[EDIT FOR THE BENEFIT OF THOSE WHO CONTINUE TO FIND THIS REVIEW: This review is somewhat out of date, and pertains to the original Zombies Run Season 1, and has had significant changes since the 2.0 update. I still love it. I still use it. It still feels very similar, but this review is no longer accurate in many particulars.]
And now for something completely different… I haven’t written anything in a very long time. Not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because my motivation has been lacking and I’ve had other stuff to do. I’m going to try something new: a review. I’m not planning on doing this often, but I thought this was worth sharing.
A little background, since I haven’t really talked about my fitness much. I’m about 5’8″ on a good day, and currently sitting at about 195 lbs. Last summer, I started running. Jogging really. Well, not even jogging when I started, more heaving along at a shambling lope until I wanted to pass out (roughly 2 blocks). From June to September I worked up to a 29 minute (level) 5km. I was pretty proud of myself. I’d gotten down to about 175 lbs. I still wasn’t super happy with the extraneous chunk I was carrying, but it was progress. Then a move came, and November rain, and Winter, and like crap I was going to go out and run in that… Christmas food and all the leftovers… you get the picture. I tried going out to run a couple of times in the early summer, but it was discouraging to be back to only running 2-3 km again, and some mild injuries combined with that made it easy to put running on the back burner.
Enter: Zombies, Run!
Zombies, Run! is an app available for iOS, Windows Mobile, and AndroidOS. It’s billed as an ultra-immersive running game that provides a compelling story, rpg-style advancement, and in-run motivation. Being a fan of all three of those things, I decided to bite the bullet on the $7.99 price tag and download it from Android Market for my HTC Incredible S, running Android 2.3. For reference, the version I have is the current Andriod 1.01 update. I had a brief difficulty getting it installed, because the mission audio download (~200 mb) requires you to be on wifi rather than a mobile internet connection. That’s probably a good thing for a lot of people, but given that I use about 5% of my 2 gb monthly allotment, I would have been happy to be able to do it at my convenience.
The user interface is pretty basic. The home screen is nearly useless for providing anything but atmosphere, as all the options are laid out as permanent tabs on the top of the screen (Home, Missions, Supplies, Codex, and Settings). It does keep a count of your town (Abel Township, a walled shanty-town of survivors as the story begins) population, though. Sliding the door open gets you to the missions tab, which gives you a scrolling list of story instalments that have been unlocked. That’s where the supplies tab comes in: as you run/walk/shamble/whatever through the mission, your character, who will be known as Runner 5, randomly picks up supplies ranging from radios to underwear. When your run is completed you can use the supplies tab to distribute them through the buildings in Abel. This levels up the buildings, increasing the population and making more missions available for you. The codex keeps track of the different types of supplies you’ve discovered and the mission related artefacts you’ve found, as well as a dramatis personae of the characters you have encountered during the story development as you run. The supplies and codex tabs are also available online if you sync an account with zombiesrungame.com. That account also gives you the ability to share to your Facebook timeline and Twitter feed, which is something that I think is a lot of fun, the developers think is good advertising, and makes lazy friends feel guilty and hate you. The final tab is for settings, which contains a tutorial (which I’ll get to), metric/imperial selection, credits, synchronisation options, and the choice of whether or not you want “Zombie chases” added into your workouts.
Getting running with Zombies, Run! is fairly intuitive, which is a good thing because the tutorial really doesn’t adequately explain how everything works [UPDATE: After 4 missions and a bunch of googling, I found the Runners’ Field Guide, which makes for some fun and helpful reading]. After reading through some other reviews and doing a run with it myself, I’m still not entirely sure how everything works. The support page online didn’t really live up to what I’d like to see in terms of documentation for the game. It gives you enough to make things work, but not why or how they work. By clicking on the mission tab and selecting a mission (I started at Mission 1: “Jolly Alpha Five Niner”) you bring up another screen with options to play music from one of the playlists you’ve made on your phone, whether or not to shuffle the songs, whether to enable GPS tracking, and whether you want Zombie chases to happen during the mission (seeming to duplicate/override the global option). Zombies, Run! audio integrated flawlessly with the stock Android 2.3 music player, but as of the current revision, Android 4 requires you to use the WinAmp app to provide the music for your run. GPS tracking is needed to have the Zombie Chase option active, and also allows for some pretty decent tracking of your run. I’m given to understand that until recently, Zombies, Run! didn’t provide much information on your run but now has full RunKeeper integration if you’re into that, calculates calories burned, and keeps track of your speed, pace, and location throughout the run, synced with what song your were listening to and what mission details were given. It actually reminds me a lot of the free version of Endomondo that I had previously been using to track my runs. If you’d like to see the tracking screen following a run, the following is a link to my first mission. SPOILER ALERT: the timeline for the run contains story information for that instalment.
So, speaking of my first mission…
I think this is what you’re going to want to hear more about, because it’s the thing that makes this app both unique and worth getting. The fact is there are better run tracking apps that you can get for free. If you’re looking at Zombies, Run!, it’s probably because the idea of having the story and incentives making it more fun to get out and exercise. Does it do that? It did for me. Before I tell you about it, I’m going to quickly repeat some useful advice that I read in another review, because it saved me some trouble: The gameplay elements have nothing to do with the story bits. When they’re yelling at you to run, it doesn’t matter if you run. When they’re telling you you’re going fast, that doesn’t mean you’re going fast. It’s pre-recorded, and does not integrate with the GPS tracking. I do think that if you want to honour the story it will help increase the power of the experience, though.
