Everybody's thinking it: The zombie genre, much like what the genre is about, just won't stay down. Not for any length of time, and if DayZ and State of Decay are anything to go by, this is only the beginning of a whole host of zombie games to hit the market. Among those is Project Zomboid. At a first glance, it may seem like Project Zomboid is a two-dimensional cash-in of the ever-so-popular mod, DayZ. In many ways, you may find yourself believing that all the more as you sit down and play through it, whether it's surviving through yet another realistic zombie scenario where you scavenge from food and do more running than gunning from a horde of hungry green folk headed your way, or dealing with trigger happy humans ready to gun you down for your loot. But Project Zomboid is a fantastic, deep, addictive experience in its own right, with a number of interesting features to keep you immersed in the game world for months on end.
So it's basically the same zombie crap?
Project Zomboid is a sandbox zombie game in the same vein as State of Decay and its ilk. The player will either play as a selected character in a story oriented campaign (which at this point ends in its own sandbox mode) as well as actually playing through a sandbox mode in which you can create a character to your liking. The most interesting thing about the sandbox mode, though, is the unique RPG element. This isn't one of those situations where you get to choose a perk and level it up, but the sort which punishes you for every perk you take. See, the way it works is that every perk you add to your character costs you a number of skill points. But skill points can only be added by debuffing said character as well. If you want to have a strong character, you have to give an equal amount of "deperks" worth of points in order to balance your remaining skill points to zero. This excludes the Occupation perks, which generally give you nothing but one or more bonuses that are exclusive to each career. These perks are all actually quite substantial, even if it doesn't seem that way upon reading them, ranging from the strength of your character, his knockback in melee attacks, his tendency to become famished, as well as his own mental health.
For every buff you equip, you may need to equip an even more crippling debuff.
In essence, it's less of a zombie mod for a combat oriented game and more of a zombie mod for Sims. Your character won't just be hungry and thirsty. They can be depressed. They can be bored. They can get angry. All of these aspects have to be regulated, because if they go ignored, your character will be severely weakened in a number of ways. Getting wet will cause you to move more slowly, and a higher boredom level will make you prone to sleep, which will make you easy bait for zombies. Getting hurt can make you irritable, which makes communicating with NPCs harder, causing you to make enemies easier than making friends. Eating bad meat can make you sick making it hard for you to carry a large sum of scarce and necessary items and forcing you to stay in one place until it blows over. Sickness can pass, or it can be an infection which causes you to join the horde of the undead. The list goes on.
Gee, seems your own organs are bigger problems than the zombie's teeth.
The thing that separates Project Zomboid from other zombie games is that zombies aren't the problem. They're easy to avoid and run away from, despite coming in massive numbers. It's not the players or NPCs, either. The real enemy in Project Zomboid is your own body. Even when compared with the likes of DayZ and State of Decay, Zomboid is extremely demanding. There seems to be every single human emotion available to your player, especially the negative ones, and they all directly impact your character's performance, mostly for the worst. All it takes is one slip up from regulating your character and your body will start dragging you down, making you easy pickings for the carnivorous cadavers.
Combat in Zomboid is deliberately stiff. In its latest update, the animations are considerably smoother. REALLY smooth. However, the gameplay is performed otherwise. While you can aim and move at the same time, you still have to stay in one place while striking or shooting, a little reminiscent to survival horror games of old. Given the fact that zombies can't actually run, it's a fair way to keep balance in Zomboid.
That's great and all... but can I just go and kill zombies en masse?
Zombies can fill the screen in a matter of seconds, easily overwhelming a player with sheer numbers. It doesn't exactly help that zombies are insidiously hard to kill, and each weapon has its own level of durability, in addition to being of limited availability within the world. Once you pick up a weapon, you better know when to use it. You're going to have one less weapon in the world at your disposal. There are all sorts of melee weapons, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and some without any notable strengths at all, such as a butter knife or a spoon, both of which do little to no damage, take up space in your inventory, and practically break on contact. But it still beats fighting with your fists, which couldn't kill a zombie if your life depended on it. Of course, as the first available map takes place in the former military outpost of Knox County, guns are available. But it seems that other survivors have taken the good ones and ran, as they are hard to find, and often completely separated from ammo packs you can find littered around the world. Gunplay is a plain-and-simple point and shoot mechanism, although your perks will determine just how accurate you are with lining up your shots.
You'd be lucky to only see this many zombies on the screen at one time.
Zomboid is the only "true" zombie game to my recollection that readily supports modding. In addition to changing around aspects of the game, players are capable of designing maps or even full blown story campaigns in the future, complete with NPC interaction. It's a pretty big deal, considering that one of Zomboid's most interesting features actually spawned from a mod; farming. It's a system I know little to nothing about, except that it is now possible in the vanilla game.
