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How Could They Go So Wrong?
Zombie aficionados have long been yearning for a long-term zombie survival game. While games like Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead certainly scratch the immediate itch for some survival action against hordes of the undead (or their closest facsimile) less than a handful of developers have answered the call for a full-blown zombie survival simulator. Of those that have, Survival Crisis Z in particular, greatly succeeds in nailing almost all the central aspects of one's ideal zombie survival simulator -- scavenging for supplies, facing off against hordes of quintessential slow-speed shamblers, gathering followers and establishing safehouses and fortresses, and dealing with the brutal anarchy that inevitably follows any given zombie uprising. If you're looking for a zombie survival fix, Survival Crisis Z is an excellent choice and well worth the efforts to get it running on modern systems.
Fort Zombie, meanwhile, is not an excellent choice to get your zombie survival fix. Not at ten dollars, not at five dollars, not even if Fort Zombie was completely free. Many games generate ire for one reason or another, though in many cases the complaints against one aspect of a game can be balanced out through excellence or decency in another. When people complain about Fort Zombie, however, they complain for very good reason -- there is almost nothing redeemable about Fort Zombie that couldn't be represented through a free spoiler post on a message board. Few games manage to sink to levels of plain and simple shoddiness, but Fort Zombie more than manages to screw up every opportunity to make what would otherwise be the dream game for millions of gamers.
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Gameplay: Basic Mechanics
Fort Zombie begins with one of the most basic and yet most exploitable premises of any game. You are Benjamin Riley, and in a world where the undead crap has hit the living fan, you are the man with a plan. Coming out of hiding on the outskirts of town, your aim is to secure a safehouse, scavenge for supplies, search for fellow survivors and fortify your safehouse to deal with a massive flood of undead that'll be arriving in two weeks. With everything that zombie fans have been looking for in a game, how could Fort Zombie possibly fail? Very badly, as extended play will reveal.
Fort Zombie's trailers and promotional material would like you to think it's an action game in the "concrete controls and mechanics that behave as basic logic says they should". This is far from the truth -- at its core, Fort Zombie is an old-school dice-based RPG (quite literally - looking through data files reveals that many factors are based around P&P standbys like the D6, D8, D10 and so on) with a thin faux-action veneer. You've got attributes and skills just like in every other RPG, and every single action is controlled by a hidden roll of the dice.
Though that by itself isn't anything condemnable, the manner in which the developers have tried to mash RPG mechanics with action controls and pacing leads to an extremely unsatisfying to downright aggravating case of the Whiff Effect. Unless you've built your character from the ground-up for combat first and foremost (in which case you can say goodbye to the idea of gathering most survivors, since that's controlled by dice rolls as well) bullets will fly at mind-boggling angles and melee weapons will phase through entire crowds of enemies. The system lacks the refinement of similar dice-based games that at least give you some modicum of a sense of accomplishment and progress. Between the lack of polish, the still-born Frankenstein nature of the action/RPG combination and the outdated feeling of the system, Fort Zombie certainly isn't going to be competing with other games of the genre in terms of quality.
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What of the zombies themselves? Depending on your personal tastes, you might be anywhere from indifferent to utterly repulsed by Fort Zombie's particular flavor of the undead. Fort Zombie zombies are a triple-layer gimmick sandwich of supernatural full-body-destruction tool-users. During the course of the game, in addition to the standard shamblers, you'll also be dealing with football zombies (complete with full gameplay garb) that will burst into sprints to try and tackle you, paramedic zombies that can revive zombies you've already killed and even reattach dismembered limbs, firefighter zombies with helmets and axes, and a variety of police and army zombies that still manage to retain enough of their memory to headshot you from halfway down the block. Though this itself is nothing to criticize, it's best for you to be well-informed given the rather polarizing nature of certain zombie types.
