Trapped Dead Review
Imagine a world without Zombies. You can’t can you? Amazing really, considering that the human race is yet to unleash a deadly plague, mutate or be bitten by a Hamster that was born and raised inside a nuclear reactor. As gamers, Zombies are a huge part of our culture; games these days simply aren’t cool unless there’s a disgruntled horde of flesh eating undead charging their way down the street, and they manage to crop up in just about every which way possible. The strategy genre has, thus far, managed to avoid infection, however, and Crenetic Studios have sniffed out that opportunity, making their debut with Trapped Dead: Zombie Survival Horror.
Set in Kansas, Missouri 1982, Trapped Dead has you directing a team of survivors from a Zombie outbreak to their inevitable sunrise escape. Positively littered with references to the works which inspired it and with a story narrated entirely through hand-drawn comic-style panels, the game really does have an instant appeal that gets you giddy with excitement, even before the introductory scene has played out. Sadly, that appeal is rapidly fashioned into a crude lobotomy device and used to drain you of all joy, patience and love for Zombies once the gameplay takes centre stage.
The obligatory initial tutorial puts you solely in control of Mike Reed* (*I was so incredibly disappointed that it was Reed and not Reid, I’d have loved to survive a Zombie invasion with Frank Butcher), a fresh out of American college sports jock on his way to Kansas City with his buddy Gerald, presumably to do frat boy stuff, possibly involving stealing a pig. Before they reach the city, the car runs out of gas (albeit conveniently near to a gas station), and Mike is tasked with heading inside to locate fuel. Gerald valiantly offers to remain in the car and I’m sure we can all guess what happens to Gerald.
During the tutorial you’re taught how to control the game’s isometric camera, which is able to dynamically track Mike (or any of the other survivors who later join the team), or is directed manually by the player – something that allows for zoom, tilt and pan functionality, with pan also able to be controlled by the WASD keys, alongside the obligatory mouse/screen edging. The camera adjusts itself automatically if it detects anything that can obscure your view and feels entirely natural to anyone who has played a 3D RTS in recent years. Control of the survivors, on the other hand, does not feel natural.
Having acquainted you with the camera, the tutorial then directs you to lead Mike into the Gas Station, with left click acting as a ‘Move To’ command, enhanced by Caps Lock to run. So far, so good. Any interaction with the scenery is also controlled by left click, from opening doors and activating switches, to picking up items. Having wandered inside, Mike finds the attendant chewing on a customer and so, having spied a conveniently placed baseball bat and equipping it from the RPG style inventory, Mike is now able to left click on our hungry Gas ‘N’ Gulp yokel and proceed with the bashing out of Zombie brains. Only, to initiate an attack you’re supposed to right click, and now Mike’s happily walking up to Zombie Bob like sushi on a conveyer belt. Bugger.
Now, don’t allow me to mislead you. The game instructed me to right click in order to initiate combat with both a tooltip and an on screen indicator (presented in the form of a mouse with a red highlighted ‘right click’). It couldn’t have been any more obvious, but it also couldn’t have been any more unholy in the book of control schemes that you know and love. My brain simply refused to accept that right click was the suitable approach here and, before I knew it, I was a nice sticky toffee pudding to follow Bob’s main course. I was down in just four hits.
Having mastered my brain (not the control scheme, just my own mind) and learned the correct manner in which to accquaint my baseball bat with Bob’s head, I proceeded painlessly through the rest of the tutorial and into the first level. Staying true to the laws of Zombie locales, you’re first delivered to the local hospital, hoping to be able to save Gerald who was ‘unsurprisingly’ attacked whilse you were off looking for Twinkies. Here the game knocks it up a notch in terms of difficulty, asking you to deal with two and three Zombies at a time, rather than just the previously encountered Bob, and here’s where my control scheme heart was truly broken. With the Hospital level continuing to serve as a tutorial, the game explains how best to deal with multiple enemies, by holding shift and using right click to drag a box around the oncoming horde. I’ve checked in the index of my own personal control scheme manual and I only found reference to right click drag selections on page 729, under ‘Heathen’.
I know it may sound like a particularly ‘nitpicky’ thing to get hung up on, but for a game that requires precision, adaption and quick thinking, the controls simply aren’t there to support you. Because of this, you find yourself using the space bar’s pause function before, after, and many times during combat. Any flow the game ever develops is completely destroyed by the need, not to play tactical, but simply to ensure that you’ve pressed the right buttons and are ready to engage the horde with guns, as opposed to marching straight into the middle of them. Worse still is that the standard control scheme cannot be remapped from the options – which are only accessible in game and never from the main menu. Camera controls can be remapped along with other actions such as reload and pause, but sadly any philistines who want to revert to any traditionally accepted uses of left and right click are left in the brutal, harsh right click cold.
