Dead Frontier: Outbreak
For many of us, Choose Your Own Adventure books ("gamebook") hold a special place in the muddled mess of nostalgia and memory that was once our childhood. Countless lazy Sunday afternoons, unending car rides on family vacations, and late nights spent with the sheets pulled over our heads and flashlights illuminating the yellowing pages were the backdrops to these adventures. The world of the familiar would slowly melt away as we picked our way through ancient tombs, crept through alien spaceships, or explored foreboding castles. And then, as so many other aspects of our childhood, they faded away like ghosts, transforming from late night nail-biting adventures into little more than fond vague memories. With Dead Frontier: Outbreak, creator Neil Yates resurrects the gamebook and updates it for a more adult (and less squeamish) audience.
Outbreak follows an unnamed cubicle slave just grinding his way through another day at work, the worst possible future he could imagine being some inconsiderate co-worker failing to refill the coffee pot. Indeed, his humdrum life is so unprepared for what is about to happen that when the scream comes, he at first thinks it's someone over reacting to a spider or something. This blissfully ignorant world view doesn't survive much longer before it is shattered by the dark reality of what has happened; a virus is rampaging its way through the populace, turning all who become infected into mindless, deadly, zombies.
As the horror of the moment sets in, our anonymous protagonist can think only of his wife and hopefully getting to her before she too falls victim to the rapidly spreading epidemic. This is where you come in. At just about every turning point in the narrative, you will be required to decide between several actions the protagonist can take. Choose wisely, and the hero lives at least for a few more moments until the next life and death decision comes along. Choose poorly, and you're either zombie, or zombie food, I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter which.
You won't be needing lightning fast reflexes for this zombie romp, though. Nor will you have to pick out ammo from unlikely places or practice sniper like aim. None of these skills will be tested. What will be tested is your imagination and your judgment. If you've nerves of steel, get going. Actually, you better get going anyway, lest you join the ranks of the living dead.
Analysis: First it should be mentioned that Outbreak isn't for everyone. For one, it's text based so there's all kinds of reading and not a lot of physical action to be carried out on your part. Also, Outbreak can get pretty gory and is not for the squeamish.
For those who aren't put off by the gore and don't mind a game that is mostly reading, Dead Frontier: Outbreak has an awful lot to offer. In some ways, Outbreak is somewhat like Interactive Fiction, the strength of the writing combining with the strength of your imagination to create your own private landscape of fantasy. Unlike Interactive Fiction, though, all of your options are multiple choice and merely a mouse click away. Thus, like Llama Adventure, Outbreak can be viewed as Interactive Fiction for those who just never really quite developed the knack for it.
Hardcore IF enthusiasts, as a result, may crave a level of immersion that is deeper than Outbreak provides. If this is the case, it isn't for a lack of trying on Outbreak's part. Aside from the writing (which I'll get to in a bit), Outbreak seeks to suck you in with plenty of ambient goodies. Your ears are treated to a suitably eerie musical track, whilst your eyes are allowed to wonder over various settings rendered in monochromatic hues that pulse subtly in the background. You're afforded this chance to take in the scenery by the voice acting that actually reads the text for you. Largely, this voice acting is okay, we've definitely heard worse, but it just feels a tad shy of being just right. This is excusable at least in part because zombie stories are rarely seen of as high art, and some flaws are not only allowed but expected.
No, the great sin with the sounds, both the music and the voice acting, is that you can't turn them off. You can click the screen to cut off the voice-over and bring up the entirety of the text immediately, but if the voice is getting on your nerves, there's no way to mute it. The music, which is well chosen, does get repetitive, but the only way you're getting rid of that is to turn down or mute your computer's volume.
This is fine because even though some thought and work was put into the amenities, what really shines in Outbreak is the story and your role in it. The lead in is pretty standard fare for your contemporary zombie plot, complete with apocalyptic viral scenarios, but Yates overcomes the near cliche open by focusing on immersion. What strikes me as remarkable is the believability not of the situation, but of the reactions to the situation. In the beginning, our hero rightly doesn't even register what's happening, and he never turns into some sort of Bruce Campbell clone, loading up on heavy weapons and going from white collared wage slave to awesome slayer of the undead.
Instead, your decisions remain sane, and often times quite tricky. You get some easy ones tossed at you here and there, but part of what really sucks you in is that so many of the options available to you are viable and during a real zombie outbreak, should one ever actually happen (hey, it could happen), you could see yourself confronted with similar dilemmas. Do you risk the few seconds and possible exposure it would take to snatch the gun on the floor, or do you make a break for the exit unarmed before the zombies notice you? As you try to drive away do you take the bulky but versatile SUV, or instead opt for the exposed but nimble motorcycle?
Should we see more installments like this, there are some improvements that would not hurt. Beyond having the option to turn the music and voice acting off, it would be much appreciated if the author was a little more lenient with the checkpoint system. Should you die (and let's face it, you probably will at least a few times), you thankfully don't have to start from the beginning, but you do have to go back to the last checkpoint. Some of the sections between checkpoints can be kind of long, though, and it can be more than a little irritating having to start over after a certain amount of progress. This is, it should be said, still an improvement over the original build where no checkpoints were offered at all. Also, getting back to the point where you died shouldn't take too long as you can click to speed up the text. Also, there are some grammar errors that may jump out at you here and there. For the most part, though, the voice over does a decent job of correcting for them.
Dead Frontier: Outbreak is definitely an interesting entry that veers off the beaten path. We may not have played anything like it since we were checking out books from our grade school library, but this is a good thing. Yates manages to deliver quite a bit of thrills and chills in a package that is unique and enjoyable, but still just short enough to where it doesn't monopolize a great deal of your time. So brush up on your zombie survival skills and try not to end up on the menu, if you can.