Review by Jason Dobry
Developer Tripwire Interactive
Publisher Tripwire Interactive
Released May 14, 2009
Available for PC
Verdict: 2/5 Rotten Egg
“Tripwire Interactive recently released Killing Floor, an updated retail version of the 2005 mod by the same name for Unreal 2004. I managed to secure it for only 15 bucks on Steam, so it seemed like a low-risk venture. But can a four-year old mod stand up to the king of co-op first-person shooters, Left 4 Dead?
The short answer is, ‘Of course not. Don’t be stupid.'”
Tripwire Interactive recently released Killing Floor, an updated retail version of the 2005 mod by the same name for Unreal 2004. I managed to secure it for only 15 bucks on Steam, so it seemed like a low-risk venture. But can a four-year old mod stand up to the king of co-op first-person shooters, Left 4 Dead?
The short answer is, “Of course not. Don’t be stupid.”
It’s not an entirely fair question. The original Killing Floor is over four years old, the product of a one or a few dedicated souls’ work. L4D was honed and refined by the sleepless legion of developer Valve’s minions through thousands of hours of playtesting and the expenditure of a few zillion more dollars.
The core gameplay is nearly identical: up to six players must work together to survive hordes of zombie-like carnivores. Killing Floor’s mindless aggressors are genetically-enginnered experiments gone wrong–sure, what the hell. It doesn’t really matter. Put some guns in my hands so I can blow them away and act “bossy and unpleasant” toward my teammates.
Gameplay is pretty unassuming: the players spawn in the level and must survive several waves of one to two hundred “specimens.” After each wave, the players may visit the trader to buy better weapons and body armor. After a server-specific number of waves (usually seven to ten), the final boss fight against “The Patriarch” concludes the level. The game shipped with only five levels, though Tripwire was quick to release the source code so user-made maps are quickly amplifying map variety.
KF does a few things right, and some of its features seem to highlight some of the community’s complaints about L4D. Specifically, Floor offers character classes, experience levels, and a strong mix of melee and ranged weaponry.
The class system breaks down into six distinct types: Support, Field Medic, Sharpshooter, Commando, Firebug, and Berserker. The game offers about a dozen weapon configurations, and though any class may use any weapon, most classes have enhanced abilities with a select few. Advantages typically include quicker reload times, improved damage, and discounted costs. The classes are pretty distinct from each other, and successful groups will contain players that dedicate themselves to their assigned role. Over time, players “level” through proficient use of their class’ weapon or by excelling at their role. The difference between a Level 0 and Level 5 in any class is staggering, with some weapons and items becoming twice as damaging, accurate, and/or efficient.
As for weaponry, players can choose either a knife, machete, axe, or chainsaw for toe-to-toe melee with the horde, or select from the wide array of ranged death-dealers: 9mm, dual 9mms, handcannon (I believe it’s a Desert Eagle, but I’m no weapons expert), dual handcannons, Bullpup (assault rifle), bolt-action rifle, crossbow, flamethrower, and hunting shotgun. Guns are purchased at the trader with money earned by killing specimens and healing players, though the latter method is ridicilously slower than the former for earning cash. Indeed, since killing offers the most efficient way to generate cash for better weaponry, players seem to compete for kills more than cooperate for survival, but more on this later.
In the end, Killing Floor still plays and feels like a sub-par mod. It’s unrefined, shallow, and repetitious to the point of Creditreport.com commercials. It may in fact be harsh and hate-filled to compare it to L4D, but only if KF didn’t also unfavorably compare to 1999’s Half-Life mod, Counterstrike. It borrows Counterstrike‘s weapon-purchase system but forgets to add the one element that made CS great–variety. Want an assault rifle? Great! Hope you like the one we have, because other than that, we’ve got nothing. Likewise, players can choose only one shotgun, one rifle, two–whoa–two pistols, and so forth.
Perhaps they’ll add more in a future update in this age of releasing incomplete games; until then, I’ll take the extremely limited weaponry and masterful teamwork-driven gameplay in L4D.
Will Teamwork for Food
And teamwork, or, more precisely, the lack of it, is really what kills this floor. Some players may blame the web community for the inability to act like anything other than the churlish reprobates they are, but any well-designed team game will offer incentives to encourage solid teamwork. Players react to a carrot on a stick as much as any donkey, but when KF strings one carrot to six sticks attached to six players, it’s inevitable that the asses will just stupidly headbutt one another. Esoteric metaphors aside, levelling requires the player to kill so many specimens with whatever weapon the class employs: the Sharpshooter must head shot x specimens; the Commando must kill a certain amount with the Bullpup; the Support Specialist must blow away a few hundred with the shotgun, and so on. On the rare occasions the game deviates from this formula, the results are just bland. For example, as an additional requirement to level, the Support Specialist must weld so many points-worth of doors–an activity that ranks in fun somewhere between mowing the lawn and visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Sadly, there are many situations in which welding will directly contribute to the team’s survival, such as when the team faces one or two doors ways full of specimens instead of three or four (as a side-note, any player can weld, not just Support Specialists). Unfortunately, while the player is welding, his teammates are racking up kills and money. And the player must constantly weld, otherwise the hungry monsters will beat down the door invade the stronghold. After a few minutes of sparks and heat, the dedicated welder can now visit the trader with empty pockets unless one of the other surviving team members donates some cash, but in the cesspool of the Internet, this happens about as much as one would expect.
