Monday, March 26, 2018

Dead State

"The crawling mice in suits and ties
Are blind to what makes this thing beautiful"

Kill Hannah - Is Anyone Here Alive?

You know what phrase ticks me off? "Cast: in order of appearance." Like it makes any sense whatsoever for movie studios to do that. No, I do not give a crap what the one-eyed, cigar-smoking janitor's name was in those first five seconds with the opening credits still rolling. There are indeed small roles. Wouldn't be so bad, however, if it were at least a stable system, if the worldwide movie industry would just make up its damn mindless and stick with one cast order.

Dead State features a gigantic roster of NPC party members a la Baldur's Gate / Mount & Blade, to whom the player may assign jobs or whom the player may select to accompany him on expeditions into the Great Unknown (a.k.a. central Texas.) On one screen they're listed by the order in which they join your group. On another they're listed in alphabetical order. Why? Why not? Though Dead State has been rightly criticized for its fair share of industry-standard bugginess and incompleteness on release, much of its inherent frustration stems from this sort of rando' bullcrap you'd expect from an undergraduate code-monkey proudly slapping his first "game" together.

Camera angles constantly change of their own accord when switching party members. While this is obviously intended as a feature, its lack of any transition makes it more jarring and confusing than helpful and more often than not it interposes walls in the players view angle instead of avoiding them.

You can increase your allies' happiness with gifts, as in Dragon Age. Problem? No mood display in conversation or on mouse-over or in any other way easily accessible. You have to bring up your goals screen and scroll down to find each individual ally, then go back to your main base screen.

The interface, overall, is so clumsy as to warrant the same condemnation as the pathetically trite Homeworld copycat ORB: everything takes an extra click. Loot can sometimes be drag-dropped... and sometimes it can't. Inventory overflow prompts a pop-up window instead of floating text, forcing you to close it every time you're a gram over your limit. All the more frustrating since, as with ally mood, your limit is not displayed in the loot window... only your inventory window... even though they're the Same. Fucking. Window! Argh!
This one hits particularly hard, as Dead State centers on loot acquisition: mountains and mountains of junk critical to the welfare of your post-apocalyptic shelter, looted from literally thousands of containers and corpses... none of whom display their looted / unlooted status visually... each of which must be looted individually... even when they're stacked... prompting you to select them through a drop menu... which will be different from pixel to pixel even in the same game tile depending on whether a corpse's character model has a toe or eyebrow under your cursor... invisibly, under five other corpses.
Seriously, this is not the work of a "veteran game developer" as Mitsoda bills himself, unless the only thing he learned from his time at Troika was how to release a ludicrously half-baked mess of an unprofessional excuse for a program. Given his time at Obsidian, you'd think he'd have picked up at least a hint of what became Pillars of Eternity's streamlined loot system.

Add to this Dead State's very, very basic graphics, which fail to outshine even the first Fallout titles in anythig but pixel count - and even so glitch out constantly with stuck animations and prone enemies becoming untargetable and enemies in doorways becoming invisible.

Add the over-reliance on the game manual, with no in-game reference list of commands or features. I went through my first playthrough without finding the means to trade items between characters or swap their positions in combat.

Add the uneven writing, often reminiscent of Bloodlines' quality (Parisa's dialogues for instance are spot-on, and rather engaging) but as often as not perfunctory high school drama club theatrics. The crisis events are just terribly stilted. Goes hand in hand with a tendency to shoehorn in social justice commentary (Paul the wonder-queer and Karen the post-apocalyptic abortion activist.) Add to that an over-reliance on goofy Edgar Wright inspired humor (castles, knights, Doug's battle cries) which more fractures than offsets an otherwise quite grim setting.


Now that I've completely trashed the game, I'm going to try to convince you to buy it.
Like Troika's games, there is some very real substance buried under Dead State's interposing interface, bugginess and lack of attention to necessary details. DoubleBear Productions? I want you to succeed. SEEK HELP!

