Rebuild: Review

Rebuild - zombie attack!

You call that a horde? I'll show you a horde!

The ironic thing about starting up a games blog and wearing various writerly and editorial hats is that you’re left with less time to play games than you once had. Fortunately there are still plenty of titles out there that it’s possible to blast through in a comparatively short amount of time and not feel that you’ve left something unfinished. This is why you’ll be seeing a few indie and browser game reviews written up by yours truly over the next month or so, whilst I settle into the rhythm of Arcadian Rhythms.

Rebuild is a strategy game from Sarah Northway and Two Towers Games, a fairly established portal for publishing Flash-based web games. It’s yet another zombie game, but don’t go fleeing anywhere just yet. Rather than being yet another game that pits you as a single survivor enduring or defeating the zombie apocalypse, it places you in the role of the leader of a band of survivors hiding in a fortified encampment amidst a city overrun by the undead. Your mission, should you choose to not read your briefing, is to rally more survivors to your cause, reclaim more of the city, attend to the needs of your settlement and – eventually – reach one of the game’s endgame scenarios.

The game’s of the kind that puts you up against odds that can, if left unaddressed, quickly become overwhelming. Your task is to strike a balance between keeping your territory fortified and protected from zombie attacks (initially rare and easily repulsed, but they quickly become more dangerous as more zombies spread through the unfortified zones), sending out excursions to kill zombies, scout, scavenge, recruit survivors and add territory, researching new technologies at home, keeping morale up, ensuring your survivors have everything they need including food and medical care, and training up survivors in new and useful skills.

In your first game it’s likely that you’ll miss something vital and your settlement will collapse like a house of cards. The game even warns you that this will happen, and not to give up hope. On my first playthrough I felt the game was pretty tough and was dreading what the higher levels were like, but my second playthrough – on easy mode, for comparison purposes – was almost effortless so I definitely don’t recommend that. Once you know how the game’s simple mechanics work, and how to meet the demands of a settlement under siege, you’ll find the higher difficulty levels more realistic challenges.

Rebuild - map screen

The map screen is where you'll spend most of your time. Here you can see a couple of farms for food, suburbs for housing, a police station for boosted fortifications, a lab for research, and a forest and a car park that I'm turning into something more useful. You can see scattered zombies hanging around outside the walls...

Graphically, as you’ve probably gathered, Rebuild isn’t much to speak of. The city overview and other bits of associated user interface are nicely designed: they’re cartoonish and colourful and add a little bit of cheer to the fairly bleak and unremitting atmosphere (hey, it is an apocalypse, after all). The animations are pretty poor; the still I’ve included above of the horde attack isn’t much improved by the simple movement that the game adds. Still, these only crop up every so often, and most of the time you won’t care as you’ll be too busy chewing your nails and wondering if the troops you left to guard the fort were enough. Sound, too, is basic, but it’s unobtrusively suited to the mood of the game. You may prefer to stick on your own tunes; post-rock is always a good choice for this kinda thing.

There’s a mild sense of humour on display throughout the game, mostly minor things in the pictures and descriptions you’re presented with. These include the random events you encounter and the jaded habit of referring to zombies as “zeds”. That said, the core concept of the game’s story is treated with respect and the fundamentally bleak nature of the situation is regularly reinforced: survivors tend to die through stupid errors or unlucky chance, illness and crop maladies are rife, sometimes soldiers break down in tears or someone will be killed on an expedition because they stopped to piss in the wrong alley. The balance between the tragic and comic is well-struck, and the game’s writing  is very well-suited to the setting in general.

This fine sense of balance is carried through to the actual gameplay mechanics, which is, of course, the most important thing. There’s always more that you want to do than you can at any moment, and sometimes you have to take dangerous risks simply because you must accomplish three different actions in the next few turns and sending multiple smaller parties out is the only way to do it. And for every risky expedition that returns there’s one that might lose a member or just never be heard from again.

Each area outside your territory is rated in three categories: survivors, available food and number of zombies. The collecting of survivors and food are jobs for leaders and scavengers respectively, and it’s advisable to clear out zombies with soldiers to make other missions safer. Even so, you’ll almost always want to keep a soldier or two alongside civilians to keep your most valuable survivors safe.

Rebuild - random event

Sometimes the random events are a godsend, but most of the time they feel like another nail in the coffin being built around you.

Speaking of valuable survivors, each type of specialist is useful. Soldiers are the best at defending the fort and are the only specialist which can hunt and kill zombies or run escort duties. Scavengers find more food and are useful for scouting new areas. Builders are much faster at extending walls or replacing useless structures. Scientists research technology many times faster than anyone else. Leaders are the best way to recruit other survivors and are also vital for keeping morale up. In a lot of ways the different kinds of specialists, and their associated buildings, remind me of Colonization: you want to keep a lot of useful specialists around for their specialist tasks but you can assign them other duties in a pinch. If you have a school you can also re-train survivors.

Overall I’d say Rebuild is good fun for a few games and does a great job of forcing you to make tough choices. For much of the game you don’t have enough survivors to do everything you want to and there are always too many zombies to deal with. Once you get past a certain settlement size you’ll find the game tips quite far the other way and becomes easy – unless you screw up. This is a bit of a blessing, though, as the game’s at its best with small settlements and desperate situations. The comparative ease of play once you reach a certain size allows you to steamroll towards your chosen victory condition in a fairly short amount of time.

A game of Rebuild tends to last a couple of hours, allowing for difficulty, and I managed to run through four games before I’d pretty much exhausted everything the game has to offer. If, like me, you’re after a well-designed strategy game that you can burn through a game of quite quickly, then give Rebuild a try: it’s free and you may be surprised by just how well-executed it is.

Rebuild - guarding the fort

I've saved the most sumptious visuals for last. Here I am deciding how few people I can afford to leave to defend the settlement: every guard is a survivor who could be doing some other vital task.