It’s no secret that Steam’s Early Access is flooded with identical looking, run-of-the-mill zombie survival games. Countless bugs, atrocious inventory management and plenty of murderous virtual psychopaths seem to be common characteristics for nearly all games fitting the genre. The Withering, however, is a bit different, even despite sharing some of these negatives.
Being in Early Access for almost a year and looking for additional funding as part of its second Kickstarter campaign, The Withering presents an odd mixture of mechanics. Instead of containing a repetitive cycle of entering the world semi-naked, gearing up slowly, losing everything upon death and respawning with nothing, the game offers a safe haven in the form of a survivor’s base. Going into the game for the first time, I was surprised to enter a world full of menus, stats and camp upgrades shortly after creating a character.
An Unexpected Beginning
It was all a bit overwhelming at first, as I couldn’t even find my way into the game’s open world. I could see the camp’s morale sitting comfortably at 60%, the empty storage and the locked construction options for buildings like radio towers, upgrade stations and med bays. After a few minutes of stumbling through text positioned on top of a slightly blurred-out animation of my character standing near a campfire, I finally found the deploy button hidden within the game’s map.
This start, while somewhat confusing, showcased the game’s unforgiving nature quite accurately. Spawned somewhere in Utah, a brief stay in The Withering’s desolate representation of post-apocalyptic modern North America quickly assured me of the place’s unwelcoming nature. Only equipped with a metal pipe and a barely functioning pistol, I used up my measly inventory in no time. Having only five slots to fill (those can be increased if you’re lucky enough to stumble on a backpack), I returned to camp with a can of soda, some wood, a little bit of metal and an increased sense of helplessness.
So, progression isn’t particularly fast-paced. While the starting player inventory is laughably small, things aren’t all that different in camp either. With material storage also limited to five slots (you can upgrade that later on), The Withering quickly turns into a constantly repeating exercise involving scavenging, resting and occasionally building base structures.
Fun In Suffering
While this might sound boring, I would also be lying if I told you I didn’t find this constant loop enjoyable. Surviving is certainly daunting, but that seems quite natural for a game set in the bleak fiction of a zombie-infested world. Every day feels like a struggle, with the odd chance of finding a powerful gun or a survivor to join your camp acting as much needed glimmers of hope.
Slowly, things start getting a bit more exciting as you send allies on reconnaissance and hunting missions. Eventually, I built a radio tower which allowed me to turn my base into a beacon of hope, transmitting messages of encouragement to fellow scavengers. Tasks with a lesser chance of success included sending direct coordinates for potential survivors – an act holding equal amounts of danger, with the off chance of hostile mercenaries finding my improvised stronghold.
Outside the comfy compounds of your base, the game’s environments succeed in representing an eerily empty place filled with brooding dead. This apparent uneasiness is strengthened through subtle background noises of creaking fences and distant thumps. Walking through the abandoned streets of the game’s starting areas feels oddly captivating, despite enemies and their stupidly predictable AI.
Speaking of which, enemy encounters in The Withering are literally around every corner. While most involve close encounters with mindless zombies standing idly in the wide open, there are also occasional armed humans with a strong affinity for killing everything in their sight. AI is certainly one of the game’s major weaknesses though, as in most cases zombies only act as annoying obstacles when encountered solo.
In fact, combat in general is somewhat stiff and lacklustre. While bullets are limited, firing weapons is often a gamble due to the unpredictability of your accuracy. This can be fixed slightly by increasing your skills (yes, the game also has a basic levelling-up system), but the clunky nature remains. All of this is rather surprising, considering the game’s focus on structured PvE areas.
That’s A Lot Of P’s
Ah, but I almost forgot to tell you – as of this moment, The Withering is strictly a singleplayer experience. In general, there seems to be an odd discrepancy between the game’s first-hand appearance and its actual gameplay specifics. Judging by my experience, I was extremely (albeit positively) surprised to see base building and crew management being so essential to the game’s flow. It even took me a while to realize I was playing in singleplayer mode, perhaps due to my familiarity with similar games existing within the genre.
While the word “multiplayer” is prevalent throughout the Kickstarter, Canadian devs CM SoftWorks have only vaguely said that they’re working on a big update aimed at bringing online functionality to players. Luckily, the information we do have points towards a multiplayer system quite different from your typical douchebag-filled zombie survival experience.
Although not yet implemented, the biggest separation comes in the form of PvE encounters – in other words, people you meet in the wild won’t have the chance to backstab you at the first opportune moment. Teaming up with friends in parties is also listed as a possibility, which should hopefully eliminate the dreadful downtime of trying to spot your allies through laborious tactical reconnaissance. Lastly, PvP modes like Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag will offer more structured combat opportunities, those taking place in remote, closed locations around the map.
I should also note that solo play will remain as an option even after the addition of multiplayer functionality, as stated by the devs. In its current form, the game does offer some missions which can be found while scouring the environment, with the hope being that those can be tackled in a co-operative fashion later down the road. While most of them seem rather linear and dull in terms of their objectives (kill all waves of goons and reach the rooftop), I stumbled on some locked instances taking place in abandoned buildings and industrial facilities. If handled correctly, those can certainly turn into enjoyable challenges.
In case you’re wondering, I tried to play through one mission only to find my character utterly annihilated in the matter of seconds. In hindsight, perhaps I should’ve realized that a comfortable-looking sports outfit, a crappy pistol and a bit of metal scrap wouldn’t cut it for taking down a heavily-armed hostile hideout.
The Light At The End Of The Tunnel
As you can see, there’s a lot going on with The Withering. Even though I initially thought the game would be uninspired and similar to its competitors, going into it I discovered a hardcore, immersive survival experience mixed with base building and crew management. And while I was pleasantly surprised, there’s certainly a discrepancy between the game’s first-hand appearance and what’s actually under the hood. This might be why its second Kickstarter campaign is currently struggling, with a goal of $80,000 CAD being funded for only a little over 20%.
I’ve also purposefully left out a heap of negatives surrounding the game’s performance, visuals and overall usability. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing hideous textures, odd collisions and slightly bugged-out, static AI. I’ve also been baffled by jumping being mapped to “E”, the lack of proper tooltips when using consumables and the tediousness of dropping items just so you can clear up inventory space and eat some canned food from the wilderness.
The game is clearly early in development, and such issues are to be expected. What matters is that there’s actually a lot of potential behind The Withering, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t exactly fond of survival RPGs set in zombie-infested locales.