Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Day of the Zombie (PC, 2009, Canada): Irresistably Awful
November 22, 2012, 10:02 pm
Filed under: Day of the Zombie (PC, 2009, Canada)

If this alluring dog actually made a blip on your radar when it suddenly “appeared” on the market sometime around 2009, you probably know the story surrounding the development of “Day of the Zombie” (the cool kids call it DOTZ, btw.) On the other hand, if DOTZ is a complete mystery to you, that’s probably not a bad thing; consider yourself blessed and move along. For those who are determined to be damned though, I’ll fictionalize the backstory here a bit just because it’s my blog and I can do what I want, damnit.

Starving Canadian developers Brainbox, having spent all of their lunch money licensing the Unreal 2.0 engine, was busily creating the next-greatest-zombie-shooter-of-all-time in 2004 for publisher Groove Games. Then, probably, some animation dude (while on the street panhandling for food) saw the infamous American weirdo George Romero shooting the third installment in his zombie-opus “Land of the Dead” (I mean right down the street maybe even).  Hell, Dennis Hopper was possibly just sitting there on the corner drinking a Kaluha and coffee, eh? Coolest thing ever!

A quick brraaiinzz(!)storming session was called (clever? no? ok…), and the gaunt Brainbox folks determined that their little endeavor could get much more commercial traction if it were tied to a major motion picture. So, they rang up Georgie to inquire about a tie-in. The old geezer said: “I like you young whippersnappers and yer game, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with our movie as far as the story goes.” Brainbox quickly said they could fix that problem by dumping their existing game wholesale (which had only been in development for four months at that point) and starting fresh with the same assets, restructuring it to fit better with the flick (as long as someone would buy them a pizza or something). A deal was struck, a new game was made, the PC and XBOX title “Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green” (the cool kids call it LOTD, man) was released alongside Romero’s film in 2005, and history was made. A history that looked and smelled like a massive shitpile. Yay. Don’t know what I mean? Read my discussion of “Fiddler’s Green” here on this blog. Actually no! It’s better to play the game for yourself, a unique experience. Trust me.

Here’s where the fiction gets deep: Probably (you like that?) in the aftermath of LOTD, everyone was bereft (really not difficult to imagine). There were multiple firings left and right, many fingers were pointed, and developers and publishers raised half-folded newspapers to their faces and dodged flashbulbs as they made their way to some safe haven. (Let’s face it: If you love, or even half-admire, a game like “Fiddler’s Green” [like I do] you are an admitted loser to the nth degree. Don’t even bother protesting.) Although Brainbox eventually morphs into Digital Extremes over the years, everything quickly goes dark, offices are vacated, and spiders begin spinning their webs in the dusty quiet. The years creep by, disenchanted consumers have sought therapy while offloading their used (more like half-destroyed) copies of “Fiddler’s Green” on Amazon marketplace, developers have carefully excised any information regarding the debacle from their resumes, and everyone has gotten on with their lives (not counting the handful of resulting suicides).

But then, fast-forward four years. Some leftover Groove Games executive finds a rusty hard drive somewhere in moth-eaten shoebox as he was (probably) spring cleaning his self-storage unit. “What the hell is that?” he asks. After connecting it and digging around…what ho! He finds the once-thought-forever-lost original Brainbox game that was being made BEFORE the tie-in deal! The executive (being an executive) immediately thinks: “There are suckers out there who would pay for this. And I bet they all live in eastern Europe. I just need to get someone to finish it…” What an opportunistic jerk that guy is. I swear, I have always hated that guy.

So, finally, in 2009 (or whenever it actually appeared), the question no one in the world was asking is finally answered: What would it be like to play that original game that Brainbox was working on? This is your lucky, lucky day, friend! The name of the game is “Day of the Zombie” (again DOTZ if you are in-the-know), the inspiration for the LOTD crap-classic that came before it.

Well, except that you can’t play DOTZ, legally anyway, since this suckfest was so bad that this scheister Groove Games exec knew better than to even try to publish it in the west. (Who knows? He may not have even been able to do so legally in the west.) Actually, it is not entirely clear to me which markets actually got this gem in its “finished” form, but I have seen it for sale (a complete retail package, mind you!) on some Russian game-store sites under the DOTZ title and also “Zombie Day.” And if you’re thinking this is yet another Russian ripoff deal, the game actually DOES bear the Groove Games publisher’s logo in an intro screen (but interestingly, NOT the Brainbox developer’s logo, as the original “Fiddler’s Green” did, I think). So, I suspect something semi-sneaky is going on…not that anyone is paying attention anyway.