Marketed as "the zombie RPG" (its executable name is actually zrpg) Dead State manages to incorporate so many other elements that it makes me nostalgic for the early nineties, before computer game genres were set in stone.

Yes, it's largely an RPG, with both physical attributes and upgradeable skills. It's also a base-building game, to a much greater extent than NWN2 and related RPG fortresses have ever been. The supplies you haul back from the RPG hack'n'slash portion of your travels serve mainly to upgrade and stock your base of operations, your shelter, the high school you build up with a working tool shop, infirmary, rooftop gardens, etc. This in turn serves as the setting for most of your roleplaying, as your NPC companions love to hate your choices and will often demand favoritism. This in turn feeds back into the action portion of the game, as managing your growing coterie's whiny psychopathy is crucial to your combat and base maintenance success in rotating your NPCs to exploration and back from day to day.

That exploration itself falls somewhere in the Baldur's Gate middle ground between open worlds and linear story-based RPGs.
The overland map offers numerous locations from cozy cookie-cutter suburbia to supermarkets, malls, campgrounds, packaging plants, other failed shelters and military bases. Though Dead State abides by the generic game settings of grasslands and warehouses, it at least manages to own it. Random encounters are frequent and integrated into roleplaying throgh the "survival" skill.Enough effort was placed into level design to offer both unique challenges and opportunities (like luring the undead to your enemies to wear them down) and a surprising amount of variety within the suburban / small town monotony of Splendid and its surroundings.

It does suffer some pacing issues. The early game is just brutal in its focus on improvised weaponry and lack of body armor, while the more challenging portions of the late game tend to rely on sticking your party into frustrating choke points. Otherwise, with a fully-built base and some customized military-grade equipment you can pretty much mop the floor with full squads of mercenary soldiers. The "recycler" base upgrade is too blatantly crucial to getting enough early-game materials to build everything you need. In contrast, by late game you'll have accumulated enough loot and preserved food to feed and house an entire town, and so far I've found no big capstone projects on which to burn said loot. By end game, you'll also have acquired so many skill points as to be not only a jack but a master of all trades.

That character advancement's itself quite intriguing, following Bloodlines' premise of awarding experience points not for killing but for completing objectives. Unfortunately it's marred by those objectives' most frequent nature: amassing loot... which boils down to obsessively Hoovering each and every zone of each and every last item, no matter how trivial.

The combat sytem's quite good, obviously inspired by the first Fallout. Ranged weapons vary in their utility, availability of ammunition, ease of use, stealth, range, magazine sizes and reload times, everything you could want. Melee weapons actually have three different ranges, with two-handers being able to hit diagonally where one-handers only reach in a cross shape and long-reach polearms hitting an extra square away. The difference between damage types is quite relevant to fighting either bashable zombies or anything which can bleed. You can even use shields with your one-hander, with an active defense option turning you into satisfyingly damage-soaking immovable object able to kill enemies through mere retaliation while standing your ground. Most of your allies will panic in combat if severely wounded or faced with the undead, which can be mitigated in at least three ways. Add to this a full array of grenade-like items, from firecrackers to actual grenades, single-use weapons like tazers, military grade timed explosives and land mines, status effects from accuracy and dodging debuffs to fatigue, panic and zombie infection, and special damage effects like chemical and fire, and you've got a combat system much more engaging than anything you'll see in RPGs short of Mount & Blade.

Aesthetically, Dead State is rather spare, but what's there suits its post-apocalyptic down-home Southern barbecue theme. Voice acting is unfortunately suspiciously absent, save for combat grunts and some idle animation hemming and hawing. Its music (though it could have been more diverse) is appropriately bleak and minimalist, reminiscent of STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and many of its improvised weapons, armor, bases of operation, barricades and other decor are all apt to its central theme.

A great deal of very nerdy rational thought went into this zombie survival / roleplaying / basebuilding / turn-based tactical / strategy exploration adventure, and most if not all of its problems come of wallowing in its by now standard indie title incompleteness. At its core lies an interesting and unique, if half-finished, game.

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