Review: Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville03 Sep 2015 0
Review: Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville
Released 03 Sep 2015
The couple were holed up in the church. Tough, to survive this long with zed everywhere, and potentially useful people. But they had kids, three of ‘em. Three more, useless, hungry mouths to feed and look after, when we need every scrap of spare food to keep the Rifts and their guns sweet. Better to leave them here. Wisest option all around.
But no. We’ll take them in and feed them just the same. ‘Cause if you can't stand for something, what's the difference between us and zed?
Sarah Northway’s Rebuild games--city builders with a dash of 4-X coming off a George Romero marathon--cast the player as the leader of a band of zombie-apocalypse survivors as they try and carve a safe and stable polity out of the ruins of a North American city. You start with a tiny handful of people, a handful of walled-off city blocks, and a whole lot of zombies around. You assign your people tasks such as scavenging for food and supplies, recruiting, clearing out zombies and incorporating cleared sites into your territory. Workers who succeed become able to work quicker and more safely. Those who don’t face injury or death -- and you have plenty of dead to worry about already.
Zombies swarm around your walls and need to be trimmed back from time to time like particularly dangerous weeds. Allow them to build for too long and they'll make a massed attack on your walls, potentially taking blocks, limbs, and lives. Keeping pace with the hordes while still getting other stuff done requires hoovering up lone survivors where ever you can. More people need more food and space to live, which means grabbing more land, requiring more people to defend it. When the dead walk, the living must run just to stand still.
Like a good 4x game, the tension between growth and consolidation forms the heart of the player's constant dilemma and gives Rebuild 3 that “one more turn” deliciousness. Letting your population outstrip your food supply or losing too many survivors to overstretch are the fastest ways to turn your bright new dawn into an archaeological curiosity, but remaining too small for too long leaves you at the mercy of hostile survivors and zombie hordes.
The third Rebuild game is feature-rich, boasting a long tech tree, friendships and rivalries between survivors, trade, various forms of government and more. A lot of those elements, though, feel like chrome compared to the core of expansion, food and safety. The technology tree will often go mostly unexplored, and survivors rarely care if they live in a republic or a dictatorship so long as their bellies are full. It’s a game of breadth rather than depth, and often feels like it can be brute-forced with grain and guns without delving into the game’s subtleties.
Your focus though, will rarely be on min-maxing your corpse bashing. Like any good work of zombie fiction, the stars in Rebuild 3 are not the living dead (whose attacks are essentially a virtual dice roll and some descriptive text) but those survivors. Watching your people grow from hungry liabilities to nation foundin’, zombie killin’ superhumans as you get to know them is gratifying. Although the randomly generated decisions you're asked to make are 'little and often' affairs that carry modest individual gameplay weight, the variety of little stories created is fantastic. Like Crusader Kings and Oregon/Organ Trail, Rebuild’s intimate human focus allows random events and descriptive text to carry real narrative weight. Indeed, it is the story mode that is the marquee addition to Gangs of Deadsville.
Quick mode is essentially Rebuild Classic: create an avatar to lead your colony and a randomly generated town and guide your settlement through to one of several endings. But in story mode, once you’ve formed a government in your first settlement, your protagonist travels on to found another stable society in another town, and then another, and then another. The repetition of certain elements does break immersion in places, but the story mode offers some unique, surprising set-pieces you'll never see if you stick with randomly-generated maps.
The story mode adds a lot of replay value, requiring multiple playthroughs to see everything in its decision branches. There are a couple of hitches. The focus on rival gangs highlights a clash between the interesting and efficient -- players with an eye for the critical path will always choose to fob off potential enemies with gifts of surplus food, which is almost always easier than fighting. In addition, the ability to take several veterans with you to new towns drains mid-campaign games of a lot of early tension. Neither of these, though, is a deal breaker.
There’s plenty of games which a more gorily horrific zombie apocalypse than Rebuild, ever has. But with its frequent humour and cartoonish vector art, Gangs of Deadsville isn’t gunning for that – there’s a positivity here which is both surprising and charming.
While the game does occasionally go to dark places, the tone mostly stays optimistic, as befits a game about watching people and communities grow and thrive. It makes sense that co-operation is easier than conflict, food more important than bombs. As Rebuild 3 tickled the role-player in me, my decisions became less about beating the game into submission than in service of making a settlement worth living in.
The mechanics are occasionally a loose fit for the theme, but Rebuild 3's atmosphere and gameplay create compelling narratives of growth, progress and hope. That optimistic lining makes a charming game, and a rare zombie game that’s less about mowing down hordes among the ruins than building something worthwhile out of the ashes.