Resource management, scarcity, exploration, combat and base building and player agency why players going back and enjoying the world of sandbox games. And while everyone’s already seen zombies in one media or another, Project Zomboid takes the cake when it comes to a survival sandbox spin on the genre. The feeling of being lost in an urban jungle, the overwhelming dread of being swarmed by a horde of shamblers, and the feeling of loneliness and hopelessness of knowing you might be the only one left alive make it feel like a genuine dystopian experience. Here’s how the game keeps both the sandbox and the survival aspect immersive and exciting.
Welcome to Knox Country! …or what’s left of it
Enter 1990s Kentucky, where the Knox Infection has abruptly begun, and everyone around you wants to eat you alive. The world of Project Zomboid is massive, and is loosely based on real world locations around Kentucky, USA, with the exceptions of the fictional communities of Rosewood and Riverside. The world is extremely detailed, structured in a way that you would expect in real life. Residential areas like suburbs, gated communities, a country club, trailer parks, and farmhouses can be found all around the map, as well as government (police stations, military bases, a jail, banks), industrial (factories, a lumber mill, warehouses, storage units, the railroad) and community (bars, restaurants, plazas, schools, hospitals) establishments. The development team from The Indie Stone really went above and beyond for the number of places one can explore in PZ. There’s even a mall in Louisville!
Burgers, a failed experiment, or nature’s revenge?
A playground is boring without context. The game feels alive (or unalive) using different contextual the player encounters along their journey to keep themselves from being devoured by the undead hordes. Televisions play advertisements (and even give the player some skill-related knowledge), radios have talk shows (and some have a lesser known emergency broadcast system), a helicopter makes noise and flies above the sky in an attempt to find the player, and ambient noises like dogs barking, dying screams and gunshots can be heard during one’s short lifespan in Knox Country. If one looks hard enough, they can even find clues as to how the virus spread, and how the government ultimately failed to contain it from spreading to the rest of the planet, and why the player wakes up to extremely hungry neighbors.
Skills and You
But how does the player *play*? Just like any other survival game, the player starts with minimal resources and tons of danger. They find a safe living space, attain resources to play with, and gain tools to deal with the brutal world they are set in. In PZ, any action contributes to a character’s skill, whether it be as passive as their overall strength and fitness by walking and carrying weight, to something as deliberate as walking outside and methodically axing down the zombie hordes. The game even has its own nutritional system, vegetables having less calories and meat having more. Your diet even affects your fitness gain when you exercise (and did we mention you can work out here?).
From Surviving to Thriving
Playing is one thing, but what about *living*? Here is where PZ’s playthrough longevity truly shines. If the player can survive their first week or two after the water and electricity shuts off, the game removes the training wheels, and they are left to their own. But their options are plentiful: they can farm from the land and have virtually infinite vegetables, trap animals in the forest for their carnivorous needs, and fish from the rivers and ponds if they’re looking for seafood. Need lights? Find a generator and some gas, and connect it to your base! They can keep themselves safe by barricading their houses with planks and metal sheets, constructing walls, fences and windows, and if things look really grim, rappel down with conveniently made escape ropes! If the game’s feeling a bit boring, why not go and ride into the extremely high population zombie-infested city of Louisville and shoot up some zeds, maybe even burn down a few houses with molotovs?
This is how you died
At the end of the day, Project Zomboid was designed to simulate the unforgiving nature of a zombie apocalypse. Food is hard to get by until you’re settled in, and the threat of being another walking snack is ever-present, even in the most secluded area. If you’re scratched, there’s a small chance of being infected. If you’re slashed, you have a one in four chance. But if you’re bitten, then there’s no escape: you’re going to be a walker very soon. If you’ve managed to thrive, you’ll get overconfident, and bite off more than you can chew. The game’s promise every time you start playing it is true: this is how you died. But even if you died, it was probably a very fun ride.