Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Black Death (PC, prototype): Fingers Crossed!
October 29, 2011, 12:58 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m not one for playing demos of games, only because I have so many unplayed titles collecting dust on my shelf that doing so doesn’t make sense to me at this point. And you won’t find any previous discussions of demos on this site. But I was nosing around over at 3D Shooter Legends (check it out—a great encyclopedic resource of every shooter game ever made—or at least that’s the aspiration), and I found mention of “Black Death,” a contemporary zombie shooter being built by the French developer Darkworks, the same folks who made “Cold Fear” (2005) of which I am a fan. Not to mention that I have been continually pissing myself in anticipation of the game “I Am Alive” (2012?) for which Darkworks did some initial work. So uncharacteristically, I decided to download and play the demo of “Black Death.” (Actually, let me retract that; the developers call it a “prototype,” and I think the difference is more than semantic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but a “demo” indicates a slice of a game whose build has been completed, or nearly so—in either an alpha, beta, or later stage. So, a “prototype,” I imagine, indicates a representative slice of gameplay from a game whose build has not been completed. Makes sense? Yeah, I’ll go with that.) If you want to download and play the prototype yourself, head over to:

www.blackdeathgame.com. (But wait! The link’s not working? But why? Ah, I wish the answer was simple, but it’s not. As of this edit, Darkworks has been put into receivership–which is basically a few steps away from bankruptcy, and work on all their projects has ceased, I gather. Their website has disappeared too. Makes me sad, honestly. Perhaps Darkworks, and their various projects, will resurface at some point. Still keeping my fingers crossed.)

As mentioned, though I came late to the party and played it years after its release, I am a fan of “Cold Fear” (see my discussion of it here on this blog), and I think Darkworks nailed the atmosphere of a survival horror game perfectly, regardless of how derivative many critics said the game was. This post about “Black Death” (for which no publisher has been announced) will be shorter than usual, mostly because I can only comment on so many aspects after 40 minutes of gameplay (the entire length of the prototype). But I’ll highlight what I thought were some promising and not-so-promising elements.

Probably the last comment a developer wants to hear is that their game reminds the player of some other game—or a mélange of other games. Frankly, I hate it when reviewers hastily toss out comments like “This new ‘Game X’ feels as though existing ‘Game A’ and ‘Game B’ made a baby.” But sometimes those comparisons make sense. (Yes, this is all justification for what I’m about to do, which is to make some heavy-handed comparisons.)

Since this is only a slice of gameplay from a game that isn’t even completed, the backstory is still largely unknown. But here’s the teaser: In an American city in the northeast, a black fog appears out of nowhere and begins to either kill or mutate the citizens. The mutants who survive begin to exhibit “strange powers and group behaviors.” You, in a trusty gasmask, are getting the hell outta dodge.  That’s all I need to hear; count me in.

Okay, now to the dreaded (but fair) comparisons: The gasmask section of the prototype reminded me of the gasmask sections of “Metro 2033″—primarily in that you are…well, wearing a gasmask. It seriously obscures your view (on purpose), and heavy breathing dominates the surround sound. The prototype dumps you into the middle of an extremely dark city street (much, much too dark, frankly), heavy with fog and strewn with wrecked and hastily abandoned cars and trucks. Some headlights, and police lights, barely cut through the (much, much too thick) fog, which swirls about in a ghostly, animated fashion. There are bodies on the ground, dead folks with knees drawn to their chests. But then you hear a sound, and one of the bodies up ahead twitches and begins writhing on the ground. As you approach, the cadaver leaps to its feet and lunges toward you, swiping with fists. He knocks your gasmask off and you continue to fight, though you are gulping in the black fog which is choking you. You have a gun, and you shoot. You run out of bullets and switch to a kind of modified sledgehammer. The dead dude, with glowing eyes, goes down, stunned. You step forward and take one last finishing swipe to kill him for good. And then you scramble around trying to locate the gasmask on the ground. You do and place it back onto your head. And then you hear another one, out there somewhere in the fog getting ready to stand up. It’s all pretty standard; the way too dark and way too foggy landscape means that you basically can’t see anything, and it is more irritating than scary. But there is an unquestionable sense of tension.