Mike eventually fights his way deep enough into the hospital to find Professor Harper, a wheelchair bound Professor (never referred to as a Doctor, oddly) who was presumably serving as the G.A Romero Hospital’s head of Diagnostic Medicine. This is probably the first time I have encountered a character in a video game (that wasn’t Professor Xavier, who would probably handle himself quite nicely in a Zombie invasion) who has to operate entirely from a wheelchair. He’s slow, easily fatigued and genuinely can’t go up anything higher than a curb. It’s an interesting mechanic that should really require you to think twice about abandoning him while exploring the upstairs of a building, or before descending down a few steps knowing that you’ll not be able to order him back inside. Having mentioned the word ‘should’, I think you can already guess that this is something else that Crenetic have let me down on. During the entire game, I think I could only count a handful of situations where I was required to enter that mindset and, even then, there was no real reward given for having taken the risk.
As the game progresses, more characters are added to the team with Bo, a Veteran who runs his own gun store and shooting range; Old John, the ‘past his prime’ doughnut eating Sherriff of Hedge Hill; Jo Ann, the feisty town reporter and Klaus, a crane operator who works at the local train yard. Each character has their own strengths and attributes, which eventually require you to deliberate over who to select for the upcoming missions. Mike is a fairly all-round character, able to handle most firearms and melee weapons and who has an unnaturally fast walking pace. Professor Harper is able to not only patch up wounds, but also restore health when using a first aid pack.
Both Old John and Bo are fairly proficient with firearms, with Bo being the toughest of all the survivors and Old John being so out of shape that there are times when you wonder if he wouldn’t be better off in Harper’s wheelchair. Jo Ann is able to handle small arms, melee weapons and heal characters, albeit less proficiently than Harper, but not so much that it would stop you choosing her over him, owing to her much superior speed. Finally, Klaus brings the greatest strength to the group and is the one character you want at the forefront of any fight, armed with the bluntest instrument you can put in his hands.
It may not be Francis, Bill, Zoe and Louis, but it’s not a bad make up for a Zombie survivor crew, bringing in all the characters you expect to find in a Zombie movie, although I had every single one of these marked for death, as per the trope. With the game only allowing you to utilize four squad members at a time from the available six, at the end of each mission, and in prelude to the next, all characters return to an abandoned bunker. From here the player is free to mix and swap weapons, ammo and items from inventory to inventory and select the characters to take on the next mission. In some situations, the player is also asked to choose the next location after the characters have argued the merits of each one between themselves. Every location holds something unique to the survivors, with the prison having Sherriff waiting to be recruited, the gun shop having ammo and the library seeing Bo besiegied up on the roof.
They’re all fairly arbitrary reasons for visiting the areas and less optional than the game would have you believe. After having first escaped to the Bunker with Harper, the option to go looking for weapons at the gun store, or try break out Old John from his own prison is offered. I opted to try arm myself with enough ammo and guns to take on the predicted horde of infected inmates in the prison. Sadly, having acquired so few resources at the hospital (and not for lack of trying either), I was unable to battle my way out of the initial area, with Professor Harper only being able to fire the one handgun I had found (along with the incredibly limited supply of ammo), and Mike still wielding his trusty (but less than useful) baseball bat. At this stage in the game, with only two survivors at your disposal, it’s simply too much to ask to be able to deal with the large massing of enemies that all too readily descend on you as Harper scrambles to reload and Mike tries to catch his breath before swinging his bat again. The correct option was to head for the prison, which is clearly more tailored for the two available survivors, and then to try the gun store again once Old John has joined the team.
Were it that the game was able to dynamically scale the difficulty of the locales based upon your progression, it would make the feature entirely worthwhile and could even give you a reason to go back and replay the game once you’ve ridden off into the sunset. If that was on the table then maybe the game would also allow you to go chasing after other members of the squad first, allowing you to assemble the team in a way you see fit.
Sadly, the only path to walk is the one that Crenetic want you to take; anyone brave enough to challenge that would be so harshly punished for having wasted precious ammunition and scarce health packs on tackling a three or four man operation with one less survivor, that the reward would be little more than a congratulatory Wine Gum that you’d promised yourself in advance.
