I remember when I first laid eyes on Infestation: Survivor Stories. It was GDC Online in 2012, and I did an interview with Alex Josef, Hammperpoint's PR consultant We made a quick trip to the press room, where he popped out a large gaming laptop to show me the game. I was really impressed with how simple its premise was: You're dropped in the middle of the wilderness, there are zombies all around, and you can starve to death. It felt great, as well, sporting realistic lighting effects and systems to simulate hunger, thirst, and sound.
So much has happened since that first meeting. I am very, very aware of all of the drama concerning the developers -- the name changes, the patches, the community issues, and so on. I am not writing this to discuss that part of the story. My specific goal over the last couple of weeks was to see whether playing on a private, paid-for server would give me a different experience than Massively's Mike Foster's. During his time with the game at launch he was, to put it mildly, miserable.
I like to think that he had four main issues with the title.
The community. The game was full of jerkwads and nimbums who didn't care if other players were busily trying to get into the spirit of the post-apocalyptic world. The chat was filled with horrific things, and nothing a player can say will stop the flow of hate. The chat was a void of trolls.
The bugs. The game was broken in all of the right areas for him. Zombies got stuck; animations were wonky. The game felt as though it was in alpha, and yet, money being charged.
The cash shop. Mike took issue with the high prices and the fact that it was too easy to lose paid-for items, not the first time we'd expressed concerns about that "feature."
The developers. This is the part I cannot touch, simply because the only dealings I have had with the developers (including their offer to loan me a server) have been pleasant. Again, if you want to read the whole story, check out our tags and Mike's original story. All of the included links promise to be juicy. Have fun.
A private server is rented through the game. Renting a server proved to be quite easy. I clicked on "My Servers," and within literally minutes I had paid the 2376 coins (roughly $16.00) for one week of server time. I later added on another week. I was able to name the server "Massively" and attach a password to keep out the riff-raff. There was even an option to allow trial players (free accounts) to play on the server. I could also alter the game time limit kick and ban players from the same screen. There were other options, too, like turning off crosshairs, disabling sniper or assault rifles, and toggling the display of nameplates and tracer bullets. I made a few characters and logged in to the server.
Watch live video from Massivelytv on TwitchTV
Within minutes, I realized that splitting the cost for a private server between a group of players changes the game completely. Not only was the chat silent aside from the occasional player being banned (I'm guessing for attempting to log in without a password), but the entire place was mine! All I needed now was a group of people to play with. Unfortunately, something like a themed guild or private playpark takes time to grow. I didn't think I would get more than a handful of participants during such a short time, and I was mostly correct; only about 10 people asked for the password, and I rarely ran into any of them.
So, that takes care of community... sort of. You can control the problems of trolling, stealing, and baiting with a private server. Of course, some folks would argue these are all things that can make the game fun, but it's nice to see that the game provides more than a few choices for controlling the atmosphere in a private environment.
Most of the time I played on the server, I had a good time. I sneaked everywhere I could until I realized that zombies are relatively easy to kill as long as you have a good weapon and take one or two at a time. In fact, I noticed when I logged into the account that I even had some tasty weapons in my global inventory. The global inventory is just what it sounds like: a place to store items so that all characters can have access to it. The caveat is that the characters who need access have to be in one of four in-game safe zones. Once there, you log them out, go to the global inventory, and load them up. It's a nice way to keep the best items on favorite characters. I had a sweet katana and other items in my universal storage. I was even able to purchase a pair of personal lockers (for around $4.00 each) that were distributed in the game. They were locked with a code and acted as a sort of depository for salvage, food, and items. I placed two of them in opposite areas of the world so that all players would have access to them.
The cash shop is pricey, for sure. When you're renting a private server for a group of people, splitting that cost makes the game very affordable. When I played on a public server, I gave up spending any cash because it was just too risky and expensive.
If you read Mike's older preview, you'll notice how many issues he had with bugs and glitches. If you watch the video I have embedded in this article, you can see how many issues I had in comparison. It's obvious that the developers have made a lot of progress in the time since Mike's hands-on. I saw a smaller fraction of the same issues, primarily concerning zombies. The walking dead would often disappear into a rock or would bug out a bit when pursuing me around a corner, but overall the worst issue with the undead is that the AI that controls them is just not that snappy. Fighting consists of holding down a mouse button while your character swings madly at a very stupid zombie. Occasionally a zombie gets a bite in and your health will drain very fast or you will be infected and will die slowly. Either way, zombie combat is just not that satisfying.
I did see a strange issue with the grass and trees. It's possible that my graphics card made it happen, but occasionally and at certain times of the day the grass would become semi-invisible or "milky" looking. There's really no other way to describe it.
Then there are the issues with the server boots and restarts. Somehow Punkbuster -- Infestation's anti-hacking service -- was not working properly, and I was kicked off of my own server. It happened a few times until I followed a guide from the forums and fixed the issue. My server was restarted at one point, and my personal lockers were returned to my inventory. While I appreciated this second chance, it would have been nice if my characters were healed up as well. Now I have characters with wounds, stuck in a world without the aid of the lockers that are filled with my goodies!
The fact is that under the conditions afforded me by my private server, Infestation: Survivor Stories is quite fun. In this context, it looks great most of the time (including the pitch-black night!) and concentrates more on the survival aspect more than the zombie fights. That means the worst enemy in the game is yourself; you have to plan and tread very carefully and keep an eye on your hunger and thirst. The game is cheap if you split it up between friends or pay for a private server and goodies and take donations from players who want to join. You can ban those who don't play as nicely as you want them to, and you can protect the server with a password. True, going solo can be expensive or frustrating, even on a private server, and in spite of developer progress on the game's stability, the occasional restarts and bugs can affect how much fun you have. But since our initial review, the game has become much more polished.
Should you play Infestation: Survivor Stories? I'm not sure why you should avoid it if the zombie genre interests you. The act of simply downloading and playing the game will not kill you or force you to break out your credit card. To me, the game is more about personal survival in the wilderness than it is about zombie invasions, and it's much easier to home in on that type of gameplay on a personal server away from the griefers. Just be careful spending large amount of money unless you are on a private, trusted server.
And if we continue running a private server to continue playing on, we'll keep it open for the readers of Massively!
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!