Lack of both freedom and direction make this harder to love than it should be, but it’s still worth a look
Genre: Action, Adventure,
Developer: a2z Interactive
Publisher: a2z Interactive
Release date: 22 Dec, 2017
Survive the Nights is a multi-player post-apocalyptic zombie survival game from a2z Interactive, recently released into public Early Access on Steam. I say “public” Early Access because I actually added it to my Steam wishlist in 2017 and it’s been available for all that time already, but with the Steam store page hidden from casual searching while the dedicated development team worked to get it to a state where they thought it was ready for more general consumption: Alpha 1.0, as they call it.
You play an as-yet un-named and un-customisable man on Black Island, a relatively large island that is overrun by an unending horde of zombies. I haven’t seen any other backstory, so don’t know if the whole world is thought to be in this condition, what happened to cause it, and so on, but ultimately it’s unimportant for the game. You find yourself alone, with no equipment save your trusty battery-powered headlamp, in a random location on Black Island, and your only goal is to survive for as long as possible.
Crafting and Survival
As alluded to by the title, the focus of the game is survival. Black Island is inhabited mainly by zombies who try to tear you to pieces whenever they see you, though other players and occasional NPC animals — deer and chickens, from what I’ve seen so far — may be in residence as well. Black Island is an open world sandbox; beyond a very short introductory tutorial, you’re left completely on your own to survive against the endlessly spawning undead.
Surviving, then, consists of keeping your health above zero and maintaining your water and food intake, with the latter measured in calories per day: eat too few calories for the day and come the next morning your maximum health, stamina, and carrying capacity will all decrease. Eat enough and the levels will stay the same, or if you’re really lucky, even increase. To make surviving more difficult, however, there are no sources of drinkable fresh water and for food you’re reduced to picking berries, hunting animals, or looting deserted or overrun houses. Most houses are inhabited by zombies, which you’ll have to avoid or dispatch using a hand-crafted melee weapon or any looted weapons you can find as you explore the world. So as well as basic food and water, your daily consumables typically also include tinder and wood for lighting a fire to boil your drinking water and cook any food you find, as well as clean rags for bandages — at least when you’re starting out, those zombies can be pretty rough. It’s also quite easy to get sick, permanently decreasing your characteristics.
To help you survive, you can find various basic materials, old tools, and other objects. Many of these can be converted to more useful resources using the inventory crafting menu, or taken to crafting stations (e.g. fires or workbenches) to do the conversion. Get lucky and you may also find guns, ammunition, medicines, advanced tools, and even cars and electricity generators. While much of this may sound like standard survival-crafting fare, such as you’d see in 7 Days to Die, the perma-death aspect (yes, when you die that’s it, you can only respawn and start again from scratch!) makes for one striking difference. I think it’s important to mention a handful of other differences, too.
First, the terrain is static, so there’s no digging or raising terrain or most world objects; the map is completely static. Second, there’s no building; the only safe havens you can find are formed by hammering planks over windows and screwing locks and bolts into doors in order to fortify existing structures. Third, inventory and storage space are at premium, and you can’t create and place your own storage containers, so you’ll probably end up either discarding what you find while you’re exploring or wandering about trying to find somewhere to store it, hoping that the game won’t despawn it and another player won’t happen across it. Fourth, there’s no RPG-style progression in Survive the Nights; you are the sum of your status and equipment. And fifth, random spawns of resources are completely unbalanced and happen often, sometimes filling already-looted houses up with a veritable fortune in goodies. The world is also relatively non-interactive; you can’t just walk up to a tree or rock and expect to get something from it; instead there are only certain items in the world with which you can interact.
So it’s a sort of limited freedom, then: an open world that adheres to strict and relatively limited rules of interaction.
Obviously any zombie apocalypse game has to have zombies, and I surmise that how well the game is received by the general game-playing public must be at least partly based on how those zombies look and behave.
Survive the Nights includes a relatively small number of unique high-quality zombie models — I’m not sure, but I’d guess it’s somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen, based on what I’ve seen so far — with reasonable animation, though it’s often hard to judge range for the purposes of avoiding and delivering damage via melee combat. (It’s definitely possible that network lag and server responsiveness play a part in this, since the game is online only.)
Zombie behaviour is extremely simple: they stand about doing nothing or wander seemingly at random until they detect you — usually through sight or sound, though I have been detected while not moving at night in a completely enclosed room on the second floor of a house, so there must be some “magic” at play, too — and then they charge, breaking down whatever barriers are in their way to engage you in post-apocalyptic diseased fisticuffs.
The game must feature some limitations on where and when zombies can spawn, too, as it seems completely safe to wander around outdoors during daylight, while night time seems to be littered frequently with roaming groups of randomly spawned undead — who also inexplicably die at dawn! Similarly, buildings can be completely cleansed one morning only to be refilled the next, not only with the treasure mentioned previously, but also with angry zombies. There seems to be a sort of safe no-spawn zone around players when inside overnight — it’s usually safe to enclose yourself in a room and just wait it out.
Combat with zombies feels a bit slippery, as if there’s no real “weight” behind anything you do. I don’t know if there’s supposed to be a random element to whether a melee swing actually causes damage or not, but it seems to me that melee weapon swings occasionally just miss, even though they look like they should be hitting.
That starting screen sure is pretty!
