Zombies, Run!

I play and write about video games for fun and profit, so it should come as no surprise to my readership that I’m not exactly an athlete. Never have been. I didn’t even run as a child — my idea of playing “tag” was to sit serenely in the center of the playground while my classmates taunted me until somebody forgot we were playing a game and accidentally stepped within arms’ reach. In fact, I’ve been saying for years that if you ever see me running, you’d better join me because there’s something very fast and very deadly not far behind. And, honestly, if you do start running, your odds are pretty good because, while you might not be faster than the monster, you’re almost definitely faster than me.

It’s exactly this kind of mindset that inspired the new iPhone game/fitness tracker/audio adventure, Zombies, Run! (due out on Android this spring). The concept is simple: to engage users in their running by convincing them that their lives are at stake. And that it does — eerily well. Of course, I’m a slightly overweight gamer in my mid-thirties who until recently was convinced that spending more than ten minutes in direct sunlight would cause me to burst into flames, so in my case, the game really ought to be called Zombies, Speedwalk! But although the game works just as well as a walking app, the alternate title isn’t half as catchy. But for a beginner like me, it’s nice not to be heavily penalized for my lack of speed and stamina. In that sense, Zombies, Run! is all carrot and no stick.

The mechanic is straightforward. When you start running, press “start mission;” when you stop, press “stop.” In between, the app tracks your distance and pace and lets you know when you’ve collected items (which happens automatically at seemingly random time intervals). It also tells you a story via radio transmissions from Abel Township, an enclave of human survivors in your typical zombie-infested post-apocalyptic wilderness. Interspersed between transmissions, you’ll hear your own music from a playlist that you designate. I use the Portal 2 soundtrack, which is a nice, upbeat way to imagine the end of civilization as we know it, but listening to tracks by the Ink Spots give the whole adventure a very Fallout 3 retro-futuristic angle, which can be nice for your more leisurely strolls. But I digress.

Zombies, Run! uses an innovative blend of story and resource collection to turn the grind of running for exercise into a level-grinding expedition. Which for those of us with obsessive personalities and a near-pathological drive for completion, works really nicely as a training program. It makes you want to hear more of the story by creating an atmosphere of mystery and danger. You never know what’s going to happen next, and the story provides twists and turns in a very realistic and lifelike way — there are no big “gotcha” moments, just the slow reveal of information and the horrible realization that the only way to survive is to just keep running.

The first mission — I will try not to offer too many spoilers — revolves around your arrival at Abel Township. You are being flown in via helicopter with supplies and instructions about a hush-hush mission called Operation Green Parachute. Of course, it wouldn’t be a post-apocalyptic first-person adventure without something going terribly, horribly wrong, and the chopper is shot down by a missile that appears to have been fired from a wilderness area previously thought to be uninhabited. You hit the ground running, so to speak, and have to make your way through an abandoned hospital, gathering supplies on your way, to Abel Township, a community of survivors built around a heavily barricaded farmhouse.

After you gain entry to Abel Township, you are christened Runner 5, one of the few, the proud, the blazingly fast (to hear Comms operator Sam Yao tell it) who gather supplies, carry messages, execute rescue missions, and generally make things happen in the post-outbreak countryside. The more you run, the more supplies you gather, the faster you gather supplies, the faster you unlock advanced missions. And by the end of the third mission, you’ll definitely want to unlock more — the mysteries of the outbreak and your role as part of Operation Green Parachute are quite compelling.

This is the part of the review where I would normally discuss the graphics. The game world, of course, is the real world, and as such the 3-D models and textures are exquisite. All kidding aside, the interface is easy to use and, though simple, quite elegant. Managing collected resources is as simple as tap-and-drag, and as you collect items, you also gain entries in your codex. Some of the entries direct you to real-world websites and twitter accounts, which deepen the story and make the game feel even more immersive.

