There has been a gnawing issue creeping into the PC indie gaming scene in the last few years. It’s all part of a classic economic concept that rides the tides every few decades in industries the world over. Success begets imitation, which forces over-saturation with causes failure. We see it in the movie world every decade, the most recent being this horrendous bloated glut of comic book superhero films. We are starting to see it in the craft beer revolution which will soon topple over with lacklustre breweries spilling their beer out onto the streets in failure. It’s happening to gaming.
What’s recently got me thinking about this gloomy issue is a game that came my way named Outbreak. Spoilers from here on: it’s bad. But it’s not just that it is bad, it is rather that it should never have got here in the first place. From the very start with its cookie cutter zombie text-based introduction, to the ugly confusing menu screen to virtually everything about the game, it simply doesn’t work. It feels like the kind of game you could have stumbled across on Kongregate ten years ago, an online browser-based gaming site that now seems to be a bit of a graveyard following the indie revolution. You would play such games for a few minutes, while pretending to do some work, get annoyed by it, shrug, close the browser and move on. Most likely you’d forget you’d even played it a few days later. But now, we’re seeing this, and so many others appear on Steam with surprisingly large price tags. This is the end of the indie revolution.
Let’s look at Outbreak a little closer. Navigating through those unsightly menu screens you drop into the tutorial and slowly become aware of what this game really is. Basic controls seem to be beyond capability, even using the recommended Xbox controller, and you find yourself spinning around in circles or running into walls because you seem unable to turn. After wrestling with these problems you drive onwards, learning that you can craft different coloured potions and build barricades that appear out of nowhere then disappear into oblivion a few moments later. Then you arrive in a room full of guns, told to load up and shoot the zombies. They slowly amble towards you, but you find yourself unable to retreat backwards as you aim your gun at the monstrous monsters that look like they’ve been drawn in MS Paint. Then it dawns on you...
You see, the thing about Resident Evil is that it succeeded despite its glaring issues and has aged spectacularly badly. Being unable to move and shoot or move in any direction other than the way the avatar is facing was a workaround that built tension because running away through those static screens would have felt nauseous and broken. Implementing these same controls in a top-down zombie shooter game just feels broken (and a little nauseous). It doesn’t work. Instead, you stop aiming, turn around and run away at a frustratingly slow speed and fire a few more bullets. It feels like a dance between the living and dead that drives the viewer into an insane early death.
Which is something you will find yourself doing a lot in Outbreak. If there is more than one zombie, or things that I can only describe as glowing pink dogs, chasing you then you are in trouble. The dance plummets to the floor and you find yourself grabbed by the undead and held to the ground as a bar counts down until your release (like the zombies must observe some previously agreed ruling on player trapping times). There is no real enjoyment in shooting them either. Your bullets splat into the living corpses and disappear, then after a set amount of shots they switch images into a dead corpse that does not even resemble the monster that was chasing you in the first place. Even using the apparently powerful grenade launchers, which the tutorial rather bizarrely graces upon completely ruining the suspense for future excitement, feels underwhelming. The explosives simply hit the zombies causing them to bounce slightly and then they continue their onslaught. It is almost like a comedy.
Except it is not. The horrendous camera flare that covers half the screen, the ominous and disturbing text that the player finds lying around the map, the fact that the inventory only holds four items including the essential freaking coloured keycards means there is no laughter here either. Instead you find yourself crawling at a snail’s pace (the run option strangely only marginally faster than walking) around the area hunting the blue keycard, then the red, then the yellow, all the while infinitely spawning undead continue their chase. It is rather like a pastiche of all the terrible gaming ideas time has forgotten.
Perhaps my favourite failure is the lack of information regarding how much health your character has. Not only is it described in words, so you have to decide whether ‘warning’ or ‘caution’ are better or worse but it is hidden in your inventory screen. It’s entirely possible to find yourself on the death screen because you did not hit the escape key to see how you were feeling. Such bizarre design decisions feel like they were made to frustrate and annoy, as if the entire game is some form of deliberate torture.
If Outbreak has any form of saviour it is in the form of multiplayer, a mode too many indie games miss out on perhaps due to more complicated net code or simple lack of time and worries over feature creep. Up to four players can team up to take on the horde of undead in the same levels as the single player. Indeed the game seems to think this is the way it should be played since even within the ‘Single Player’ menu, it informs you that half the maps (particularly the harder onslaught variations) are recommended for two to four players. So if you can find a friend who is willing to buy and play with you, who can ignore the embarrassing menu screens and forgive the game’s many failings there is some entertainment to be had.
We’re not talking Left 4 Dead here, there is no clever interaction between the players and the dead. No smokers to snag you from their hidden spots and force you to change your plans, no significant events to change the pace of the game. It is easier to team up and bring down some of the harder monsters, covering each other while reloading, building barricades together to stop the unstoppable tide, but it is not really any more fun. Just the same frustrating control scheme, nauseating faux glare and unsatisfying unrelenting killing.
Perhaps all this seems unduly harsh on what must be a single, or tiny team of developers, yet there is no real excuse for a rather exorbitant eleven pound price tag. The only way one can recommend this is for some form of lesson in bad design, an introduction perhaps to the possible mistakes one can make when creating their own game. As mentioned earlier it is indicative of a market that saw such extreme early growth but has yet to fully understand how bloated and lacklustre it has become. A game that would have simply been a hobbyist free release a mere five years ago is now trying to gain traction in an economy that is reeling at the lack of moderation and curation, something even more worrisome given Steam’s recent announcement that Greenlight will be removed. There is hope of course, pioneers will always invent and subvert the current gaming trends spawning new ideas. Outbreak does not do this. It fails at being a top-down shooter, it fails at being a slow-paced horror and it fails at being basically playable.