It must be said that Survive the nights looks very nice at times, and actually runs extremely well. I’ve been playing in 1440p resolution with everything turned up on my RX5700-based system with nary a hitch — at least due to graphics processing, anyway. The starting screen shows off the graphics very well, and the full animation and day/night cycle that it portrays certainly doesn’t hurt here either.
Trees and foliage in particular look very nice in the near or middle distance, but with a long view distance configured there are a large number of parts on the island that don’t quite look natural: too bare and lacking in detail. Water, too, looks surprisingly terrible: like a sort of static, dirty fog. And indeed fog looks pretty bad as well; in fact the whole weather system could do with an overhaul. There are also very few wild animals in the game, making it feel more deserted than perhaps it should. There are a few repeated house models and layouts, but the island has few enough houses across most of it that this doesn’t strike me as a big problem. There’s a fair bit of pop-in (and pop-out!) and some glaringly obvious LoD changes at range, as well as some texture flickering and terrain seams visible at times. Ambient lighting is also fairly inconsistent, particularly when inside internal rooms of buildings with no external windows.
As I alluded to earlier, these mostly lovely graphics do come at a cost: interaction with them is, for the most part, very limited. You can fortify or break through windows and doors, chop down trees, and build a very small number of crafting stations, but other than that, players cannot exert any influence on the game world in terms of terrain or created objects. Even harvesting materials, one of the core gameplay elements of any survival-crafting game, is limited to little immersion-breaking “Press E to Search” prompts that pop up when you walk just close enough to a particular game object and focus in just the right spot — you can only collect what the game wants you to, realism be damned!
The UI is also rather too small in high resolutions, and there’s no obvious rescaling option available. Come to think of it, it’s possible the world-interaction hitboxes could be affected by the resolution, too; perhaps they work better at 1080p, though the inconsistency of them being there at all would be the same, regardless. Many of the Steam Achievements don’t work and there are quite a few grammatical errors as well, but I’d expect all of these things to be fixed as the game moves through public Early Access.
The game is completely client-server based; there’s no offline or single-player mode. There are even now plenty of available servers across the world, each typically offering a maximum of between 10 and 30 players — hardly “massively multiplayer”. These servers are either official, run by a2z Interactive, or unofficial, but paid for (I believe); a free self-hosted server option has been promised for later in Early Access, but is not currently available.
That said, I’ve yet to see a single other player in the game, so it actually feels like an annoyingly online-only single-player game to me at the moment anyway. I hope the developers eventually offer a Conan: Exiles – like single-player option, which spawns an invisible local server that only the host can connect to.
Server stability is variable. I’ve been kicked for server updates as well as disconnected seemingly at random, both of which the game treats as if you logged out away from a safe location — and thus spawns you in a random position on the map. This is exceedingly painful; the lack of non-crafting-related progression is so severe that being teleported away from your fortified house and crafted possessions is akin to being forced to start again anyway, albeit with a potentially more stocked inventory (depending on what you were doing when the server disconnect occurred).
The Alpha 1.0 release had an annoying problem where the game would become stuck on “Connection Initiated”. I would typically hit this every time I started the game for the first time in a session, requiring a Task Manager kill and game restart, but the 1.01 and 1.02 updates seem to have fixed this, for me at least. However, I’ve also experienced more server connection “weirdness” since these updates, so there are definitely still some issues there.
Surviving the Nights
Once you’ve learned the basics of what the game has to offer — and actually there’s not much depth beyond this yet — you’ll probably find that surviving the nights is much easier than it feels at first. Even before you’ve repaired a car, boarded up a building’s windows and locked its doors, kitted out your own personal storage wardrobe with more guns and ammunition than you can carry, and found a generator to turn on the electricity, it’s deceptively easy to clear out a house and hide in it each night. It’s easy, but not very interesting.
Those other aspects — vehicles, fortifications, guns, electricity, etc. — are somewhat fun and interesting, but the random and rather frequent resource spawns actually often make exploring the world to find them less beneficial than simply hiding out in a house for a few nights and waiting for the resources you need to spawn nearby. For example, within two game days I’d found three hammers, two sharpening stones, two draw knives, a hatchet, a medical kit, a baseball bat, enough food to feed me, and an amazingly effective hunting rifle, all of which spawned within the house I’d spent the night and its neighbour. Given that I’d already cleared both of those houses and zombie spawns seem inconsistent, I didn’t even need to fight to find all this stuff, either; it just appeared during the morning. Add to that the daily respawning berries, firewood, clean rags, and planks within a minute or so walk of the house, and there didn’t seem to be any point even trying anymore.
Once there’s something beyond the goal of simply surviving, or some in-game reason that you can’t simply camp out in a house permanently and live on daily respawning items, I’m hoping the game will feel more involving. At the moment, while it’s fun for a while, in the end it all seems a bit pointless.
In its current Early Access state, Survive the Nights often seems to me to involve more work than fun. There’s some good stuff here, but the very limited world interaction; the frequent random resource respawns; the frustrating inventory and storage management, locks, and player storage; and the lack of progression of character and your effects on the world, partly due to the above and partly due to perma-death and server disconnections, and subsequent random player spawn locations; makes this a much harder game to enjoy than many seemingly similar games. I think the biggest problem is that, while it’s an open world, you’re actually very restricted in what you can do in or to that world.
If you’re after a zombie survival game and you liked the gameplay of The Long Dark much more than 7 Days to Die, then pick this up; you’ll probably enjoy it. Otherwise, maybe hold off and see how it continues to develop.