The standout feature of this game for obvious reasons is the voice acting. Often overlooked or undervalued in traditional games, believable voices are key to the success of the story in a game virtually devoid of graphics. And Zombies, Run! has what it takes. The developer, an indie software house called Six to Start, is based in the U.K., so unless you watch a lot of BBC, you may find the variety of British accents distracting at first. However, after just a few missions, I became inordinately attached to the pleasing lilt of Sam Yao (beautifully played by Philip Nightingale) murmuring, “Ohhhh…kayyy,” just before announcing exactly how many dozens of flesh-eating undead are gathered just around the next corner. And, of course, as you run through mobs of zombies, you can actually hear them groaning in your ears and shuffling through the underbrush while a fellow runner whispers hauntingly, “Don’t look back.”

There is an optional mode that allows “zombie chases,” which requires you to increase your speed for one minute as zombies claw at your entrails. Failing to speed up means you risk dropping precious supplies in an attempt to distract them from your precious gray matter. You can progress from a walk to a faster walk, from a fast walk to a jog, or from a jog to a run. I can’t elaborate any further — I haven’t triggered a chase in any of the six missions that I’ve run so far — but you don’t want to lose those supplies. They’re integral to building up your base in Abel Township. Adding supplies to different buildings, such as the hospital or the armory, helps those buildings level up, which unlocks advanced missions and helps your population grow. This last bit, in my opinion, is a bit of a stretch, though. I’m not certain how collecting underwear helps your population increase — unless it happens to be black and lacy. And even then, the population growth generally wouldn’t exactly be instantaneous.

Still, there are some issues that keep Zombies, Run! from achieving a perfect score from this reviewer, and many of them are set to be resolved in the near future. Six to Start is a small company doing a lean startup based on a (wildly successful) Kickstarter campaign, and as such, multiple update releases are expected. But I always try to review the game that I have, not the game that I expect to have in the future, and as such, I have to complain about the lack of comprehensive fitness tracking tools. Currently, the app will give you a mission summary that tells you your pace (in km, no min/mile functionality yet), distance (again, always in kilometers), and time elapsed, along with the ability to replay any of the five to seven transmissions that make up a single mission. However, it doesn’t show your route, and it doesn’t allow you to save your information for later review. The best you can do is Tweet your distance and the number of supplies collected. Once you click “Back to Base,” your stats are gone.

Six to Start has announced that they intend to release full Runkeeper integration in the near future, and currently it’s possible to run Runkeeper simultaneously if you want to track your fitness progress. Although Zombies, Run! is at this stage a game, not a fitness tracker, omitting this important mechanic gets in the way of the user’s sense of progress and completion. At the relatively high price of $7.99 USD, I personally would expect a bit more meat, and I think that Six to Start has a hard sell to convince people to try it with such a thin functionality and the promise of more to come. But since it’s simple to run teh game simultaneously with Runkeeper, which is free, the lack of full recordkeeping is in the end little more than an annoyance. When all is said and done, it does have me going outside in the weather and everything, running until my calves ache in a desperate attempt not to be the first one eaten — at the very least.

Also due out soon as free updates are 17 additional missions (the base game contains only thirteen) with additional storylines and — theoretically — celebrity voices. The Android version is due out in May. With spring in the air and temperatures climbing, now is the perfect time to consider getting yourself conditioned for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. After all, the faster I get, the worse your odds for survival when that “something fast and deadly” starts chasing us.

UPDATE: Six to Start released an update for Zombies, Run! on March 22 that addresses almost all of the complaints that I had in my first evaluation of the game. The app now keeps logs of all runs — including retroactive logs of all the missions that I ran before the update — and nine new missions. It also adds a playlist shuffle feature, separate volume controls for missions and music, and imperial measurements (miles as well as kilometers). Runkeeper integration is still in progress. So, if you were on the fence before about whether to buy now or wait for more features, wait no more — the latest update allows Zombies Run! to stand on its own two gangrenous, gnawed-upon feet.

RATING 6 / 10