The medic can level by healing his teammates, albeit in a monkey-humping-a-football sort of way. The game demands too much precision; if a medic isn’t spot-on with his slow-to-reload injection, then the attempt fails. In a FPS when all players are always moving, this is a sadistic joke and definitely an example of how “realism” does not always make for a better game. Though the medic can make some paltry money when healing, it is a pittance compared to the cash generated by wholesale slaughter of the mindless horde. Again, like the welding, few teams will survive without a dedicated medic, but the game gives little incentive for anyone to play one.
Ironically, Tripwire’s odd decision to exclude friendly fire from the game seems to harm team play more than help it; players have little incentive to avoid blocking one another’s lines of sight. As of this writing, there is currently no option to turn on friendly fire and I don’t understand this at all. Almost any fan of any cooperative shooter will insist that friendly fire encourages teamwork and communication, two things that are usually lacking from my experiences in this game.
Furthermore, for a “team survival horror” game, I see many players effectively and safely run off to “do their own thing” all too often. L4D answers this problem by guaranteeing a swift and violent death for any long gunners via enhanced zombie, but in this game, why not run off by myself in the early waves if I’m reasonably competent? I’ll get more cash that way! Take that, stupid team!
Caution: Learning Curve Ahead
All game designers face the same challenge: at what point does rewarding good play and punishing bad play become oppressive to new players? Killing Floor usually ranks somewhere in the middle in the frustration curve, but when it gets bad, it gets epically bad. Phantom Menace bad. Waterworld bad. Highlander 2: The Quickening bad.
In a move to make things more tense for the players, player death is more permanent than in most other shooters. If someone dies, he’s dead until the end of the wave. While this succeeds at creating tension during combat, it also excels at creating some of the most tedious moments in my FPS experience. It’s not that I have a problem with waiting to respawn. If I die, then I probably did something wrong and should take care to learn from my mistake. But when three-quarters of the squad dies within the first few minutes and with 150 specimens remaining in the wave, there’s nothing to do but watch and wait, sometimes for ten minutes or longer. Anyone who believes ten minutes is not long to wait in a game should try spending ten minutes holding the phone with any form of customer service. All too frequently, I was asked to watch a fifteen minute movie of the one surviving team member fleeing from the advancing mob without even killing more than a few of them. Sure, I could just find another server, but then I will most likely connect in the middle of the wave and have to wait to play for another five to fifteen minutes. Lines suck, even virtual ones, especially when I have all of one or two hours to play before something in the real world demands my attention.
The only other game in my experience to prolong player death was once again 1999’s Counterstrike; however, these waits were endurable because they lasted only two or three minutes and the teams were comprised of human players smartly and actively seeking each other out. Unlike KF, CS didn’t steal all of my money when I died (which was often–I never was too proficient at that accursed game). This leads to teams respawning into later and more difficult waves with nothing but a 9mm pistol and a few grenades and a mercifully quick descent into death’s warm embrace.
The Horror? The Horror?
Tripwire categorizes their game not as a “shooter,” but as “survival horror.” To those unfamiliar to the term, shooters (DOOM, Quake, Unreal, Left 4 Dead, Half-Life, Painkiller) emphasize, well, shooting. Ammunition abounds, as does the number of targets. They are quick paced, and players must have hair-trigger skills to prosper. Survival horror games (Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Dead Space, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Fatal Frame) to varying degrees de-emphasize combat in favor of puzzles, story, and character development and frequently make combat a relatively unattractive option through finite ammunition, crude weaponry, and/or reduced fighting capabilities.
I believe Tripwire wanted to make a survival horror game, if for no other reason as to dissuade unfavorable comparisons to Left 4 Dead and Counterstrike. They added weldable doors and hefty death penalties in an attempt to discourage the “run and gun” play of your typical shooter, but these elements ultimately fail for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Furthermore, any game that spawns wave after wave of dozens of enemies will make for poor survival horror for lack of proper pacing.
Successful survival horror games build and release tension at regular intervals. The most horrific moments take place in anticipation of attack, not the attack itself. Regular and steady attacks only diminish the anticipation and thus the horror. Valve understands this principle and calls these mini-raptures of terror-driven delight “crescendo moments,” which is why Left 4 Dead is an amazing shooter with survival horror elements and Killing Floor is a sub-par shooter wearing a Wal-Mart Halloween mask. As a team-based shooter, KF fails because of an uneven incentive system, a clunky interface, ridiculous wait-time between games, and uninspired map design. As survival horror, the game fails when everything becomes familiar too quickly–there are no more surprises after a half hour of playing the game.
And I can forgive uninteresting maps if they weren’t already in combination with the game’s legion of shortcomings. After all, Valve releases one complete game every three years or so (episodic content doesn’t count, sorry) and Tripwire Interactive enjoyed an infinitesimal fraction of Valve’s budget. As important as interesting enviroments are in creating tension, their absence could be forgiven if KF brandished a greater variety of weapons and stronger team play.
I downloaded Counterstrike and the original Team Fortress a decade ago for free. Killing Floor has substantially less polish and balance than either of these aging mods and I had to pay for it. Though the game reaches for some of the things that made these games great, it universally underperforms its ancestors with shallow and repetitive gameplay. It may provide a few hours’ worth of listless distraction; for me, however, it served to rekindle my appreciation and respect of Valve’s attention to map design, game balance, teamwork, and pacing.
My advice: LKF4D.
Minimum System Requirements (PC): Windows 2000/XP/Vista; 1.2 GHz CPU; 512 MB RAM; 64 MB Video
Reviewer’s System: Windows XP SP3; 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo E6600; 4 GB DDR2 RAM; 896 MB GEForce GTX 260