A spaceship arrives in orbit, thought lost a year ago. You are shuttled aboard to investigate, finding the controls wrecked and many of the crew dead. What happened here? As you explore the ship, the stench of smoke and blood filling your nostrils, someone moves up ahead. You stand ready to assist - are there really survivors on board? - and then the lumbering horror lurches forwards. Zombie-like creatures infest the ship! You take aim with your automatic rifle...
Thus begins XDeath, one of that rare breed of indie game, the first person shooter. Explore a series of locations as a story unfolds involving zombies, intrigue and lots of gunfire. Who is creating these zombies, and why? And can you stop them? Your objective within each location is to reach a certain point, such as the ship's control room, killing off any enemies you encounter along the way. As you play, you'll find new weapons and spare ammunition.
Controls are pretty straightforward. Use the keyboard to move, and the mouse to aim. The left mouse button fires and the right switches between weapon modes (if it has multiple modes). You can switch weapons, should you have more than one, with the mouse wheel or the number keys 1-9. There are the usual strafing and sprinting controls, and certain objects can be picked up and carried (though I am so far baffled as to what this is for). The return/enter key opens doors, operates switches and so on, though some doors are locked and first require that you find the key.
Somewhat unusually, especially given the ability to save games, XDeath gives you three lives. Each life comes with a limited stock of 500 hitpoints (I find it amusing that the zombies on the first mission could kill me in very few blows but a team of troopers with automatic weapons barely scratched me on mission three!) and, while I believe there is some means to replenish your health, I have not yet discovered it. Should you die, you'll respawn at the start of that location, but you retain your weapons and ammunition and all killed enemies remain dead.
Graphics are 3D and generally fairly crisp, though sometimes they look a little TOO crisp - the skeletons on the ship, for instance, look very fake. Rooms are often lit in strange colours, and the lighting generally is a little too bright. Some more shadows would add a ton of atmosphere. (I did discover a keypress that cycled the gamma correction, but this was not listed in the game's limited readme file and I now forget what it was.) Cut scenes appear between some missions, and these actually look worse than the main game - the characters within them are identical and even sway on the spot in unison!!
Sound is crucial to this game. You'll receive a lot of mission information over your intercom, as well as during the cut scenes, through character speech. Sadly, while the sound effects are crisp and clean, the speech is virtually unintelligible - the recording volume is too quiet and the speech is often mumbled. Valiant attempts with pitch modulation don't quite succeed in hiding the fact that all the voices are done by the same person. Music is limited - the title screen boasts some heavy rock, but the game itself is devoid of background noise beyond your avatar's three-step shuffle (clomp clomp scrape, clomp clomp scrape... has he got three legs, one lame??). There are no ingame options for setting volume... or, indeed, anything.
The playability for this game is also strange. For one thing, it seems a little easy - enemies don't pathfind very well, often don't react much to being shot from a distance and can usually be dispatched with little effort. Ammunition is, at least in the early stages, plentiful. Your starting rifle is powerful and highly effective, and there seems to be very little appreciable difference between it and later weapons. Only one melee weapon is provided, found in a not-so-hidden area in the first half of the ship, and while it was fun to try it looks unlikely you'll ever need it. On the downside, you'll often not know what you're doing in this game - there is no automapping option, so getting lost is entirely possible. Radio transmissions call in at key moments to help you out - but many of them were just silence when I got them.
Lastability could also be a problem. Locations are fairly sizable, but fairly linear in style - not a patch on the clever layouts of Doom or Quake. There's a certain appeal in seeing new enemies and weapons, and the locations themselves vary quite nicely in style, but the gameplay felt very samey. Having limited lives can force replay, but the saved game feature undermines this. The lack of a proper manual also reflects poorly on the game, though a bit more information is available on the website.
XDeath was also riddled with problems for me. There is no demo download - the file size is simply too great - and I received my review copy on CD. The installer was not automatic, and the instructions for running the game were contradictory and confusing. The icon it installed on my desktop did not work - one must run the XDeath program in the "Part 1" folder of the install directory. Even then, I've encountered problems - I have a saved game on mission three in which I am utterly stuck. I have no clue where to go next. A replay saw me stuck on mission two, in which I was unable to proceed because it seemed to think there was an invisible wall across the doorway. I also noticed clipping issues, including a vicious assault by a zombie on the other side of a locked door, which it eventually walked through. Some zombies are apparently invisible, though whether this is intentional I do not know - the first one I encountered began as a very visible corpse on the floor.
My overwhelming impression of XDeath is that it is a work in progress. I could imagine it as an alpha release with areas to be filled in later, but it's not yet ready for commercial release. There's a good game in here somewhere, and with some work on the playability, the sound, the user interface, the documentation and the installer, it could become at least silver star material - possibly gold.
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