Open world survival games currently flood the PC market, zombie ones especially, yet since the PS4's release, we've not had much to shout about in PlayStationLand. Day Z was announced over two years ago before sliding into a seemingly eternal sleep as there's been little to report on it since. Then there was Sony's own H1Z1 which probably would have made it to PS4 sooner had the company not been sold off (the game is still coming mind, in a weird spin off).
The closest to a bit of realistic zombie smashing action was probably the port of the Wii U's Zombi or Fallout 4's recent Survival mode. Now, however, we finally have an open world zombie survival game built in the mould of Day Z, thanks to Telltale's first foray into publishing with developer The Fun Pimps' game 7 Days to Die. You can also get a 7 Days To Die server to play with just you and your friends for as little as $9 a month for 10 players.
Question is, should Telltale have done so for a game that is still technically in alpha stage?
The ‘Not’ Review
This can't really be a scored review of the game, because this game, in its current state, is unfinished. That serves up some questions we've not really had to answer on console before (though unfinished boxed retail games aren't exactly new), but we'll get to that. For now, lets see what is there and how it plays.
7 Days to Die brings with it some brutally tough survival shenanigans that holds your hand oh-so-briefly before kicking you square in the groin and stealing your stuff in true post-apocalyptic ‘man is the real monster' fashion. You begin by choosing an avatar for your own personal Walking Dead journey before being thrust into the fictional area of Navezgane, which despite first impressions, is a rather large expanse of land with very different advantages and disadvantages for each of the smaller sections it contains. You'll have to contend with snow-swept freezing wilds, scorched patches of land with no shelter and deadly rainfall, and places you really just should not step foot in.
You awake in your undercrackers, confused and alone. There's instantly two points of interest upon your rising. One is a knackered car, the other is the corpse of a person long since deceased. Both of these provide you with your first bundle of supplies and the game gives you a simple run of instructions to give you a leg up in the unforgiving wilds of Navezgane.
You'll learn how to craft basic tools and clothing in this initial run, as well as a few simple survival tips. All the while, the more sentient dangers of the game are still around, lurking in the background. Once that's all done however, you're pretty much left to the mercy of 7 Days to Die's spin on the apocalypse, and this apocalypse is a right bastard.
It's not hyperbole to say that everything that could kill you probably can kill you in 7 Days to Die. If the threat of the undead wasn't enough to contend with, you also need to stave off the likes of hunger, hypothermia, heat stroke, dysentery, broken limbs, bears, and radiation. Of course, your fellow man and woman are also a threat, but only in multiplayer. The term survival is definitely not taken lightly here. You really have to earn your continued existence in 7 Days to Die, so whatever else might be right or wrong with the game, it does do the survival aspect very well indeed.
The majority of your time is unsurprisingly not spent decapitating zombies. Your main focus is foraging for food and supplies, whilst also crafting items, and most importantly seeking shelter and fortifying it against the horrors to come. Battening down the proverbial hatches of your makeshift homestead is essential, as the shambling menace of the undead becomes somewhat fleeter of foot once the sun sinks into oily darkness. You best have your affairs in order before that time as the night is no place to be out galavanting so you'll need to have collected all the resources for keeping yourself safe through the night. Boarding up windows, adding locks to doors, and laying traps like wooden spikes and makeshift mines. The first night can be a very edgy affair, stifled by the unknown into just waiting out the dark and listening to the howls, hoots and guttural snarls of zombies, hoping the next sound you hear isn't the scratching of fingers on your wooden door. You really need to be in the swing of things by the time the seventh night arrives, because that's when the moon goes blood red and the zombie horde descends on your ramshackle fortress. Being a PC port means there's a lot of menu shifting going on, but in fairness, the team have done an admirable job in converting such an unwieldy system into something closer to manageable for a console's limited controller.
And Now, For the Bad News
This all sounds very intriguing on paper (or electronic screens), but boy, does 7 Days to Die go out of its way to make that set up a miserable experience for the average player. For starters, the game is incredibly rough-looking and often very simply animated, something I wasn't majorly fussed by, but it's a very good way to get people to turn their noses up. Textures seem largely optional, and upon loading a game up again, the area's climate always briefly changes into something else. Frame rate stutters every single time something needs to load. Combat is fiddly, generally unsatisfying and lacking any punch, to the point you'll probably want to avoid it as much as you can. Then there’s the sound, which is used fairly well most of the time, but there's often odd audio breaks and cuts. On a technical level, 7 Days to Die is an absolute mess that will, quite fairly, frustrate and disinterest many, but on the flipside, there is something strangely compelling about it that has seen me invest a fair bit of time into what is essentially a rather poorly-presented game. The fact this is an alpha dressed up as a retail title is very much the cause of most of those negatives.
Perhaps it is all to do with how I'm not only an enthusiast of the undead (I promise officer, this is all above board and quite innocent) but also admire the grim quiet that comes with the post-apocalypse their existence is now very much tied to. I feel that when this game is at its best, it captures the haunting solitary quietness of being one of the last people on Earth. There's a calmness to the daily grind of finding supplies, exploring buildings and generally getting prepped for the horrors of the night. There's a sense of pride in the fortress you'll eventually build, and the crafting to make that fortress is enjoyable, even if the endless cycle of supply runs does diminish the feeling of accomplishment.
7 Days to Die is much better at doing the world of post-apocalypse right than it is at being a zombie apocalypse, the frankly risible combat makes sure of that. Involving other players adds an interesting wrinkle to that dynamic, and for many, having someone watch your back (or try to stab it) where the fun really kicks in, but for me personally, solo play feels closer to the experience I want out of an open world post-apocalypse. The myriad adjustments you can make to tailor your version of the end of the world range from being in a gravely dangerous hellhole of survival, swarming with fast, ravenous undead all the way down to a peaceful extreme camping simulator that doesn't feature a single zombie.
The Burning Zombie Questions
So, to the questions that need answering. Is it acceptable to release what is essentially an early access game on PS4, for thirty quid, and have a boxed retail version?
That depends entirely on what happens with 7 Days to Die going forward. It's been about a few years in alpha already and still hasn't left it on PC, so it's surely a gamble to suggest the game is any closer to completion now, or that this is a ‘finished' version. Telltale technically already sell boxed retail versions of their games that don't feature the entire finished product, but that's for episodic games that do get completed, and the retail boxes hold no mention of the game's current state, nor any disclaimer regarding the risk consumers are taking. Here, there is no certainty we will see the full, finished game before the generation is out, especially given so few games of this type have done so on PC. It may get better, but it could just as likely end up going nowhere slow, with an audience that runs out of patience.
If the advertising for 7 Days to Die had been more transparent about the current state of the game, then I feel it would have been more acceptable, but all signs currently point to deliberate misdirection. Otherwise this would not be selling at retail and certainly not for that price. We live in an age of updates, and really this happening shouldn't surprise anyone. It's a natural progression that could have been a brave gateway to PlayStation having proper early access, instead it's soured a game with real potential, one that could become very good with time, and already has a quality to it.
I personally want it to do well, and I get the idea is to jump in now and be ‘the first' of its kind on PS4, but far more clarity and a much lower starting price would have helped convince more people. Time will tell if this damages the game's chances long term or if word of mouth works in its favour when players talk of their in-game ‘moments' and not the issues created by having an alpha build get published on a format that doesn’t really do that. The unknown nature of the game's future, for now, plays a huge part in my concerns.