The last few months of my life, I‘ve been living in constant fear of a virus that destroys the body and brain… I’ve survived by scavenging the ruined shelves of once-bustling supermarkets, praying to find one last tin of beans… sliding silently past the shambling forms of strangers quickly and quietly, in case they were carriers…

So for blessed relief from the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to review 7 Days to Die, a wonderful game stuck in eternal alpha that plays like Left 4 Dead infected Minecraft with an RPG virus.

Eat or be eaten

You start 7 Days to Die like many people start life – naked, afraid, and in America. Unlike most maternity wards though, there are hordes of undead hungering for your flesh, as well as rabid wolves, ornery bears, bastarding vultures, and… Grace. Good luck with Grace. Survival depends on scavenging enough food, weapons, and materials to fight off the zombified masses and fill your belly.

The name might make you think this is a really punishing game. It’s not. At least, not from the start. Everything from zombie behaviour to the flow of time is highly adjustable, even between sessions. Extreme temperatures don’t really affect you for the first hour or so, and you’re almost guaranteed to find few zombies lurching around your spawn point. You’ll also get a torch, can of chilli, jar of water and one first aid bandage when first spawning in (but not on respawning).

Better equipped than most student kitchens

The intro quests at the start will also teach you important mechanics, equip you with basic tools and weapons, direct you to a trader – this game’s quest hub – and furnish you with some skill points to start pimping your character. Game difficulty ramps up slowly as the game stage increases (essentially a measure of factors like the day, your level, and how well-equipped your character).

HE HUNGERS FOR YOUR PICKANICK BASKETS

Too quiet to last

Why’s it called ‘7 Days to Die’ then, you ask? That’s how long you have until the Blood Moon rises. When it does, the kid gloves come off and waves of zombies will hunt you, taking the most direct route to your tender flesh. They’ll jump barriers, tear through steel doors, and dig into the earth to find you, until that wave is finished. You’ll also see certain special infected that will tear through your fortifications like a zombie bear claw through your precious organs. The arrival of the morning sun signals the end of the zombie assault, leaving you to mop up stragglers and breathe a sigh of relief. Until another seven days have passed…

This, then, is the core gameplay loop. Loot, explore, quest, craft and spend skill points to prepare for the Blood Moon. Try to survive, and repair or upgrade your base. There are whole tiers of materials for building a stronghold, from wood, flagstone, cement, iron and steel, plus a myriad of traps and clever designs. And if you don’t want to build your own, a whole host of buildings litter the landscape that can be turned into permanent or temporary accommodation for horde night – assuming you don’t want to just stay on the run all night instead.

Live fast or die slow

Whether you build a Fortress of Solitude or channel Road Warrior, you’ll want to optimise your build using the tabletop-eque levelling system. Experience earnt in play (through combat, building and scavenging) means one point per level, plus five for completing the starter quests. These can be dumped into five core attributes – Strength, Agility, Perception, Fortitude, and Intellect – or into perks grouped under those attributes. Each point in an attribute provides a small bonus to damage and crit chance to a certain melee and ranged weapons, while the perks improve weapon skills and offer further utility. No big surprises here – Strength has sledgehammers, Perception has rifles, etc. etc., but each attribute makes it clear what you’re getting yourself into.

Behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death 

The more points you put in the main attribute, the further down the perk tree you can get. While this encourages a certain level of dedication, you’ll get enough points to go down a few different trees. There’s no wrong way to play, but some perks are universally useful, such as health regeneration, the ability to carry more without slowing down, or increasing the odds of finding rare loot.

How does this system effect play, then? Someone who’s specced into mining will likely turtle-up with the mountain of iron and stone they’re getting. Mad Max cosplayers will probably loot further away from their base and might choose to just outmanoeuvre the Blood Moon hordes in their post-apocalyptic cruiser. Yet another person with pimped looting skills might stay on the move on foot, improvise a defence as and when they need it, trusting in their better gear, higher ammo count and disposable nature of their accommodation to fend off the bitey crowds.

CLONK!

The sound of two watermelons hate-f***ing…

 Combat is satisfyingly meaty, with nice audio and visual feedback on attacks (both dealt and received). A neat idea is that melee attacks all have a cone of effect, so a glancing hit will still deal damage, and you can harm multiple enemies at once. The flip side – each hit has a chance of inspiring Rage-virus levels of hatred in the shambling corpse, causing it to run faster and hit harder.

And every hit could be life threatening, with the chance to impose multiple effects. A broken leg or stun could lead to you being swarmed by zombies. A bleed effect will drain most of your health unless bandaged immediately. Infection is of no concern at first, but will lower your stats the longer it goes on, until eventually giving the worst condition of all – death. Strapping on armour and getting the right perks can reduce or eliminate some of these.

Zombies aren’t the only ones that can fight dirty though. Blunt weapons can knockdown foes, bladed weapons can make ‘em bleed, Molotovs can set entire hordes aflame… at the same time, these builds force you to make choices. Do you slow yourself down with heavy armour and wade into the crowd, sledgehammer in hand? Or do you go for light (or no) armour with a machete and fight a battle on the run? Whether fight or flight, your stamina bar will be draining, eliminating possibilities until you’re victorious, safe, or dead.

Shambling in the right direction

Currently, I’ve got over 1,000 hours on 7 Days to Die and I anticipate adding a few hundred more to that. Part of this is that the game has changed massively since I bought it many years ago, with more content being added, map size dramatically increased, and entire systems being reworked.

The recent addition of quests has added a lot of spice to the American wasteland. You’ll be directed to kill, fetch, kill/fetch, or find buried treasure by one of the game’s traders. Starting the quest will respawn enemies and loot so you can’t cheese it, and task you with completing the objective without dying or leaving. There’s some replayability with slightly randomised loot and a lot of locations, and the more quests you complete, the higher level the quests you can do with a commensurate jump in difficulty and reward.

Ignore the… ketchup stains on those goods

Not always fresh

Having a direction to go in is great early game, and drives you to new locations you might not have seen before. However, you can find yourself visiting the same places again and again despite the massive amount of buildings on the map, especially so at higher levels where there simply aren’t as many appropriate challenges.

Pretty? No. But safe? Also no.

 

The middle of this game is superb. Once you’ve found a base to rove out from and stockpiled some supplies, you can fall into a comfortable rhythm of questing and scavenging in the day and fortifying and crafting at night. Unfortunately, the very early game can be off-putting and a little dull if you’re not familiar with it. You might find yourself crouching blind in the corner of run-down shack because you lost your torch, hiding from the moans outside because all you’ve found so far is a tin of pears and a doorknob.

End game isn’t necessarily bad, but you accrue so many resources that even large hordes with the worst zombies can feel a bit routine, and there are so few high level quests you will certainly do the same ones again and again unless you’re making the effort to go really far out of your way.

These downfalls can be remedied if you’ve played before – you’ll know early game that digging can set you in good stead for later, or you might know exactly where a good fortification is if you’re using the standard map of Navezgane. The random gen maps can take even experienced players by surprise of course, though this is often because you’ll see the same strip bar three times in the same street…

Two rotting thumbs up

My sheer play time means I would certainly recommend 7 Days to Die, especially if you’ve got a friend to suffer with. The limited resources and sliding ‘heat’ system, where more zombies are attracted the more you do in an area, means this still feels challenging while allowing the group to benefit from multiple perk trees – farming, mining, crafting, etc.

One important caveat is that if you’re looking for a game that starts quick and keeps you in the action every second, then 7D2D is likely not for you. If, however, you enjoy a blend of construction, survival, and combat, then jump on this with a few like-minded mates.

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