Friday, December 16, 2011

No More Room in Hell for This Game

My experience with No More Room in Hell, a George A Romero-style zombie survival-horror mod for the source engine, has not been very pleasant, but what's ever pleasant about the zombie apocalypse? This is supposed to be a slower-paced game about survival, making it through large cities by following objectives (typically "get from point A to point B," or "get key item C for door D") all-the-while scavenging for ammo, supplies, and avoiding the hordes of shambling zombies that populate the large maps.

The idea was to create a zombie game that plays more like classic zombie films, with a greater emphasis on survival and strategic maneuvering than straight-up action. This is a novel ambition, since most of the popular zombie games aren't really survival horror any more. No More Room in Hell shows a lot of potential, but in its current beta state (1.02b), it misses the mark quite badly. It's a game that I really want to like, but the experience has been a turn off and I'm left abstaining until future versions (hopefully) expand on its content and fix its design problems.

You can download the mod on Desura, ModDB, and FilePlanet and play for free. I would actually recommend checking it out if you're somewhat curious about it, so that you know to keep an eye out for its future updates; just consider yourself warned that it's still rather rough around the edges. Keep reading for my own review / analysis / break-down.

No More Room in Hell is riddled with some pretty glaring problems and lots of minor issues. It's sort of a challenge to describe it all, because I don't even know where to begin in order to capture the full essence of what's wrong with this mod. So I'll just start where I started: at the very beginning.

When I play cooperative online games, I like to read up on the instructions and beginner guides, and even play by myself for a little while so that I'm accustomed to at least the very basics before I jump into servers and start getting the team killed with my own inexperience. After browsing around the main website for a while, including checking through its forums, I didn't find anything helpful. I didn't know anything about this mod except that it had zombies, and realized I'd just have to play the game and figure everything out for myself.

To make a long story short, I spent the next 45 minutes experiencing painfully frustrating deaths while I just tried to figure out the game mechanics. Lots of tedious trial-and-error as I tried to figure out how to best handle combat, the layout of the maps, how the objectives worked, so on and so on, all because there was absolutely no in-game tutorial to explain anything at all. Not even floating messages or anything.

So I launched the game and created my own passworded server so that I could bumble around like an idiot in privacy. I picked the first map in the list (Broadway) and started up. I spawn in a small ramshackle room with crap strewn all over the place. A floating message gives me my first objective: "Break the padlock to the motel." Ok, I say, I'll get to work on that. I look around and find a flashlight, a crowbar, and a box of ammo and head for the door.

I step outside and find myself in the street at night with a chainlink fence separating me and a few dozen slow-moving, shambling zombies. There's a padlock on the chainlink fence, so I smack it off with my crowbar, and six of the nearest zombies immediately start moving towards me, including two or three who were already near the gate. With my crowbar, I proceed to bash the face of the nearest zombie. Blood spurts out and the thing barely flinches. I bash its face six more times, backing up after each swing because the thing keeps lumbering towards me. Finally it falls to the ground and I'm backed up inside the starting room with a small train of zombies filtering through the chainlink fence.

At this point I start to suspect that I'm completely screwed, because I'm trapped in a small room with a dozen zombies coming at me, and it took like a solid 20 seconds to kill that one zombie, because the game forces me to wait three seconds in between each attack. Well sure enough, after a couple minutes of futile melee bashing I get killed and the map restarts with me picking up weapons and presented with the same "Break the padlock on the motel" objective.

So I give it another shot, this time noticing that different weapons have randomly dropped into the starting room, including a machete and a pipewrench. I equip the machete and break the padlock on the chainlink fence, this time deciding that I'll try to sprint past the zombies and avoid the shoddy melee combat as much as possible, since that just got me killed last time. I run out into the street with no idea where I'm going and then get ambushed by several small children who can sprint faster than I can run. Frantically trying to bash their skulls in, I go down in only a few hits.