Even when following the designed path, Trapped Dead is a brutally difficult game. At no stage are you able to select a difficulty or adjust it in the options when you find that the game has simply become too tough, you just have to try, try and try again. As previously mentioned, Zombies are able to take out most characters (save for Klaus and Bo) in just a few hits, meaning that every single fight has to be carefully monitored. In later stages, this is made more difficult simply by the number of attacking Zombies, as one hit from just a few of a much larger grouping translates to the equivalent dosage of death and reloading. Gameplay wise this is what’s known as a huge pain in the ass. With health kits being so few and far between and only two characters (Jo Ann isn’t acquired until the final quarter of the game) able to heal, you have to be incredibly careful when entering into combat, and soon find yourself exploiting any of the game’s many mechanical flaws as often as possible.
For example, bottle necking Zombies through doorways and posting melee characters on either side will see the first through the door knocked to the floor, preventing any other Zombies from breaking through as they slowly shuffle their feet in a clump outside. Another bug that I was more than happy to exploit was to simply rush my way to a save point within the level (manhole coverings that all Survivors are required to stand on in order to trigger a save) and then to reload the game from that save before continuing.
It may seem like an odd thing to do, but the save files appear very basic, only recording which Zombies have been killed, the remaining health of the survivors and their current inventory. The game will not record whether or not any of the characters were suffering from bleed effects (which attract any enemies in the area), or if any Zombies were pursuing you as you senselessly dashed for the save point. On reload, you’re presented with characters free from bleeding, saving you from wasting a health kit, and with all those Zombies you decided to avoid killing in the last building (and who were were right on your tail) now safely back inside, presumably having afternoon tea.
I rarely resort to such tactics but the game leaves you so few options at times that I really had little choice in the matter. Much like the survivors, I had to do what was necessary in order to survive. When you throw in the many technical glitches, such as the left click movement control locking into place – something that requires you to click again to alleviate the bug, causing the characters to move away from the position you’ve carefully selected (which, in combat situations, causes them to stop attacking and open themselves up to a gnawing) – you really will be less quick to judge and more keen to know how to exploit the ones that work in your favour. For instance, I found on several occasions that when attempting to drop an item from one inventory so that another character can pick it up, the item simply fell through the ground, never to be seen again, which made me feel much better about using Harper as a noise distraction with his squeaky wheelchair, while Reed followed behind playing drums on a Zombie’s head.
Of course I have more gripes than just bad coding with Trapped Dead. The game lacks basic features that you’d hope to find in a game of its styling. For example, the forever lost items problem could have been avoided were I able to drag the item from my inventory directly onto any of the survivor portraits, and have that character move towards them in order to make the exchange. Instead, players will simply be told that they are too far apart and, because of the poorly implemented control scheme, left clicking to move closer, more often than not, results in simply selecting the other survivor that you were trying to supply ammo to. Even when you believe you are close enough, the game is still not happy with the placement and so forces you to stand chin to chin before any exchange can be made. Occasionally survivors simply refuse to follow through on an instruction to attack, causing your carefully laid plan to fall apart in seconds, triggering a reload only to discover that, having repositioned yourself in exactly the same manner, the save file hasn’t recorded any equipped weapons and that you’re about to die – again. I also couldn’t find any logic at all as to why Crenetic didn’t include any group formation buttons, placing melee characters in front of ranged survivors or even having the characters travel to a location in a more sensible fashion than: “We were all ordered to stand here, here on this exact spot, and we must now all walk slowly around each other as though we were playing an odd version of Twister”.
Were it not for what seems like the omission of such basic features, the game would be far less frustrating and much more enjoyable. Graphically, the game appears basic and could easily be mistaken for a less polished version of The Sims 3. Lighting is appropriate to the mood of each level, with headlights in the street highlighting piles of corpses, and trash-can fires casting shadows of the hordes as they slowly advance on you down an alley. Each of the levels are detailed appropriately, not quite to the same quality of Left4Dead, which gives a completely unrivalled sub-narrative, but enough to have you happy to stick your nose around – something which the game happily lets you do with no fog of war or LOS restrictions that simply allow you to look everywhere without ever moving.