Of course, as others speculate, all 850 words I just wrote could be completely wrong. The reality is that DOTZ might simply be a cleverly disguised mod of the original LOTD and nothing more. After all, I’d imagine fiddling with the Unreal 2.0 engine doesn’t require too much in the way of expensive and sophisticated computery thingeys. But why all of the obfuscation? Well, maybe the modders just wanted to have an interesting internet story to tell (and for others to repeat). If that’s the case, then I’m glad I could help. But the folklore is way more interesting, ain’t it? So, let’s pretend it’s true.

The long and short of it is this: If you think playing DOTZ would be like playing more LOTD: RTFG (yes, that’s the whole damned alphabet soup), then you are perfectly correct. This 2009 release looks/sounds/smells/tastes/plays EXACTLY the same as the 2005 game. Same engine, samey-character models, same AI behavior, samey-looking environments, same weapons. But—and this is where things get intriguing–it is actually a completely different game—the narrative has changed, the characters have changed, the cutscenes are different (unlike LOTD which has traditional 3D-rendered cuts, DOTZ has 2D comic book style cuts), and the actual locations are new. For an underdog gamer like me (and even worse, an underdog gamer with a mild zombie addiction), I can’t resist this kind of thing. It’s my kryptonite, my crack. It’s why this blog exists.

DOTZ consists of three individuals’ stories (complete with heavily canuck-accented voiceovers—which makes me think this is indeed legit and not just a mod) as they make their way through a walking-corpse-littered university campus and surrounding town. The first story arc belongs to a typical student attending Memorial Fenkott College (looks like your typical, bland, suburban community college built in 1975) whose single goal is to find his girlfriend, Erica, amidst the chaos. (We suspect this will not turn out well…and it doesn’t.) The next story involves a SWAT dude who has been called into the town for cadaver cleanup duty, and while sweeping the streets he becomes detached from his squad. (We suspect this will not turn out well either…and it doesn’t.) The third story chronicles the unrealistically-devoted janitor of Fenkott who dodges past the hungry chompers of half-rotten zombies to save rare books and school artifacts, as well as stopping a quickly spreading fire. At first, he thinks the entire affair is some dumb college prank, but then he changes his tune after a few beheadings. He proudly pronounces: “Fenkott won’t burn on my watch!” (His story doesn’t work out so well either.)

The structure is as straightforward as it gets: We get the first chapter of each character, and then we return to the lineup for the second round of chapters, and so on. After 14 or so chapters (about 8 hours of play at a leisurely pace), each character’s chapter comes to an unsurprising close, one at a time. The narratives don’t intersect or intertwine, they don’t loop in time, characters don’t meet each other…there’s no fancy goings-on here.

Actually, the complete absence of fanciness in any form is why this game works (when it works, that is). This is old-old-school: You’ve got keys to move, a key to fire, a key to use items, a key to crouch and sprint, and a key to cycle weapons. You grab item A to open door B; you enter a map at point X and exit at point Z. That’s about it. No super powers, no inventory, no regenerating health (nothing to see here, just move along).

And regarding there being not much to see…this is one of the letdowns regarding this title. Because our three characters are all journeying through the same college town and campus, the game recycles the same 7 or 8 (indoor and outdoor) maps 2 or 3 times, and this comprises the majority of the game. So for instance, while you might run through the school library as the student, a few chapters later you’ll enter the same map from a different vantage point (and perhaps with a few small environmental changes) as the janitor to run through it again. Snooze.

But bitching about DOTZ like this is sort of ridiculous. You play such a game because something about it makes you play it. You are inexplicably helpless in the face of its awfulness, and you rip through it, frothing at the mouth, all in one sitting. (Yes, ok, I’m being autobiographical, and—no surprise—this is exactly what I did when playing LOTD too.) But if I am also describing you, please know that there is fun to be had here with these derivative, slomo, poorly rendered, unconvincing zombies, even in our world full of hordes of graphically rotting sprinters like those in “Left 4 Dead” or “Dead Island” or “Killing Floor” or… Like I said, DOTZ is old school (because it is actually…old.)

Exactly like LOTD before it, this game is all about conserving ammo, making your way through a linear map, and facing undead folks in groups of 2 to about 20 (believe it or not—there can be real pileups of dead dudes on screen). In some maps, these zombies are infinite, just like the 90s all over again! There are about 8 or 9 different character models (a Russian-Babushka-type, a Mr. Green-Jeans-farmer-type, a heavily-armored-soldier-type, a punk-rocker-with-Mohawk-type…you get the picture), so there must be a cloning machine in the Memorial Fenkott College Science Lab. The AI behavior is as braindead as possible in a modern game, but of course all of that is automatically forgiven. Attacks include swiping at you, biting you (which is accompanied by the same [most awesome ever] LOTD sound effect–two coconut shells being smacked together to simulate teeth clamping down with force), and the lawn-sprinkler-barfing attack, which sprays infectious blood in an arc and turns the screen red. A few corpses will rush you, and some will attack on all fours, but these are rarer and most are the classic two-legged-lumbering type. When you get hit, the camera awkwardly jolts down to below crouching level (so, essentially, you end up getting a nice view of a zombie crotch) and tilts to an angle, and during that time you cannot counterattack until you regain your stance. In general melee combat is beyond clunky, but when shooting the targeting is thankfully forgiving.

