7 Days to Die – Xbox One
Platform: Xbox One
Developer: The Fun Pimps
Publisher: Telltale Publishing
Release Date (NA): June 28th, 2016
Genre: Survival Horror
Nerd Rating: 6 out of 10
I’ve always loved the horror genre, and some of my most joyous, nerve-fraying, pant-wetting experiences in media have come from the inevitable death by the ravenous, shambling undead. Video games, especially as the graphics have improved in recent years, have provided a new channel for this nerd love. The best are the most immersive experiences, where the tension is high and survival doubtful. There are plenty of games that feature zombies. The original Resident Evil showed me the potential zombie video games could reach toward truly scaring me. Left 4 Dead gave me heart-pounding action, besieged by hordes of decaying enemies. Dying Light added mechanics that let me pit agility against my foes. None of them really allowed me to experience obstacles to survival other than the zombies themselves. I found myself craving a game where my environment would be as formidable as the walking dead, and 7 Days to Die represented the challenge that I wanted. In fact, the challenge was more than I anticipated.
The game was originally developed in 2013 for Windows and OS X, available through Steam. Only in 2016 did it receive ports for consoles. Reviews via Steam are mostly positive, but this differs with console reviews, where the fall consistently below average. As a fan of the genre, I had high expectations even after reading some reviews. There were certainly experiences I anticipated that I had not been able to enjoy in other games of the same type.
While many other games in the survival horror genre are driven by a narrative, 7 Days to Die does not pull the player forward with a specific plot. Survival is the goal. Progress can be measured by the degree to which one is starving, dehydrating, or freezing. It is much more akin to Minecraft in its emphasis on crafting and exploration in its open world. The start of the game presents the player with a choice of characters, but individual characters seem to play little role in starting abilities, advantages, or physical prowess. All characters start with minimal possessions and skills. There is some larger background story, but there is little shared with the player. Some areas of the world are radioactive. Others are charred with fire or filled with crumbling buildings, as if bombed or destroyed by seismic upheaval. It is left to the player to assume an appropriate apocalyptic event. Did the event cause the dead to walk the earth? Cause or coincidence, it is left for the player to decide. Why do the zombies become more powerful and aggressive at night? Why are there different types of zombies? These were just more mysteries I accepted might have no answers.
There is a small role-playing element to the game, based around the leveling mechanic. Experience comes through actions, even the most basic, like running and scavenging through trash for useful items. Leveling up provides points to spend on an impressive range of skills and combat abilities with different weapon types. I found that there wasn’t much room for customization among the different characters I played. Every accounting decision I made revolved around the best skills for survival. For example, I could certainly have chosen to spend points in combat skills, but in the early stages of the game it seemed more prudent to select options that would lessen the effects of thirst or hunger. The game quickly taught me that combat was a resort of desperation and self-defense at the early character levels. While it would have been fun to engage enemies, combat that didn’t result in my character’s death easily led to injuries or infection and a more gradual end. There are some story elements, and they are presented in final notes by fellow survivors upon their deaths. These are typically found when dispatching zombies and looting their bodies. These notes often provide maps to cached weapons and supplies, giving short quests to break up the simple struggle for survival.
There is an exceptional attention to detail with respect to the survival mechanics of the game. Weather not only affects visibility but also what clothes your character will need to wear to keep warm in some environments and cool in others. Rain and snow serve to saturate some clothing and chill the character, sometimes beneficial. There has never been another zombie game where my character spent so much time in his underwear to avoid overheating. Likewise there are very specific effects of eating certain foods. Some, especially canned goods, can dehydrate. Others can increase the total health of the character to a new maximum. Medicines can have similar benefits and costs, and I found I had to monitor these stats frequently to avoid damage that wasn’t permanent but was difficult to reverse. Teas can be made from plants to combat the effects of dysentery or other sickness.