I selected my running playlist (mostly moderately up tempo rock: bands like Needtobreathe, The Afters, Havenstance, Boys Like Girls, and Switchfoot), shuffled it, turned GPS and Zombie Chases on (because hey, that’s the point, right?) and stepped out the door. I walked through the first story instalment to warm up, and as the well voice-acted communications controller called for it, began to run. Jog, really, but I’m out of shape. I already said that. As Thunder played, I was soon informed that I’d picked up a power cable… Okay, cool, I guess… the music volume dipped enough for me to hear the notification, which, unfortunately, was not voice acted. I’m pretty sure it’s the same text to speech as Emily, the polite British lady in my Garmin GPS that tells me how to get less lost. That pickup was quickly followed by a radio and a cell phone. At later points during my run I picked up underwear and a sports bra. It gave me a bit of a chuckle, at least. I also got crutches, which brings me to my first semi-real negative: As immersive as this is supposed to be, the liberal application of hammerspace made me shake my head a bit. Really? I’m supposed to pretend I’m carrying all this stuff while I’m running? [I got 16 items during the run, ranging in size from a USB key to the crutches… also, sometimes I overthink things.]
As each song ended, an audio clip would play, advancing the story and encouraging me to keep going. Sometimes this threw me a bit, because (as you’ll see if you look at my mission log) I was liberally interspersing walking with my jogging and there were times when the audio inappropriately lauded my pace. At times, it would contain story-based information about zombies approaching and call for me to pick up my speed. If I hadn’t known that it had nothing to do with the Zombie chases, that might have thrown me. During the songs, with the same volume dip, sometimes I’d get a “Warning, Zombies, 100 Meters” (Ahead? Behind? Who knows…). Once again, I was grateful to an earlier reviewer who wrote that this meant that you needed to increase your speed for a set distance. The tutorial says that if zombies chase you to run faster. I understand that if you don’t, you drop some of your supplies in order to get away, and if you’re “caught” without supplies, it results in your death and the failure of the mission. I might be wrong in that; it’s not documented in any way by the developer, and I don’t really want to find out the hard way. That happened four times during the mission. It appeared to update me on the distance the Zombies were behind me while I tried to reach the unspecified marker ahead of them, but that’s just my best guess. It seems like you “evade” the zombies if you reach the end of that unspecified stretch ahead of the zombies, whether you’re five meters ahead or 170. There was one time that they apparently got close enough to be a worry, since I started hearing shuffling and panting overtop of the music. It was a cool effect, and definitely motivated me to kick up my speed as much as I could. The timing and number of the chases seemed random. In a future revision, I think it might be useful to have an option to include them at fixed times for interval training.
I had some excellent grin-moments as my randomized playlists dropped songs that fit perfectly with the story clips, such as OneRepublic’s Everybody Loves Me after having been greeted and welcomed into Abel township at the end of the mission, and the DJ dedicating The Afters’ Light Up The Sky to our communications officer, Sam Yao (When I’m feeling all alone/with so far to go/the signs are nowhere on this road/guiding me home … you light up the sky to show me you are with me/I can’t deny that you are right here with me). Some people might find that less amusing than I do. Phaw on them.
Oh, that’s right, I said DJ. That was a really neat little Easter Egg! When I finished the mission (about half an hour including music), I was introduced to a post-apocolyptic DJ team for the base with an old MP3 player and broadcast tower. They interspersed my playlist with survior related banter that kept the experience going really nicely. This brings me to my other experiential negative: Zombies are apparently very rude. While I was doing my cool-down walk, another Zombie Chase activated! It frustrated me quite a bit, because I was afraid if I didn’t kick back into a run, I’d lose the progress even with the mission done. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it left me sucking wind and bile. I stopped the app after I outran them, but that left me without music for the last few minutes of my cool down. Apparently Zombie chases are all or nothing. I can understand that still being a good feature for 10kers that want to keep going well after the mission is done, but for me the timing was very unfortunate. I’d really like to have the option to only have zombie chases for the duration of the “mission” portion of the run, but I’m not sure that’s actually possible to program.
When I arrived back home, pretty wiped, my four year old son ran out of the house to greet me and join in on my end of run stretching. I had a bizarrely warm sense of accomplishment and purpose; like I had just gone out running into danger to bring supplies back for my family behind the safety of the walls. Then I felt a little crazy. It was a good kind of crazy, though.
Back on the computer, I took the chance to see the post-run breakdown, and as I mentioned before was surprisingly pleased and impressed. I set out to distribute the supplies around the town. I think this is an area that could use some future attention to up the fun factor, because it doesn’t seem like it matters what kind of supply you put in any part of the base to improve it. There’s also no stated rhyme or reason for which part of the base you chose to upgrade. My personal feeling is that it’s an opportunity for future social integration, especially if they gave a reason for you to upgrade, say, the armoury over the hospital. By making supplies building specific, and allowing networked people to provide supplies to each others’ bases, it would add a sense of the cooperation that we’ll need to survive the zombie apocalypse.
On the whole, one mission in, I feel like this app is going to be well worth the eight dollars spent. It’s worth noting that the number of missions is currently limited to what they’ve been able to script and record so far. They’ve called it season one, though, so I have hope that as more people buy the app, they’ll be able to fund further seasons. I’d also hope that it would be free content, but I think that those who have followed the story through would be willing to put some more money forward to continue it. If the rest of the missions are of the quality that the first one was, I can see myself getting a lot of enjoyment from this.
The good: Compelling and well voiced story, excellent integration with the music, and all the tracking features that a recreational runner would need
The bad: Lack of documentation and rationale for RPG elements
The ugly: The user interface is functional, but could stand to improve for the sake of immersiveness
If you’d like to know anything more, feel free to ask.