Speaking of combat, did you like the selection of melee weapons in LOTD? You know, the baseball bat, the golf club, the shovel, the fire axe? How about the firearms like the standard rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun, pistol? You loved them? Oh then, you’re in luck! All of them are right here, just like you never finished LOTD. Oh…you actually never did finish LOTD? Then why are you reading this? Anyway, the weapons work (and the textures on them look awful, as always). And as a bonus, in several places throughout the game, you can find books that say “Kung Fu Zombie” on them. By picking them up, you get a pair of tattooed fists that can throw lightning-fast punches. (Keep in mind if you play, these books are not accompanied by a pick-up prompt, like all other collectibles [like ammo or medkits] in the game.) It’s all funny, but using the fist attack generally results in you receiving damage, and the Kung Fu fists permanently go away as soon as you switch to another weapon. What else can I say?

Since combat in the game is acceptable at best (with melee, it’s all a matter of timing), the real fun lies elsewhere. And let me postulate that this fun I’m about to describe is utterly unintentional on the part of the developers. I may be wrong, and these devs might be sublime geniuses, but I don’t think so. I’m talking about closing doors as a means to staying alive. The setup goes like this: You have limited ammo and health, and getting into a swinging match will inevitably result in being chomped. So standing in a dormitory hallway facing three zombies, you carefully bait them by walking close to them and then slowly leading them away as they growl and grab for you, carefully monitoring your distance. If you’re lucky, all of them will follow, but you take what you can get. Keeping your distance, you backtrack to an earlier part of the map and go through a door you had to open in order to proceed. You lead the zombies past said door, get them all inside the area, then you madly sprint past them, feinting to the left or right, and quickly slam the door shut behind you. Zombie problem solved! There’s a bit of an adrenalin rush, and it sort of feels like cheating, but it is probably the most fun this game has to offer. It is true that, for dramatic effect, zombies can break through walls and doors in DOTZ, but these are mostly scripted events. Also many of the doors separating hallways or major areas are orange-colored reinforced fire doors (with mesh glass in them) and these can never be broken through. For shits and giggles, I spent a good deal of time looking very closely through reinforced windows at extremely unhappy zombies I had trapped in my end-runaround scheme while they gnashed their rotten teeth at me. And I got to save bullets for a future skirmish. Hah!

Oh, the low-quality textures (even on the highest graphical settings) look like crap. Being an LOTD clone (or progenitor), the environments are bland, colorless, and washed-out. Shadows are…nonexistent, I guess. Other than the scripted door-breaking events described earlier, the environments are non-destructible. As mentioned, there are interiors and exteriors. The interiors are mainly composed of the college campus (dorm rooms, a kitchen or two, a mechanical room or two, lecture halls, a library, hallways, hallways, hallways, hallways), and an occasional sewer. The exteriors are composed of the surrounding town (a park, a lake and conservation area, several city streets, a few congested intersections choked with crashed cars, and a large dock in the finale [just like the dock in finale of LOTD, though here it appears to be configured a bit differently). Not surprising, the exteriors have next to no draw distance, and the buildings in the background of the city…well, let’s just say it’s best not to look too closely if you care about these things. Just keep your eyes on those zombies up ahead.

Though the production values (and the whopping four-month development cycle?) hamper the game in every way imaginable, there is still a visceral quality lurking underneath DOTZ (which, by the way, runs as smooth as glass and is surprisingly not broken in any way I could find). Even though it’s a relatively easy game, it’s still all about survival. That visceral quality is stunted and mostly unrealized, but it’s still there. That’s my zombie addiction talking, I know, but I suspect the original developers knew they had “something” going on here (with the timed melee attacks, or the lumbering nature of the rapidly-multiplying rotten enemies, or whatever) that they found to be irresistibly fun. The best way I can describe it requires a quick pop-culture reference: There’s an episode of “Family Guy” where Lois (or Meg?) is walking through a department store trying to find Peter who has hidden away in the center of a circular rack of dresses. When he is finally discovered, he lets out a nervous cry, unable to contain himself. As a bored kid shopping with an adult in a department store, did you ever play hide-and-seek beneath the clothes racks like that? I did, and I know exactly what that feeling is of hiding in plain sight and almost being discovered—and the relief of the built-up stress when your location is finally discovered. That same kind of nervous energy is hidden in the nooks and crannies of DOTZ (as with LOTD). On the other hand, if everything I just said makes no sense, ignore me.