Audio is satisfying enough with the zombie groans and gun sounds pulled straight out of the generic sound banks and the music happy to take a back seat and never do anything more to drag you into the game. I say satisfying because I genuinely can’t fault the sound quality, but with other games in the horror genre proving that a good audio experience really can make the sell, it feels like a poor showing by Crenetic for not having invested more into it. Dialogue, for example, only occurs during cut scenes and key moments within the level, and any banter between the survivors is entirely absent, with only Bo giving any battle cries when combat begins. It feels like a missed opportunity given the diversity of the characters and is noticeable throughout the campaign as you trundle from point to point, fight to fight.
After playing the first few levels, the game will have taught you everything you need to know and the only thing that is tested beyond that is patience. At no point did I ever feel I was forced to think up some clever new way to navigate an obstacle or tackle a room full of Zombies; I simply learned that you can avoid most fights entirely by running as fast as you can to the closest door and stopping to shut it behind you. The campaign spans nine levels, taking a little under five hours to complete (not counting the amount of time spent replaying sections following death, or simply spent paused whilst you sort your own Zen out) and its story is fairly loose. Predictably, there was an outbreak of an unexplained virus, orchestrated by a shadowy operation and it’s your job to escape it all, stopping to tie up any mystery should it happen to get in the way. It’s enough, but the dialogue and characters could have made it so much better, simply by being a little more human and less like droneish implements of Zombie destruction.
The gameplay starts out simple, nose dives into incredibly hard then briefly resurfaces once you acquire a full complement of survivors. If you’re careful with your ammo and stockpile enough for the big battles, most of it plays fairly easily towards the end, though I suspect this is more drawn from having learnt how to fully exploit the game. Combat is basic, with Melee hits drawing from your fatigue bar and certain weapons having advantages over others, such as speed over strength and close quarters over range. You’re never told how much health either you or the enemy has in numerical form, although the game will insist on telling you how much damage you inflicted or suffered. You can sort of guess, based on how the red bar decreases, but it’s entirely without point and would only be a satisfying addition if the combat was on par with Borderlands in terms of pace when it’s actually more akin to a traditional D&D roll of the dice.
I, sadly, was left unable to complete the game, having reached the final stage but not being able to convince the game that I had met an objective (which I most certainly had). The game has been on general release for a month now and Crenetic have patched it several times already, but this is a problem I seem to have solely encountered and which remains un-noticed. With the game having been developed by a German studio, there is little support available for any English users in a quick Google search, or even a more advanced poke around using browser installed translation services. Also, because the game relies on direct connection for its multiplayer, I was unable to get in with the incredibly small German speaking community to try out its multiplayer features, which promised to allow four players to tackle one of the levels with each player controlling a character.Pros
- Great art style with the game's narration
- Excellent homage to Zombie culture
- Use of NVIDIA PhysX makes for some entertaining bludgeoning as Zombies are smashed in the face and then sent to the ground
- Game is just too hard
- Lacks any real soul in terms of character and plot
- The 'Trapped' element of gameplay, in which set piece traps can be triggered and groupings of Zombies amusingly killed, are a selling point for the game, but I only believed it worth mentioning here in the Cons with these fifty three words which tell you everything you need to know about them
- The absence of features you would expect to find in a game of this style will confound you
- Control is a major issue
I think we've all been spoiled. Left4Dead was such a huge and surprising success for us gamers that whenever we hear about a Zombie survival game, we get giddy with excitement. Trapped Dead's visual style, it's comic book narration and point & click tactical gameplay has you expecting a lot more from it than it manages to deliver. There's no sense of tension in whether or not you'll be able to pull off your carefully masterminded plan or survive another wave of Zombies that literally came from nowhere, only a feeling of suspense over whether or not the characters will do exactly what you told them and won't fall foul of any bad coding. Placing the characters into a sort of guard mode for example, where they stay rooted to the spot and attack a highlighted selection of Zombies, determined by proximity and threat rather than range and opportunity, feels like a wondrous thing, with most fights taking place almost automatically. Occasionally though, that mechanic breaks down and, all of a sudden, your melee characters decide that they want to pick on someone at the back of the crowd rather than the guy chewing on their face; you abruptly find yourself questioning just why you're submitting yourself to this digital torture.
I can't pretend I enjoyed my time with Trapped Dead, though I certainly love the premise. If the AI was smarter, the characters richer, and the inventory management RPG elements kicked to the curb, this game would be a real treat. Sadly, it's nothing more than a big bowl of disappointment, with long, inexplicable hairs floating just beneath the parts you think are safe to eat... and later leave you sat on the toilet where you at least get to read Seth Grahame-Smith's, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - a tome which, if you don't like, also doubles as non-soluble toilet paper - win, win.
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