James Silva could be the Quentin Tarentino of videogames. I can't remember right now, but I've probably laid that on a few other developers. Forget about that, this guy is it. He's coming out with The Dishwasher for XBLA later this year, after having won a contest where Microsoft deigns to work with you. He's a one man army, and while Dish looks pretty tight, Survival Crisis Z is a long-buried classic.
Survival horror has always meant 3D to me, I didn't encounter the genre until Alone In The Dark and then the Resident Evil games. Since then, I've had zombie dreams on a quintennial basis (on average). Zombie dreams fucking rule. If you don't have them, I recommend it. The action, the fear, the progressive increase in numbers, the characters, the scenarios, and occasionally the superhuman abilities. I've dreamed it all; been a cop, been a kid moving to a city before the outbreak, been a vampire fighting zombies, taken on slow zombies, fast zombies, even philosophical zombies (not to be confused with this). This game gave me the radical survivalism fantasy combined with the fear. Mere sprites and chilling sounds, and the subtle peeling of the interactivity...
It starts off with just zombies, slow, dead, easy. We're all comfortable with zombies, after all we live in a modern consumer economy - zombies are manageable. Then you start doing the missions to investigate the nature of this calamity, it lays the fast zombies on you, 28 Days Later style, just to turn the heat up a bit. Then it starts teasing at something deeper, the sirens, the late-night lights with their whispers and flashing faces. Then they bring out the children with their time-space jutsu, then the Silent Hill treatment, the lapse of any rational frame, the far-fetched scientific explanation turned to dust, the reeling, the rising chants and chimes before you burst out the door and find your world is changed. Underlying these progression devices is the use of chaos to keep things unpredictable. People and enemies are spawned stochastically, which has the effect of producing a million little vignettes of sudden shock and regretful loss. And yet, all the people that come with you, inevitably dying due to stupid AI, are like expendable casualties. You know that, like in GTA, they're just cardboard cut-outs mass-produced by die rolls. Unlike GTA, there's this sense of guilt for their loss, which blends against the eternal recurrence of that loss, and the implied meaningless of it. It works all too well; a feeling of depression echoes over time, amplified by the clips of dialogue between doomed characters, and this attrition of the soul makes the rest of the horror truly effective. Illogical space, randomness, apparent hopelessness, a sensation that can only be described as moral terror.
It's like this guy has taken every effective trope of survival horror, blended it into a bloody puree, and then threw in the power of procedural content to make the ultimate survival horror game. It's like what Jackie Brown was to blaxploitation.
Play episode 3 as the surgeon, buy as many passive skills as possible combined with the sentry gun skill, and use Adrenaline whenever you're in a boss fight. The gameplay will roll smoothly if you play like this, and you'll get a good dose of the narrative. For the more open-ended types, you can try being a hacker, trader, or hunter, and play factions off the rebels and SWAT forces, letting petty politics distract you from real understanding and through that, survival.
(Ed: Robert has some things to add.)
Survival Crisis Z would be best formulated as "Robotron" + "The Sims" x "Zombies!". What come out of this formula is a game with a cornucopia of ways to advance. Quite an accomplishment for a downloadable game, proving that deep gameplay does not require 21st century technology.
The game is conscious of its formula, dividing play into two modes: "Arcade" and "Story". The "Arcade" mode leans towards its Robotron roots: the objective of staying alive as long as possible is attained mostly by smart use of positioning and handling of weapons. The "Story" mode is more like The Sims, where the player requires food and rest, can purchase property, improve skills, make alliances and (sometimes with the help of duct tape and a car battery) socially interact with NPCs. But both modes are all about survival as the game will constantly attack the player with countless aggressive zombies.
The game proclaims in its Readme that SCZ is a bit overwhelming at first. Luckily, the ReadMe acts as a manual to help the player understand all the possibilities in the game and get to where the fun is at: playing with all these possibilities. Want a social-political strategy game? Take missions and make alliances with the Rebels, SWATs or stay neutral. Want an RPG-dungeon crawl? Build up a party, scavage the dangerous buildings and loot money to buy better weapons and skills. Want an exciting adventure? Follow the game's story and use the town's resources to delve deeper and deeper into the truth why the city has been taken over by the zombie horde. Want to rake up a high score to be proud of? Kick up Arcade mode and shoot everything that moves, or if it makes you feel safer, also everything that doesn't move.
The game emphasizes itself as "old-school" (it even discourages playing with the mouse!), yet with all the emergent play found in modern games. But for all its emergency and modernity, SCZ still keeps the qualities of old-school games: fixed cameras, no loading times, cruelling challenges and a zany underground attitude remenis of zombie flicks and noisy arcades.