Project Zomboid is a true sandbox game

2022-01-22  Gaming

Project Zomboid is yet another game that was sitting in my Steam library for a long time before I played it properly. Since the start of 2020, I’d clocked just ten hours (although granted a lot happened in the meantime). But when I saw its recent resurgence, I thought it was time to give it another go.

Virtual playgrounds

I’m always looking for better ways to explain what makes a game great for me. Recently, referring to a video about someone convincing his non-gamer girlfriend to play some games, a Redditor put it better than I could:

“Her biggest complaint was that she couldn’t solve the problems as creatively as she wanted to and since she didn’t know common gaming tropes (like look at the thing in the room that’s a weird colour), it was difficult to figure out solutions that the game would actually accept.”

Even as somebody who recognises this kind of signposting, I think this is a reason why some games appeal to me more than others - for example, why I’ve never gotten into shooters as much as many other gamers. The games I enjoy - from RollerCoaster Tycoon to The Sims, from Grand Theft Auto to Assetto Corsa - all give the player an environment, a set of rules, and the freedom to do pretty much whatever they want. When the player asks a reasonable “Can I…?” question to these games, the answer is usually yes.

Into the wild

Project Zomboid takes this to a level I’ve never seen before. The game tasks the player with surviving a zombie apocalypse. They must find shelter, gather and prepare food, and defend themselves from the horde to live for as long as possible. There are no respawns - when your character dies, they’re dead. Everything that happens in between is up to your own inginuity.

I’d bounced off the game a few times because this can make it super difficult. A momentary lapse in concentration can lead to your character getting overrun, bitten, and infected. This meant I never lasted more than a few hours before losing everything. But like all good sandbox games, Project Zomboid gives you the sliders to set up the scenario just how you want it. When somebody on Twitter recommended that I make things a bit easier for myself, I was finally able to interact with the game’s systems properly and came to understand them better, and that’s what got me hooked.

The game’s graphics are reminiscent of the original The Sims, but the systems behind Project Zomboid are immense. Everything from wellbeing to clothing, cooking to crafting, weather to vehicles, has such depth that each of them takes a while to learn on its own. In this respect it’s what I refer to as a “wiki game”, in that you’ll inevitably need to run the occasional web search to learn how to do something, but you don’t want to read online material for hours on end and ruin all the surprises for yourself.

The little things

But I’ll save all that for the full review I’ll post soon once I’ve had more time to explore. Returning to my original point, what makes Project Zomboid great is that you can intuit what to do based on what would work in real life. Examples of this that I’ve encountered so far include:

  • Any empty container - bottles, pans, baths, etc. - can be filled with water, either to carry around with you and drink or to stockpile in case the utilities fail and the taps no longer run

  • Most clothing gathered by looting and from zombie corpses can be ripped into strips to dress your wounds if you’re scratched or bitten

  • Exercises like press-ups, sit-ups, and squats can help to keep your character fit, but your physical effectiveness will be reduced the next day when the corresponding muscles ache

  • If you can’t find an unlocked door or window to get into a building, you can smash a window instead - but you must remember to remove the broken glass or you’ll get cut climbing through

The level of detail is quite amazing. I imagine this is great for roleplayers, but even as a regular player it’s fantastic to be rewarded for thinking about small things that most games would ignore. Working out how to do some things can be tricky - and that’s where the wiki comes in - but I feel like that is more than made up for each time you pull off your latest plan.

I’ll cover Project Zomboid in a much more detailed review in a few weeks, but for now I just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying it and encourage you to give it a go - even if it is with the difficulty turned down a notch.

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