The Black Death

It’s hard to go into The Black Death without a bias.

As an open world online multiplayer survival game on Steam’s early access, it is one of a million similar games. It can be hard for such games to get ahead in such a competitive niche. Ark: Survival Evolved did so by swapping zombies, the usual antagonists, with dinosaurs, and Rust did so by taking the base-building aspect of survival to its logical extreme. Most of the time, however, these games are fundamentally identical, and the prospect of yet another one is enough to turn many customers away.

Fortunately, The Black Death finds its own way to be novel. The game, by Leicester-based developers Small Impact Games, is set in England in the Middle Ages, at the height of the Black Death outbreak. Instead of fighting zombies, you’re fighting bandits who are capitalising on the weakened populace. Instead of walking through forests and ruined cities, you’re exploring second-nature farmland and cities that are struggling to get by.

The world that The Black Death is set in is by far the finest aspect to the game. The plague hasn’t just infected the people, but the land too, and between the burnt villages, barely-populated cities and barricaded houses with red Xs painted on the door, the designers have managed to create a fine and atmospheric world. There are examples of great world-building beyond the plague, too – dotted around the map are mills, shipbuilders, inns with secret tunnels and dangerous mines, and each plays into the setting of a troubled nation.

It’s clear that Small Impact Games did their due diligence with research. The aforementioned red Xs to mark infected homes, the attitudes of regular people to plague doctors, and the fact that all carrots are purple, all bring small details that imbue a sense of realism to the world.

However exploring becomes a little tiring for many reasons. There are no faster ways to travel than on foot and since the world is huge, there’s no reason to visit the east side of the map. Until you find a bed and set a re-spawn location, you always re-spawn at the same location, at one side of the map, emphasising the lack of reason to ever be in the far side of the map. And even if you do find yourself on the far side, there’s not much to do there that you can’t do anywhere else – the map is rather similar. The main issue that disincentives travelling, however, is that there are far too many bandits, monks and other hostiles that you have to hack your way through.

The reason combat removes the appeal of exploring is that, in the game’s current state, combat is just too basic. The only two options for combat are to block or attack, and since hit detection is bafflingly temperamental, battles immediately devolve into games of strafing, running forwards and backwards, and other actions that would be more at place on Dance Dance Revolution. If the enemy has a bow, combat is a lot simpler – ranged enemies have almost-perfect accuracy, so the only option is to run for the hills.

That’s not to say the combat is necessarily bad – once you fight enough enemies, it becomes clear how to take them down with minimal injuries. But for a game that prides itself on its realism, the basic combat system seems like a point to improve on.

When you’re not fighting or exploring, you’re surviving. As with every other open world survival sim, you’ll spend a lot of time foraging for food and materials, and exploring various crafting menus to build bigger and better items. There’s a leveling mechanic which unlocks most of the craftable items through collecting experience from various tasks and investing them in a selection of professions – medical, banditry, building etc – in order to progress, but beyond this the system is comparable to that of many other games.

A major curve-ball is thrown in the form of the plague mechanic. If you contract the plague, for a limited time your food and water levels decrease rapidly, often leading to starvation or dehydration. Gameplay truly hits its stride when this happens – you’ll need to finish off quickly whatever foe or obstacle gave you the plague, rush about the area trying to find plants and water puddles to temporarily stave off your gruesome death, and try to take yourself to the nearest food vendor so you can outlast the ailment.

The best (or worst) part of the mechanic is that you can detect the plague before you get it, meaning you’re always paranoid of your imminent illness. You’ll begin to jump any time someone nearby coughs, or you hear a rat scurrying about near you, or you find a dead body on the road. The level of fear and tension built in certain situations from the plague mechanic is an example of a survival game hitting its prime, and it is incredibly immersive at times from this.

The game prides itself on this plague setting – from the world-building to the marketing material, the plague is placed at the forefront. It’s curious then that beyond the aforementioned plague mechanic, it doesn’t factor much in the game. Playing as the plague doctor character lets you investigate infected bodies, but this does nothing but provide you with experience. None of the other characters interact with the plague in any meaningful way – merchants, beggars and knights have skills that contribute to other objectives, and the ailment seems more like contextual world-building than a meaningful part of the environment.

In fact, the main focus of the game seems to be the base building mode. It’s more prolific than in other titles though – you don’t just do it to survive but to build a kingdom for your own, complete with serfs and workers. Unfortunately the mechanics are equal parts confusing and ill-advised – there are certain plots you can build on, and once you’ve built on them, no-one else can. However since buildings are permanent, and there are finite plots of land, it can become impossible to find somewhere to construct. Claiming land is equally convoluted – you can buy land claims as items, and then build them, however other players can put their names on your land claims, and it’s dubious what this actually achieves. The whole process either needs an overhaul or an in-depth tutorial.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that the early access game is a work in progress. It’s clear from old forum posts and patch notes that the game has come a long way since its first build, and that the development team listens to the community as much as it tries to enact its vision. The complaints of this review will likely become outdated as the game nears its release.

Every problem seems one patch away from being solved, and the fantastic world that serves as a foundation for the game has enough potential to make up for them. However the development team has to keep in mind their original vision for the title – each new update seems to focus on the base building mode as opposed to the tale of a country gripped by the plague.

As of writing the game is in V0.31. The developers don’t seem sure when the full release will be, but if they continue interacting with and learning from the community like they seem to be doing, it could be amazing.

The Black Plague has many issues, but its clear creative vision provides the blueprint for a potentially amazing game to come.

Tom Bedford

Updated: Jul 31, 2018

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