Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: Trapped Dead

Platform: PC

Developer: CreneticStudios/Headup Games

Publisher: Iceberg Interactive (UK/Europe)/Meridian 4 (US)

# of Players: 1 (1 - 4 online)

PEGI Rating: 18/ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Official Site(Iceberg Interactive)

Official Site (Meridian 4)

Score: B-

In the never-ending realm of action-packed, lightning paced zombie games, Trapped Dead tries to do things a bit differently as a more tactical top-down experience that still packs an action game punch where it counts. Featuring impressive visuals that look great even on lower end PC's, six playable characters, great genre weapons and up to four-player online co-op, there's a lot to like here... but the game isn't perfect. Thanks to some occasionally wonky path-finding (even with the patch), the game isn't quite the epic mash-up you'd expect. But if you're a patient sort and want a unique (but still as gory as you'd think) chunk of fun, there's a lot of that to be had in this mildly campy and nicely bloody homage to classic zombie flicks.

In terms of atmosphere, TD is absolutely stellar, mimicking classic zombie flicks and old horror comics through a mix of hand-drawn panels that tell the story and some impressively detailed 3D visuals that don't require an overpowered PC to run. Kudos to Crenetic, Headup and any other developers that know not EVERY gamer who plays on PC has the latest and fastest setup. The story begins as two brothers on their way to college in 1982 Missouri stop at a gas station and encounter a few zombies. One of the brothers gets bitten, but the pair manage to escape. What follows is a nicely paced series of survival missions with six different playable characters, a decent variety of melee and ranged weapons and of course, plenty of undead to shoot, chop and otherwise get rid of.

If you go in expecting a fast-paced zombie-killing festival like the Left 4 Dead or Zombie Apocalypse games, you'll probably be disappointed. TD uses a third-person isometric viewpoint and a mix of click-based RTS and action gameplay slightly reminiscent of Commandos, X-Com or The old Fallout games. While this choice is commendable (allowing for situational awareness as you can tilt, rotate and zoom the game camera at any time), there are a few control issues. The path-finding is problematic, as in characters will get hung up on objects, not respond to more than one click or not move at all. Movement relies strictly on single clicking on a spot, holding the mouse down and turning it so your character is facing a specific direction. This element feels necessary as it saps the fun out of what should feel closer to a quicker-paced RTS or action game with direct character control. Unpatched, the game is worse, but even with the 1.07 update, there are still noticeable response problems from time to time.

Still, once you get the first two missions under your belt, the game starts creeping under your skin. New characters and situations are introduced, the story gets even more interesting and the next thing you know, you're up later than you should be, trying to complete one more mission. I rather liked the melodramatic narrator along with the mix of gloom and slightly campy captions and dialog. TD doesn't go overboard in trying to take itself too seriously, but strikes a nice balance that works perfectly. One thing that needs to be added in a new patch is a save anywhere function. Sure, the auto save here allows the developer to control the pacing as you're forced to play through chapters up to certain key points. However, since your progress can be halted by a character suddenly not wanting to walk or turn around to face the proper direction, there are times when you're forced to restart a mission before you've gotten your hands bloody.

As the story plays out, the game doles out new characters with different skills and choosing which ones to use for later missions is crucial to survival. Some maps require using certain characters to deal with certain situations, so you might find yourself going from a death-dealing bad-ass to a weakling who can't take a lot of damage. Every map is survivable once you get into the pacing and don't rush through certain maps. Ammo is limited, so you'll need to use environmental traps to kill off some zombies to thin out the hordes. I loved the idea of being able to throw a bag of blood onto zombies so they attacked each other and yes, catching some undead creep off guard and dispatching it before it knows what hit it is always cool.

As noted above, the presentation is perfect overall. Great graphics and music, effective voice acting (not too serious, not too campy) and solid sound effects all add to the experience. Some of the intentionally funny dialogue and help text leans a bit too much toward bad comic book stuff, but it's all good. The game never goes overboard in either direction, so the end result is part The Walking Dead, part Return of the Dead, which is all good for fans of the genre. With co-op and online play on board and functioning quite well, I'd LOVE to see this show up on consoles at some point with a few control and gameplay tweaks that make this a bit more accessible (but not any easier). There's little doubt the game would do well as a PSN or XBLA release, but PC gamers who buy this in Europe do get an awesome double sided cover AND a killer poster in the game case. I guess a console dashboard theme and some icons will have to do for the couch crowd...

In the end, While Trapped Dead stumbles and shuffles a bit like some of the zombies of old, the game manages to scratch and claw its way out of the grave to be a pretty infectious, festering surprise. The mix of deliberately paced movement and real-time strategy elements won't please every fan of all things undead, but it definitely works once you give it a shot and see how addictive this style of gameplay is. However, download the patch and stick it out through the rough spots and you'll find a pretty cool and nicely scary chunk of gaming goodness here. I'd really love to see what the developers can do with a fully tricked out sequel that expands and improves upon the original while taking the story into new territory. Here's to making that happen and soon...

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