A very basic tutorial teaches the essentials of crafting, but it neglects to instruct past the most basic stone, wood, and plant fiber items. Some of the most vital survival essentials, like obtaining clean water and cooking food, were neglected. This became the turning point in several games that I started. Without a cooking pot, I could only boil water in cans for drinking. Depending upon my character’s spawn point, there might not be any food except scavenged canned goods. Some of those unfortunately made my character more thirsty, so they gathered virtual dust in my inventory until I could boil more water. The desert offered edible plants, but the snowy, mountainous regions did not. Hunting proved difficult at the early stages of the game, and without a means to cook, raw meat only drew more zombies. Sorry, no kebab mechanics in the game. You’d better be able to scavenge a pot! Besides cooking tools, the ability to build a forge represented the next turning point in the game for my character. Some rudimentary tools and weapons, made from forged iron, could be crafted early in the forge’s use. More advanced items for truly confident exploration, like bullets and even a minibike, were out of my character’s range until sophisticated tools could be found. Fortunately there are existing, but often dilapidated, structures for shelter at the start of the game, and wood is a plentiful resource no matter where the game begins. It is possible to build structures from scratch, and the variety of construction materials that can be manufactured is impressive, but that seems like an unobtainable dream when the game begins with your character nearly naked in the wilderness.
7 Days to Die suffers from a number of problems stemming from its mechanics and game-play. The controls are fairly basic, but their finer points are nearly unexplained. For example, the tutorial expects you to craft a bow and stone-headed arrows. Later when confronted by zombies, I equipped the bow and assumed it would be ready to shoot. Only after consulting the extensive wiki for the game did I learn that a separate button on the controller notches the first arrow. In hindsight, this made some sense because it allows a selection to be made among different arrow types, but that would have been nice to learn in the tutorial. Likewise, there is a stealth mechanic that made avoiding enemies far easier, but I had to stumble over it when exploring the controls. Climbing ladders and jumping were often frustrating, all too often resulting in a broken leg or death. At least making a splint for a broken leg was easy. The inventory, a key element to a crafting game, seemed cumbersome until after hours of game time to become more familiar with it. This might have been far easier with a keyboard and mouse than with a console controller, and the game doesn’t pause when the inventory or crafting menus are opened. Crafting simple items did not present too much confusion, but more complex items that required the campfire to cook or the forge to create used separate mechanics that were not intuitive, and requiring experimentation and providing much frustration. If not for the help of the wiki, my character would still have lived a stone-age existence until his death.
The graphics are sub-par compared to other zombie games I’ve enjoyed on the Xbox One. At first, I thought the game had been originally developed for the Xbox 360. At times, they seem cartoonish, and the same types of zombies, structures, and other scenery are used routinely. There are glitches that sometimes make zombies capable of entering through solid walls or leaping extraordinarily high, and that earned my ire after spending hours setting up defensible structures. The sound effects for the zombies, as well as some of the environmental conditions, were poor enough to extract me from otherwise immersive experiences. Volume discrepancies between immediate threats and more distant enemies became an annoyance, but luckily the stealth mechanic was a reliable work-around to provide an accurate picture of danger.
For all of its faults, I found 7 Days to Die to be extremely enjoyable. The difficulty only made it a more compelling game, and when starting a new game there were a number of configurable options to vary difficulty until I found what I needed to progress. The number of daylight hours, day vs. night zombie properties, and frequency of supply drops were all options I fudged to allow a fighting chance after my failed attempts to survive. In the absence of direction provided by a plot, I found myself creating my own goals and milestones: grow food I could cook, build a self-sufficient settlement, forge my first iron implements of death. The risks were always high, and that made the rewards that much sweeter. Though time-consuming, there is the potential for hours/days/weeks/months of fun in the world of 7 Days to Die if you have the requisite buttons for this type of game to push. I look forward to pursuing further adventures in the world of the game. If you do too, I expect you’ll find it more rewarding than other reviews might indicate.
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