Saturday 1 December 2012

Wizard Books 30th Anniversary: Blood Of The Zombies


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Blood Of The Zombies is the first new FF from Livingstone since Eye Of The Dragon (which wasn’t strictly-speaking new, being an extension of a short adventure he wrote for Dicing With Dragons years earlier.) BOTZ is genuinely new which is all the more exciting as it suggests there could be more on the horizon as, for me, “true” FF has to be written by either Ian Livingstone or Steve Jackson as they created the series and set the quality standard in many cases.

The first minor disappointment is that BOTZ is not set on Titan. However, this is understandable in the sense that FF must now compete with console gaming and social networking, whereas in the 80s when FF was at its zenith there were few other distractions that could capture the imagination in the same way. ZX Spectrums, Commodores and BBC Micros were good at the time, but very limited in terms of “immersiveness”. Setting the story in the current real world allows for nods to modern popular culture such as laptops and Amy’s use of “OMG” in her diary which is clearly an attempt to embrace a modern audience as well as the original FF readers, so this is forgivable.

Rather more of an issue for me is that in many ways this doesn’t really feel like a FF book because the game mechanics are stripped-out considerably and dumbed-down. No stats for Skill or Luck, no Testing Luck (instead you roll a dice which is very arbitrary and often leads to instant death if you fail), no “clues” that you are on the right track by awarding Luck bonuses, no combats in the traditional FF sense (the battles are more of a Silent Hill/Resident Evil-style wholesale slaughter, but this may also be intentional to appeal to modern audiences), and, most worryingly, no interesting encounters in the FF sense. Part of the fun of FF was the many and varied creature and human encounters, made more interesting as they would be appropriate to the environment you were in – this added considerably to the feel and atmosphere of each adventure. The encounters in BOTZ become boring and repetitive very quickly. You meet x zombies in a room, followed by x zombies in a corridor, then another x zombies somewhere else and, oh look, then there’s a zombie inside a cupboard. There are one or two other encounters, but these are wholly unimaginative – attack dogs and mutant sewer rats. Granted, this is supposed to be set on Earth “right now”, but if we can accept that zombies exist, can we not at least stretch to a vampire or a ghoul maybe (we were, after all, allowed all manner of fantasy beasts in the modern world setting for House Of Hell.) Plus, this is set in Romania, so vampires should surely be expected! The human NPCs are OK-ish, but, in the cases of all but Amy, these are simply eventual zombie-fodder and add little to the plot, such as it is.

As regards the plot, the story is reasonable and, whilst simple, there’s enough of it to encourage you to play on. You are a student kidnapped in Eastern Europe (Hostel, anyone?) and, initially, you have no idea what’s going on. The big gripe here is that the back cover synopsis tells you exactly what’s going on and who the guilty party is, so the mystery element is gone before you’ve started! The whole fun of unravelling the mystery is lost and the book doesn’t seem to realise this as it sets the discoveries out as if they are some great revelation. Nonetheless, you do feel driven to escape and there is an atmosphere of hopelessness as you make your way through Yurr’s castle.
It must be noted that, whilst I have suggested that this doesn’t have the feel of FF as such, it certainly does have the feel of something written by Ian Livingstone. All the identifiers are present and correct:
  • ·        The cumbersome shopping list: there are loads of items you can collect along the way, many of which are useless, and you do wonder how you can actually carry it all, especially if are wearing armour and are carrying, like I was, six different weapons and three grenades, along with god-knows how much junk.
  • ·         Success or failure driven by items: the true path is typically narrow and you need a fair few items to progress very far.
  • ·         Linearity: as the true path is narrow, decisions are often made for you to keep you going in a straight line. This does not give the impression that YOU control your path.
  • ·         Keys: there are many numbered keys which is classic Livingstone. This could be a gesture to WOFM, especially as of them is key 111 which was also needed in WOFM.
  • ·         Useless sidekick that serves no purpose: Livingstone loves to give you a co-adventurer and then either kill them or have them do a runner before they serve any useful purpose. Amy is almost as pointless as Mungo in Island Of The Lizard King, but does at least live long enough to run away really quickly.
  • ·         Impossibility without cheating: there are umpteen Stamina penalties and you will not get far without completely ignoring the Stamina stat. There are hardly any ways to increase Stamina (I think I found three Med Kits and one water fountain) which makes it even harder. I started with Stamina 20 and finished the book with Stamina of -49, meaning I would have needed a starting Stamina of 70 to have any chance of surviving. Likewise, once you are mowing down the zombies from the balcony with a machine gun you have to keep rolling double sixes to make it through (very unlikely!). Interestingly, I only had to cheat on one missing item (I had found everything else I needed) which is unusually lenient for Livingstone – normally at least half a dozen of the 50 essential items you need are buried somewhere impossible to reach and/or get back out of. Bizarrely, it is also possible to win the game by cheating inadvertently when you are asked how many zombies there were – you are supposed to count how many you’ve killed but you can already have been told the number by finding a certain piece of information and just use that instead.

I would imagine it is totally impossible to complete this book without ignoring the Stamina penalties and, for this reason, this book suffers from the same unfairness issues that have been levelled against FFs such as Crypt Of The Sorceror, Spellbreaker and the "Astragal trilogy”. There are many instant deaths which is also frustrating and re-playability would wain after a few cycles of meeting the same zombies in a bid to find some other identical zombies you haven’t met in previous attempts. On the flipside you are at least actively rewarded for being curious - opening every door/chest and looking behind everything you can look behind offers up something handy. The element of wondering whether to risk “adventuring” that marred some other FFs in case you got impaled, sucked into a void or generally splatted in some way or other is missing from this which I personally appreciated.

That said, I did actually enjoy playing BOTZ (even though I cheated!) and it’s nice to see an attempt at bringing FF into the current age and trying to appeal to the modern version of the age-group that first discovered WOFM in the early 80s. Whether this book really is FF is debateable but there’s enough Livingstone traits there to give it the benefit of the doubt and, if it means the original pairing will offer us more, then I welcome it and can live with the modernisms that may be necessary. Incidentally, there is a nice touch when you find the birthday card wishing Zagor a Happy 30th.

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