After several encounters, and after picking up reagents off of dead bodies that act as medkits, you turn a corner and your character automatically removes the gasmask in an area that is clear from the deadly black fog. The city back alleyways, brick industrial buildings, and metal fire escapes reminded me a bit of Fairport in one of the earlier “F.E.A.R.” games, though there is no environmental destruction—there just are no people. Eventually, you come across a “kitchen lab” in an apartment building—a space that has chemical containers strewn about as well as a “chemical mixer.” It is then that the game’s “shtick” is revealed. By combining a variety of different chemicals (say 15cc of detergent and 25cc of motor oil, all of which you can find hidden along the dark streets), you get a zombie-killing fluid that you load into a gun that sprays it out—almost in “flamethrower” fashion. After making a bunch of “chemical ammo” and loading it into my “chemical spray gun” (or whatever you might call it), I plastered an attacking zombie with it, and it froze him temporarily to the spot. I then stepped up and hit him with the butt of the gun, and he broke into a million tiny pieces. Frozen zombie bits for dinner! Later on, you enter into a larger part of the city and see a bigger scene of the apocalypse—life has come to a sudden and screeching halt in this town. There is a brief encounter with a boss-type zombie, and then the prototype ends.

Some things that work: You don’t necessarily have to enter into combat with all the zombies; when you first see them, they are on the ground writhing and shrieking (usually next to a handful of completely dead folks), and they will only leap to their feet if you get too close to them. Of course, you can’t avoid all of them, but this allows you some freedom of movement and some choice as to when and how you want to engage them. I liked that a lot. Also, it created a lot of tension, seeing that zombie 10 feet away begin to writhe more violently as you step closer. How close can I get before he’ll leap? Of course, there are spots you need to squeeze through and avoiding a confrontation is not possible. Next, I like the “chemical gun” idea a lot—I assume that various combinations of chemicals will create different types of ammo that will affect enemies in a different manner—the only one I experienced froze them to the spot. Who knows what other kinds of fun effects will be available? Fire? Levitation? Turn them inside-out? But one very interesting idea is hinted at: Some of the chemical combinations will actually give you the opportunity to cure these victims and turn them normal again. Pretty gosh darn neato.

Overall, the controls worked well and were responsive even at this early stage of development. One interesting thing: Because the prototype is for PC only, the onscreen prompts were of course for the mouse and keyboard (e.g., the prompt for a finishing move was a picture showing the player to depress the right mouse button). But as soon as I plugged in my Xbox 360 controller into my PC (using the Wireless Receiver for Windows), all the on-screen prompts changed into 360 controller prompts (A button, B button, Y button, etc.). Neat! (Actually, the game “Hydrophobia: Prophecy,” which I just finished playing [read the post here], also did the same thing, which was awesome. Oh technology!).

Some elements didn’t work—and for me, mostly this was the beginning part of the prototype on the city street that was too dark and too foggy to make anything out at all. Add to this the fact that you are wearing a gasmask (which might as well be a pair of blinders) and the game becomes suffocating and almost unplayable. Once you hit part of the city/alleyway where you can remove your gasmask, the change in environment is remarkable though—deep, rich colors with a decent draw distance. Another problem involves repeating character models. While there is decent variety among the dead folks on the pavement (dead cop, dead businessman in suit, dead Asian woman), the zombie/creatures who attack you are all identical (see the first screenshot here). In an age where a game like “Dead Island” will throw a dozen completely different looking creatures at you–with different skin and hair types, different body sizes, different clothing–I’m not sure repeating zombie enemies will fly. (Seriously, I had a lot of difficulty seeing any repeating characters in “Dead Island,” something extremely impressive that Techland achieved, in my opininon.) I understand that Darkworks might be thinking of the creature as an enemy “type” rather than being just a transformed citizen lurching about, but the setting of the game suggests that these are just people who have been affected by the black fog. In other words, I don’t think there’s been some crazy cloning experiment gone awry…but that’s what it looks like. Maybe as the game progresses in development, Darkworks will either introduce more variety of zombie types (or at least explain why these attackers are identical).

Will the game ever see the light of day? Since, as far as I know, no publisher has been named for the title, who knows? I’ve written it down on my infamous list of “Games I Want That Will Probably Become Vaporware,” but I’m just a pessimist. Don’t listen to me. But if it is released, I’ll play it and replace this discussion with a review of the finished product. Good luck Darkworks! (Edit: See the decidedly unhappy note above, next to the dead download link, ugh.)

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