world is pretty large.

Even with shortcuts, the game world is pretty large.

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.

I see what you did there, devs.

I see what you did there, devs.

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.

Loot ALL the things.

Loot ALL the things.

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?

Nope.

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.