Sunday, May 31, 2009

Killing Floor Review

Killing Floor, developed and published by Tripwire Interactive.
The Good: Intense chaotic gameplay, persistent upgrade tracking, degree of challenge emphasizes teamwork, customizable game parameters
The Not So Good: Can’t play cooperatively with AI, few repetitive circular levels, predictable swarm pattern, somewhat limited weaponry, can’t play as the enemies
What say you? A fine mod, but not a completely developed retail game: 6/8

We love killing zombies. From taking them on first hand to having plants do it for us (that’s simply laziness), we can’t get enough of ridding the world of the undead. The new fad of cooperative multiplayer gaming has latched on to this and produced notable titles such as Left 4 Dead, a game that was not reviewed on this particular site because Valve ignored my requests for a review copy. Jerks! Killing Floor started out as a modification for the excellent Unreal Tournament 2004, but now the developers of the Red Orchestra mod for the same parent game (and its subsequent retail release) have acquired a different mod and gone retail again, hoping to cash in on the monster-killing-loving that is pervasive on the PC right now. Is Killing Floor a true mod that shouldn’t cost anything, or a wonderful journey into a dark place (England: dreary even when monsters are not invading)?

Killing Floor started out as a mod, and it looks like a mod that got a slight graphical touchup for retail. The game doesn’t hold any resemblance to Unreal Tournament 2004 other than the menu system (a sign of a good total conversion), and the game holds its own despite featuring a five-year-old graphics engine. The highlights include the gory enemy models with satisfying death animations and decapitations. The weapons also look nice, especially in slow-mo when you can actually see the detail (that goes for the bullets, too). The environments, on the other hand, are somewhat bland, although the open-area levels offer a more varied appearance. The grainy film effect used as you observe other players gets old after a while. The sound in Killing Floor is less impressive: although weapons sound powerful enough, the repetitive sound phrases and generic moody music do not fill the game with enough foreboding for my tastes. Hearing the enemy units off in the distance at the start of a wave is creepy, but it’s quickly replaced with mass hysteria (dogs and cats living together!). Still, Killing Floor falls comfortably between the mod and retail classifications, and at a budget price, that’s a result I am at ease with.

Killing Floor is designed to be a multiplayer cooperative game, and this is exemplified by the bare-bones single player features. You can play with yourself (ha!) by creating an offline server, but the game does not add AI allies to your game, essentially removing all of the cooperative play Killing Floor is supposed to be about. Unless you plan to go online, there is no reason to get Killing Floor. Of course, since the game is only available online, one could argue that anyone with a means to get Killing Floor would be able to play it as intended. Still, if you are not going to have bots to play with, why even have the option for single player? Anyway, enough ranting (for now). Killing Floor can be played with up to five friends (plus yourself…that makes…let’s see…six!) and the servers seem to be quite popular online and fill up quickly so you’re never waiting for a game to join. The first day I played the game, I had problems with the filters not working and server pings not showing up correctly. After then, though, I haven’t had any major problems, so my big long rant I had written is invalid. I would still like a “join any server” button and let the game do all the refreshing for me, though. You can only take on the enemy specimens, as Killing Floor does not allow for competitive play with some individuals playing the experimental beasts.

Killing Floor is set near London where genetic experiments have gone wild (softcore nudity optional). Your job is to defeat each incoming wave of enemies before dying. There are ten enemy types in Killing Floor, from “easy” to “not easy.” Although enemies have a really simple AI pattern (run towards you), their behaviors are different and in large numbers they are quite formidable. Some explode with acid, some are sneaky, some have powerful weapons, and the Fleshpound becomes enraged when attacked. And there is the end-game boss, the Patriarch, which is really, really hard to kill if everyone isn’t armed with rockets (I still haven’t played in a game where he’s been defeated). There is a predictable swarm pattern for a specific difficulty level, which means you can stick to a certain upgrade strategy because you know what to expect the next wave. There are only five maps to choose from, but they do feature a variety of environments: outdoors, indoor, and urban. Killing Floor gives the players a good amount of freedom choosing where to fight the incoming onslaught, since the maps are not linear. You will need to traverse to the next trader shop location (two or three scattered at the edges of the map) to purchase new swag, but you can decide where to engage the enemy along the way. This means Killing Floor has a lot more variety than a shooter with a purely linear level design. The repetition of trader shop locations can be quite disorienting initially (wasn’t I just here?), and because the maps are essentially circular, welding is only occasionally helpful since you’ll most likely have to head through that door later. Though most servers use the default rules, you can customize a number of options: cash levels, enemy density, and even adjust the specific composition of each wave of opponents. Doing so, though, will disable leveling up, since you could institute some very easy rules to rack up experience.

Between waves, you can use the cash you earned properly disposing of specimens to get new weapons. They are broken up into melee (machete, axe, chainsaw), secondary (single and dual pistols), and primary (shotgun, sub-machine gun, rifle, crossbow, rocket launcher, flamethrower) weapons. While this selection covers pretty much any enemy type, there is always room for a more diverse assortment of killing instruments. As it stands, you’ll find a favorite weapon and stick with it once you can afford it. Encumbrance limits the weapons you can take so you cannot be armed to the teeth even if you have the cash for it. Normally, you will want to upgrade to more powerful weapons as the waves become tougher while sticking to the bonuses your perk supports. Killing Floor has six persistent perks that grant specific bonuses based on your skill in each category. Experience can be earned both online and offline, which I suppose is the only reason to play single player in Killing Floor. There is essentially one perk for each weapon: Berserker for melee weapons, Commando for the submachine gun, Field Medic for those who like to heal, Firebug for the flamethrower, Sharpshooter for the rifles and crossbow, and Support for shotguns and welding. Getting more kills using your weapon will result in leveling up and making those weapons more effective. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are six perks and six people on your squad, as a well-rounded team is at an advantage. I like the perk system, as it gives everyone an important role (much like in Team Fortress).

As you would expect, Killing Floor is difficult unless your six-person team is functioning as a cohesive unit. The HUD clearly shows the number of enemy units left and the path to the next trader is shown after each wave is defeated. The slow motion effect in the game that is sometimes triggered whenever someone scores a headshot is annoying because of its semi-randomness. It does let you gather yourself for a second or two, but it would be much more useful if you could manually trigger it. Killing Floor is pretty difficult, especially if you get split up: you will most likely get overwhelmed if you are in a poor position. However, the game is quite enjoyable when you get a good team going. Killing Floor does suffer from some repetition because of the predictable enemy swarms and circular maps, but, for the price, Killing Floor is entertaining enough.

While Killing Floor makes for a great modification to Unreal Tournament 2004, adding a price tag must bring some additional features, and the game comes up a bit short here. If Killing Floor were to add cooperative single player gaming, some new maps, more varied enemy encounters, and the ability to play as the specimens, then we would have a great game. For $20, being a good game would probably be enough for fans of the cooperative survival horror genre. It’s clear that the core of Killing Floor is quite enjoyable, with tense, action-packed gameplay where the emphasis is undoubtedly on teamwork. The persistent perks allow you to know your role and fulfill it for the good of the team, although most of your energy will be spent shooting enemies in the face. The non-linear maps do allow for some strategic freedom: because there is usually a significant distance to the next trader location, you are able to decide where to fight to an extent. The circular map design actually makes teamwork a lot harder than if the levels were completely linear. Those looking for a fine but partially limited cooperative game at a cheap price need look no further.