Here's where Zomboid becomes really cool, though. Zomboid gives you the ability to micromanage your difficulty. You can change virtually everything about the game. Sick of getting infected and killed? Turn off infection or make it take longer to finish you off. Not enough resource? Adjust that, too. Too many zombies? Make them less populated, or even turn the off entirely. You can even modify their AI. Different settings can change how prone they are to noticing you, how hard they are to kill or how tough they are on your skin. You can decide whether they're more rural in nature, urban, or a little bit of both. All this is done in a menu after creating a new new save file, so the game is always only as hard as you want it to be. Though it should be noted that these changes are permanent for every save file.
You can change many aspects of the core game right before starting it.
I don't have to go alone, do I?
Zomboid's most promising feature out of all of them is the multiplayer. Unlike DayZ or a number of other hardcore zombie games, Zomboid (at least for now) does not have online multiplayer. However, in addition to having gamepad support being worked on, a second player can join at any time during play via splitscreen, which is probably the only game in this genre that can do so. As it stands, it is beyond buggy and broken, with issues involving frequent dropping one of the players out of the game (i.e., frozen in place without being able to move, hit, or be hit). But the prospect of being able to actually play a hardcore zombie game such as this with your friend with only a single screen is fantastic, and when it works, it is an absolute thrill, and considering getting killed is totally permanent unlike DayZ's "mediumcore" multiplayer (mediumcore with good reason, mind you), co-operation is of the essence, and a screamfest is almost always likely to ensue. Especially because the only way a player can get back into the game is if everybody starts from scratch. Now whether those same rules apply for a hypothetical online mode (which the developers constantly teeter totter between adding or scrapping) is debatable. But at least for local multiplayer, God is it fun and terrifying.
What else can I do besides free-roam survival?
In addition to the expansive sandbox mode, there is another mode called Last Stand, which is your typical horde mode affair, but with the survival mechanics present in Project Zomboid. Basically, it can be described as a more hands on Nazi Zombies, without the Nazis. Zombies infiltrate a small house, leaving the player no place to run and hide, all the while the players have to find guns within the building and barricade the doors and windows. Now, barricading, for better or for worse, is a ton more manual in Zomboid than in zombie games in general, forcing you to equip your hammer, nails, select the window and click barricade, then wait a while, then switch back to your weapon. It works great in the sandbox mode, especially for building up tension, but given the action-oriented Last Stand mode it feels rather frustrating and time consuming.
"Git yer butt off'n mah property!"
On the subject of manual interaction, it should be said that everything in the game is manual. Barricading, which involves a very particular set of steps in order to work. Cooking, which has you mixing vegetables and meat as well as making sure you, not the game, doesn't end up burning it. Hiding, which requires making sure zombies can't see into your house and the like. And, if you so choose it, even reloading. The last time I checked there were three different modes for reloading, one which is your standard "Press the R button," another which ejects or inserts a magazine by pressing reload, and a hardcore mode which I couldn't read because the description was blocked off by the GUI (again, the game is incredibly buggy).
My gamepad doesn't work in game, ASDFGHJKL.
You should know before going in that there are a plethora of bugs going on right now. This is understandable, first because the game is in Alpha. Second because the devs had their laptops stolen mid-development, forcing them to start from scratch. Third because it's hyper ambitious, given the wealth of features and complexity. Frankly, it's amazing any of the game functions at all. Chief among such bugs is a spotty UI and inventory system that has a tendency to break down or cause the inventory window to start following your mouse, rendering it and the mouse both useless. However, currently the glitches are far, far less frequent in single player than in the split-screen co-op, if only because the co-op bugs are considerably more numerous. But given the fact that the devs (despite having no obligation to do so*) rebuilt the game from scratch after having their laptops stolen, I have high hopes these glitches will be fixed in the coming months.
*We are not legally bound to provide additional updates, and you are paying for the product as it stands now. [NGFY EDIT: Updates to the game are free.]
So would you recommend that I support the game?
It's a bit difficult to say. As it stands, Project Zomboid is just one of many sandbox zombie games, and possibly the buggiest one around, in addition to not being 3D. But it is massive in scope, and tons of fun with a friend if you can get it working. As it stands right now at $8, it isn't very pricey, and probably the cheapest zombie sandbox game of this potential and caliber at this time. I would say do support the game, because it is a remarkably deep zombie survival experience that seems to really capture the essence of survival, even if you turn the zombies off, and if the game gets fixed any time soon, I can almost guarantee it would be worth your time and money.
NOTE: This is the first time I am abusing my power as a TAY author, as I have yet to learn how to control my newfound abilities. If there is any reason why this should be removed from TAY, please don't hesitate to (kindly) tell me so.