What can be criticized is their extremely bare-bones and slipshod nature. There are no wails or moans or mutters or any of the other audio warnings and teasers that prove so reliable and tension inducing, and the undead have only one line of any kind of dialogue, retreading the old hunger for brains that has irreversibly become tied with their domain. The zombie AI and pathing ability is extremely poor, and not in the manner one would expect -- zombies that pass by windows and doorways will have an irresistible urge to break them down, even when other openings are clearly available, and though zombies have the capability to climb over obstacles, more often than not they'll flounder about and wind up exactly where they started.
The problem only worsens if you should happen to be out during night time. As has become popular in recent years, the undead of Fort Zombie become more aggressive once daylight fades. Rather than create a challenge, however, the effect is, if nothing else, a display of Fort Zombie's extraordinarily shoddy nature. For whatever reason, the developers decided to do away with the more natural scattering system used to place zombies during daylight and instead spawns them as single large clusters in the center of a given map lot, which instantly begin to home in on your position as soon as they enter your field of vision.
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Gameplay: AI and NPCs
To survive in the post-undead world, you will need to scavenge every bit of food, ammunition and medicine that isn't nailed down. Unfortunately, the process of scavenging said supplies is extremely monotonous and poorly-designed. Pressing the search key will cause a yellow field to expand from your character, and an exclamation icon will appear over objects within the field that contain items. Said field, however, expands at a maddeningly-glacial pace and only extends for about two meters before ending, and object searches thus become an agonizing issue of repetitive non-action. Had the search field scaled with your search field or the search function been designed as a toggled ability that automatically alerted you to items, scavenging would be far more enjoyable -- as the system stands, however, it's simply incredibly boring.
Finding survivors is another key to survival in Fort Zombie, and you will embark on missions to liberate survivors stranded in the field. Though the addition of extra hands is certainly welcome, the inadequacy of the survivor AI makes them far more of a hindrance than a help. Like their zombie brethren, survivors will be flummoxed by even the most minor of pathing issues, and attempting any kind of indoor activity will lead to a quagmire that will try even the most patient of gamers. Provided they have the skill to avoid outright breaks in reality, survivors are functional as turrets, and a few well-armed survivors can be quite useful if carefully micromanaged.
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Gameplay: Fort Management
Fort management is the one aspect of Fort Zombie's gameplay that actually features some modicum of success and agreeable design. You can select from three different forts at the beginning of the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and you must build barricades and traps to hold off the undead hordes while you and other survivors deal with them more directly. Traps can be learned from other survivors and built with items scavenged from the environment, and several well-laid traps backed by smart survivor placement can hold off attacks of considerable size.
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Controls & Interface
Fort Zombie dispenses with traditional third-person control schemes in favor of a more free-form input system that is designed to allow for greater accuracy and interaction. Keyboard commands follow the WASD format that has become standard over the last decade, and are functional but unremarkable. The mouse cursor controls your aim and is used for interacting with objects and other survivors, the left mouse button is used for attacking, while the right mouse button is used for camera control and object interaction.
Unfortunately, camera control is rather iffy, even after numerous patches tried to address the issue. The mouse cursor remains on-screen even as the camera is being rotated, and moves in accordance with the camera's rotation. Should the cursor reach the edge of the screen, camera movement is halted until you release the right mouse button and center the cursor. In many ways, the controls try to give you the precision of a first-person shooter, but forget that such precision is only possible due to a lack of any but the most basic of restraints in terms of viewing angles.
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From a purely-technical standpoint, Fort Zombie's graphics capability ranges from adequate to dismal. While supporting several fairly-pleasing features like environmental and character shadows, other aspects of Fort Zombie's graphics fail to live up to modern standards or make grievous mistakes that create a visually-jarring experience. Object drawing in particular is rather objectionable. Fort Zombie uses two different sets of drawing systems, one for immediate surroundings and the other for long-distance objects, mainly buildings.