I respawn and repeat the process of equipping myself and heading into the street. This time a chainsaw and a sledgehammer spawn in the room. I take the chainsaw and find that I can only swing it around awkwardly like a bashing weapon, without the chain actually spinning. After further inspection of the premises, I find what appears to be a gas can hidden in a dark corner. Optimistic that this is the "ammo" for powering the chainsaw, I pull it back out only to find that I still can't get the chain to spin.

Distraught, I run out into the street again. This time I manage to find a padlock on another chainlink fence across the street, highlighted in red. This looks like an objective or something, so I try to bash it off with my weapon while zombies are about to start chewing on my ass. I get inside and see another objective pop up that says "Find a way into the basement," which requires me to actually get into the motel by bashing some planks of wood off the door. So while I'm standing there wailing on two planks of wood that won't break because I'm apparently not aimed properly, a horde of zombies corners me in the alley and I die.

Respawn, collect weapons, go outside. This time the game told me to "Find the cinema keys," and when inspecting the motel, I found the alley blocked with random junk. So I go into the cinema just down the street, open a door and poke my head inside. Turns out to be a bathroom, but behold! A pistol with some ammo! I pick it up and, in the time it takes me to switch to it and turn around, there are a few of those sprinting zombie children who've cornered me in the bathroom stall. I dispose of them with basically all of my bullets and then get trapped in the bathroom to die another slow and frustrating death as a stream of zombies slowly walked in and I attempted to bash them to death with a baseball bat.

Respawn, collect weapons, go outside. The game's still telling me to "Find the cinema keys," so I go back to the cinema and gamble with the bathroom, this time getting the pistol and getting out before getting trapped. While trying to explore the cinema, I suffer a few hits and, after a while, notice red veins swelling up around the outside edges of the screen. Everything starts going dark and the edges turn more and more red, and eventually I fall over on the ground dead. As I would later deduce, a zombie had grabbed hold of me and "bitten" me (though there's never an animation that looks like a bite) and infected me, leaving me to slowly die an inevitable death.

By now I've died eight or nine times from various other attempts and never even made it past the first objective. At one point I found a nice 12 gauge shotgun, but whenever I picked it up it would just hang in mid-air as if I were using it for a box-stacking physics puzzle. Even after dropping all of my weapons I couldn't equip it. Needless to say, by this point, I'm feeling flustered, and conclude that I'm not going to learn anything else by myself and start spectating online matches.

My first impressions were pretty bad. I had no idea what I was doing and felt like I was struggling against a broken melee combat system. Eventually I figured out that you can hold the attack button to "charge" a melee attack, which instantly made the combat a little less dysfunctional (it still takes maybe three shots to the head with most melee weapons, to bring a zombie down), but I was baffled that nothing in the game ever suggested this was possible. This especially after figuring out that the "alternative attack" button (right click) did jack squat with melee weapons.

I'd held hope that playing online with other people would make the game more fun and enjoyable. We were more successful at completing objectives and navigating through the map as a team, but it didn't feel any more enjoyable, because more problems started to pop up.

So after a few hours of playing, here are my general impressions:

1) The combat is pretty lame and not enough to sell me on the game. Melee combat is basically worthless, only serving to get you killed in a death trap unless you have a sledgehammer and charge every single attack, or can get the chainsaw to work. Attacks are slow and clunky, and zombies don't recoil in any kind of useful or realistic way from taking a baseball bat to the head. The guns are more functional, but they're not any more satisfying to use because it feels like you're playing a 10 year-old shooter.

2) There's not enough variation to any of the gameplay. There are only three levels to play, which get old even after a very short while, especially when you're first starting out and dying a lot. The objectives are pretty bland, too, most of the time just telling you to "get from point A to point B," or to find a key somewhere nearby to use on a locked door. Add to that the item placement appears to be constant in each map (with the exception of the starting room), so that you'll always know where to find guns and ammo and such.

3) As a consequence of #2, there's not much replay value here. The game can be appealing for a little while, but there's not really anything to bring you back for more. The only difference is going to be the combination of people you play with, but once you're experienced at the game and know what to do, it's all going to feel largely the same from match to match.

