Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Monday, March 4, 2013

How Long Will You Survive?

I never thought I'd write about a video game on an old-school roleplaying blog, but Ubisoft's ZombiU, a launch title for the new Nintendo WiiU console, is a survival horror game that captures old school play style in a way that I've never seen in any computer or console game.

The game's subtitle throws down the gauntlet: How long will you survive?
This is more than just a catch-phrase, it is an concise summation of what this game is all about.

You play a survivor in zombie-infested London after the plague of 2012 and your goal is to stay alive for as long as you can.  No easy task; I lost my first character five seconds into the game and went through nearly thirty characters in the first four hours of play.

You begin this dark, gritty, and intensely frightening game by escaping a pursuing horde of the infected, hopefully finding refuge in a safehouse in the London underground, guided via intercom by an enigmatic character known as the Prepper (a modern-day disciple of the sixteenth century occultist, John Dee and a member of a cabal known as Dee's Ravens), then proceed to explore your surroundings by the dim glow of your flashlight, armed with your trusty cricket bat.

It's not all fun-and-games in the cozy confines of the subway tunnels, though; eventually you have to hit the streets to activate and hack into CCTV networks to get a window on the world above.  That's when life gets really tough; the infected lurk everywhere and you need to watch out for corpses - sometimes they get up.

A typical Friday night in Winnipeg
Reviews of ZombiU are all over the map: some reviewers love it; others hate it, and it's easy to see why.  The game is hard.  Damned hard.  If you're looking for a first-person shooter game to unwind with and mindlessly kill some zombies then you need to look elsewhere.  This is not the game for you.

The pace is slow, the combat is deadly, and when your character dies that's it.  Game over.  No reload, no respawn, no backsies.  You start with a new character and lose all your experience and gear.  Moreover if you're bitten by an infected - even once - you're done for and your character rises as one of them.  So if you want to retrieve your gear you need to find your infected character, kill it and loot his or her bug-out-bag.  Of course whatever killed you will still be there, so the number of infected will have increased by one.

This is a big deal because the infected are bloody hard to kill.  One by itself is a threat.  Two is often more than you can deal with.  Three or more and its time to utter the catchphrase of the OSR - Oh, shit, run!  The ubiquitous cricket bat is a ponderous and slow weapon.  You need to time your attack just right - if you swing too soon there is no time for another try (the infected are surprisingly fast); swing too late and, well, you get the idea.  Furthermore, these are no eggshell-craniumed walkers from The Walking Dead that can be killed with the casual thrust of a screwdriver: to put down one of the infected you'll need to hit it five or six times.  So clearly the cricket bat is really only effective against one foe at a time.

Guns are faster.  You can shoot quickly enough to deal with a couple of oncoming foes if you have a steady hand and cool nerve, and you only need to hit one about three times to put it down.  The problem with this is that the zombies lurch erratically as they charge, making a head shot difficult and if you panic you can blow through a clip of priceless ammo very quickly indeed.  Because you have to scavenge every round of ammo, and there is never enough, I save the gun for when I'm really up shit creek.

This is usually when my slide locks back, empty.
So what makes ZombiU appealing to old school roleplayers?  First and foremost, the game challenges the player, not the character.  Yes, your character does get level-ups and weapon upgrades, but these come slowly and are subtle improvements.  To succeed at this game you need to plan carefully, scout your surroundings, loot anything that isn't nailed down, take your time, and don't bite off more than you can bash.  One of the most important skills is knowing when to run and where to run.  If you don't have an escape route planned out you'll end up trapped in a dead-end or flee into a horde.  Does this play style sound familiar?

This explains the many negative reviews that ZombiU has garnered.  The level of difficulty and frustration is more than a lot of gamers are used to, especially if what they are used to is Call of Duty.  It's kind of like throwing a group 4E players into an old school dungeon crawl: they charge in, die very quickly, then complain about lack of balanced encounters.

In ZombiU, like in old school rpgs, there are no kewl powerz or awesome weapons, its just you and your wits against an overwhelming foe.

This contributes to the very effective sense of horror in the game.  I'm rarely scared by horror movies (in fact, I recently posted about misnomer of the horror genre in my other blog), but this game scares the crap out of me.  I find I can't play for more than half an hour before quitting with trembling hands, sweaty palms and my  heart trying to break out of my chest.  The dim lighting, confined spaces and restricted peripheral vision create a very claustrophic experience.  Things can very easily sneak up behind you, particularly when you have to look at the game pad to manage your inventory.  This adds to the tension of the game - you have to rummage quickly through your knapsack or something will come up on you from behind.

Here's a video clip of game play of a character trying to get to Buckingham Palace that will give you a good idea of what I'm talking about.

I'm no great fan of video games, but my feelings about ZombiU should be pretty clear by now: I love it. It is a scary, intense, and insanely difficult game that will undoubtedly challenge me for a long time to come, and it hits all the sweet spots that I love about old school roleplaying games.

 So, how long will you survive?


Anonymous said...

Oh, that game looks awesome. I hope it's out for PC, too.


Sean P. Robson said...

Hi Ed; if you're up for a nerve-wracking, scary challenge then this game is definitely worth getting.