Immediate drawing suffers from the lack of any kind of eye-pleasing transition -- certain objects (mostly zombies) simply pop right into existence, and you have little in the way of warning of what lies ahead until it's drawn in (and in the case of most zombies, the draw distance also happens to be their viewing distance, resulting in them immediately setting upon you). Distance objects, meanwhile, are drawn as though they were designed to emerge from a fog, lacking any kind of detail until they emerge into immediate drawing distance.
Character designs are another matter that demonstrate the game's overarching inadequacy. Despite being released in 2009, characters look as though they were drawn on hardware from 2004 or earlier, in some cases appearing as though they were from a first-generation PlayStation 2 game. Animation, likewise, looks extremely dated for the day and age of its release, as most characters move with such a stiff, alien gait that it makes one wonder just who the real undead are.
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Sound is a vital aspect for a good zombie game -- with the ever-present threat of the undead constantly on your mind, a rich and well-recorded suite of sound effects can enhance the tension and terror of the situation considerably. Many games have proven this point with considerable grace, but as I'm sure you've already guessed, Fort Zombie does just the opposite, delivering a frankly shoddy performance that's outdone by games more than ten years its senior both in aesthetic and technical quality. Moans and groans are short, flat affairs that do absolutely nothing to improve the cardboard-stiffness of characters and zombies alike, and weapon sound effects lack any kind of substantial volume and impact. What few other sound effects there are outside of voice work and weapon effects are simply unremarkable.
Music, meanwhile, is literally nonexistent outside of the main theme and a short jingle-ized version of The Gonk used during the ending. Given the nature of a game like Fort Zombie, some well-written mood music playing on the tense nature of the circumstances would have worked wonders, but all you're going to hear is a single ever-repeating loop of low-quality moans and groans that you'll quickly learn to filter out.
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Fort Zombie's narrative is told through the survivors you find and rescue throughout the game, and finding as many survivors as you can is vital to piecing together the events that have led to the current situation. Much in the fashion of World War Z and similarly-structured zombie media, each survivor has his or her own story to tell. Some recount the first days of the infection and the early intervention efforts, others tell of personal losses and struggles to survive, and a select few characters with interesting backgrounds will provide insight of varying clarity into the origin of the outbreak.
Unfortunately for Fort Zombie, the story told through these accounts is far from compelling. While those who are interested in zombie survival testimonials might find a bit of satisfaction in reading through each survivor's account, those hoping for a bit more depth or originality will be quite disappointed. You will learn what force is behind the apocalypse that sets the stage for Fort Zombie and what its intentions are, but the specifics are so bland and uninspiring that you may very well question your effort to unravel the truth behind the events of Fort Zombie.
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It is, admittedly, in poor taste to grade a game based on how receptive it is to after-market modifications. Considering just how much strength that modding has gained in game design and game culture, however, it's well worth covering this particular avenue, as even a relatively bad game can be brought up to decency with the right modifications, and more than a few gamers have purchased such titles with the thought of affecting such modifications.
Such thoughts may be crossing your mind as well, and I'm afraid that any dreams of salvation for Fort Zombie are completely hopeless. Due to the nature of Fort Zombie's file structure and design, affecting any kind of modification is a gigantic pain that will yield little, if any, results. Without the release of any kind of development kit, official or otherwise, the only way to change Fort Zombie source files includes hex-editing of particular memory files in conjunction with any changes to the source file's volume, with even the most minute of discrepancies rendering the files unreadable. Combined with the nigh-unreadable nature of most source files (which are all compressed into a single line with no formatting whatsoever) the effort is simply not worthwhile.
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There's simply no way to get around it -- Fort Zombie is awful. Kerberos Productions has completely botched an opportunity to make what could very well have been a million-plus blockbuster and instead delivered a title which may very well live on only as an on-running joke for years to come. If Zombie Survival is your forte, then Survival Crisis Z is well worth any pains experienced in transitioning it to run on modern hardware.
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- All information and opinions expressed in this article are based from the author's experiences.
- All screenshots are from Fort Zombie.