4) I don't think the game is balanced based on the number of people playing. I think I got swarmed and overrun so much playing by myself because the quantity of zombies that spawn seem to be fixed to accommodate 5-8 players, instead of just one. If you're just playing by yourself (or with two other people) then there should be fewer zombies to deal with, because it's way too easy to get stuck somewhere and get overrun by an impossible number of zombies. Maybe that's realistic, but it's not fun for gameplay.

5) Zombies respawn perhaps too often and too close to you. This gets to be really frustrating and tedious when you're trying to explore the level and figure out where you need to go. You're in a building and clear a hallway of zombies, and then turn the corner into another room and find that it's a dead end, so you backtrack and find that there are five more zombies that spawned behind you. Sure, there needs to be a constant threat about, but it needs to be balanced to keep the pace flowing, you don't want to bog the player down repeating the same stuff they've already done.

6) The game's pacing is really, really slow, which is ideal for a survival horror, but it's not compensated by good action. I'm not saying this game has to be like L4D with constant intense in-your-face action, but the combat mechanics don't feel satisfying to use and the combat itself doesn't mount tension because of how clunky it feels and because of how little is actually at stake. Most of the times you get killed is because you just get screwed, which doesn't get you pumped to play better and develop your skill. You can have a slow-paced, oppressive survival atmosphere AND fun, engaging action---just look at the STALKER games.

7) Joining matches can be a bit of a hassle, because if it's already started then you're forced to watch as a spectator for maybe 20 minutes at a time while you wait for the team to get wiped out or to reach some kind of a checkpoint. It's really boring to watch, and the slow pacing of it drags it out way too long. It'd be nice if there were some sort of way to join the match quicker, like to spawn near teammates with some kind of minor handicap like with decreased health or only a weak weapon or something.

So that's a lot of criticism for No More Room in Hell. If I could describe it in one word, it would be "tedious." Right now there's just not enough variety to the content, and almost all of its mechanics feel too rough and unpolished.

And yet, I'm still optimistic for its future. I really like the concept of a slower-paced zombie survival game with a heavy emphasis on resource management and strategy, because that can be a lot more tense (and exciting) than your typical run-and-gun FPS. I like the way you have to scrounge the map searching for weapons and ammo---it's a fun risk vs reward kind of situation that I always find appealing, but the mechanics make it more risk vs tedium. I like the lack of a HUD, having to manually check your ammo reserve by taking your clip out of the gun. I like that you can be infected, in theory, but it's overkill when you're playing by yourself and preferred if it did a little more than just kill you.

Besides fixing all of the tedious, unpolished aspects, the game just needs a little something extra than just "survival" to make it a fun, engaging game. There needs to be more going on in the maps besides slowly drudging from point A to point B while avoiding zombies. More depth to the experience to make it feel more rewarding. More variety to keep you coming back for more.

Considering that this mod is still in development and isn't even out of beta yet, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done. The complaints I have now are far from final judgment, and the designers are talking about plenty of interesting additions and tweaks that would improve the game. As it is now, in beta 1.02b, it's more of an interesting experiment than a fun game. I would still recommend checking out, but I'm personally going to hold off until its development is further along.


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  2. Late post, but thought still throwing few words here. Also, I'm the Lead Level Designer of NMRiH.

    Thanks for the review, even it wasn't praising our work and telling how everything is awesome. I personally liked this review, because it was honestly written.

    I admit we have many issues in the mod (quite many have been fixed as latest version at the moment is 1.04, which was released week ago) and we are working on the project very actively to fix stuff the best we can. There also lots of gameplay related things to adjust and polish to make things more interesting, it's one of the reasons we're in Beta. That way we can test the build on you guys and get your input and feedback, not just from our internal test-team.

    We are also going to have few more new maps soon-ish. They're coming slow because we have only 3-4 active level designers, so things take time when everyone has real-life too.

    So yeah, nothing else to say I guess. I hope we can deliver more polish and improvements in the mod to bring people there to play the thing and enjoy it!