Brraaiinns! Or How To Survive When The Zombies Arrive

So, let’s say that it has finally happened. The zombie apocalypse that we have all been secretly hoping for has arrived. The ravening hordes are shuffling slowly up your street, intent on feasting on the flesh of the living. What do you do?

PPPPP: Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Be prepared, like a good Boy Scout. I’m obviously not suggesting that you have a ‘Zombie Emergency Kit’ stashed in your garage, just plan ahead and make sure you have all the things you might need within easy reach when the inevitable happens. Make sure that the car has at least fifty miles of fuel in the tank and is in reasonable running order. Ensure that your wardrobe contains at least one suit of hard-wearing clothing that covers all areas (leather is good and tough – it’s also wipe clean and sexy as hell). Maintain a good few days worth of tinned food in the cupboard and keep a few clean plastic bottles to fill with drinking water. And a first aid kit is a total necessity, packed with bandages, needles, broad-spectrum antibiotics, painkillers and so on. Water purification kits are also a good idea, in case you get lost out in the wilderness, many miles from Starbucks.

Of course, if you are an American (or a similarly unhinged nationality), you will have relatively easy access to firearms. You should therefore ensure that you are well tooled up in terms of your projectile weapon of choice. May I suggest something in a fully automatic shotgun?

Some people really shouldn't have access to this kind of firepower.

On the other hand, if you live in a country that has slightly more rigorous gun control, the best you’re likely to get is a knackered old double-barrel, and even then only if you happen to live on or near a farm or gun shop (which are few and far between – gun shops that is; there are lots of farms). If you live in the city, you could wait for the armed response units or the military to rock up and get eaten, thus leaving lots of shiny, military-grade weapons and ammo lying around, but then you’ll have to deal with all the zombies enjoying the al fresco soldier buffet.

One thing we can be sure of: melee weapons are a bad idea. If you’re that close, you’re probably already dead, and no amount of stabbing or pummeling is going to make a difference.

Have An Exit Strategy

Ok, you’re all prepared to get the hell out of Dodge. But where are you going? If, like me, you live in a big city, you are surrounded by a couple of million other people, of which a large proportion will be trying to dine on the brains of the remaining few, while those few are trying to also flee the carnage. If we assume a 99% infection rate, that still leaves 78,000 people trying to leave London, 20,000 trying to leave Birmingham. New York? 82,000. Shanghai? 178,000.

That’s a lot of traffic. Panicking traffic.

Beep beep!

You think normal rush hour is bad? Wait until you’ve got zombies stumbling into the flow of traffic, beloved family members zombing out in the back seat of the Zafira and the antics of the kind of people who have been looking forward to a zombie apocalypse just so they could play Mad Max on the ring road.

May I recommend staying at home? At least for a day or two. The zombies are unlikely to target you if you draw no attention to yourself. Lock doors and windows, turn out all lights and make no loud noises. Let the terrified and unprepared draw the danger away. Make sure that there is at least one secure exit to your home, one that will cause difficulties for pursuing zombies; a route across rooftops, or a series of lockable doors (zombies have trouble with doorknobs anyway), just in case the zombies do figure out where you are.

Once the roads have cleared a little, get the hell out of the city and head for a safe place in the country. Which leads us to our next point…

Drive Carefully!

This may be a minor point, but I think it bears close examination. The roads will be filled with abandoned vehicles, discarded rubbish and corpses, both shambling and otherwise. These can be problematic when driving, as I’m sure you remember from your own driving tests. The natural reaction will be to wait until nightfall before making your move. DO NOT DO THIS! At night, you will need to use headlights to avoid the dangers in the road. You will therefore be more obvious than a transvestite at a Klan rally. Drive during the day, you’ll be less noticeable.

And as for running over the zombies, well, check out the windscreen on this car after it hit a pedestrian.

Imagine hitting more than two zombies. The third one’s going to be sat in the car with you.

And then you’re lunch. And talking of cars…

A Decent Set Of Wheels

What are you driving? Something quick? A big V8, maybe the last of the V8s? Probably not a lot of use, considering the state of the roads in the post-apocalyptic world (roads in the pre-apocalyptic world aren’t all that great). One fire will fuck up the tarmac so much that a low-slung muscle car just isn’t going to cut it. You want something with four-wheel drive, something rugged, something easy to fix. Basically, you want one of these:

 

Proper motor!

There’s a reason that the British Army have been using this baby for about sixty years. And that reason is that it’s virtually unbreakable. The bodywork is made of solid hardness and the chassis is constructed from girders and stiff-upper-lippedness. It can be fixed in the field by squaddies with sticks and it can be converted to run on just about anything that will burn. It can also be fitted with riot protection really easily, which means you can actually drive through a bunch of zombies without being eaten. They may be noisy, thus attracting zombies to your location, but they are tough, and can protect you while you make your escape.

Have A Place To Go

There is no point in running if you’re just running away. You need to have somewhere to run to. Somewhere safe, but where is that? What constitutes ‘safe’ in world mostly populated with wandering, hungry corpses? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, water and sleep are right at the bottom, with property and bodily security right above them. So you want a good, solid and well-defended base, right? Somewhere with just one way in, so it’s easy to barricade, right?

Wrong.

One way in is one way out, and if it’s crawling with zombies, you’re not getting out that way. You’re trapped inside. Still, as long as it’s safe, right? Wrong again. You’re surrounded by zombies. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to get out for more food. How long does it take for a zombie to starve to death? Or get bored and wander off, especially if it knows there are tasty people inside? Want to risk it?

Your best bet is to have a number of bolt-holes scattered about the countryside. Look at what you need. Food and water easily accessible, so a river or lake with plenty of life in is a good start (unless the fish are zombies – I don’t recall any literature dealing with undead trout, but keep your eyes open just in case). An independent power supply, such as a petrol driven generator or effective renewable energy sources are essential – how else will you practise zombie slaying on the Xbox? Farms are good, especially if they are built on reasonably open ground, as are nice, large and fertile islands; this gives you multiple escape routes and lots of land for growing food and raising livestock in the long-term. Open ground also allows excellent sight-lines for picking off the odd wandering zombie.

So, you’ve got a place to hide out, without hordes of zombies, with good sight-lines for…

Neca Eos Omnes…

Ok, I mentioned guns earlier. This is the bit that all true zombie fans are really interested in. What’s the point in having a world over-run by zombies if you aren’t going to spray their internal organs all over the place with fully automatic weaponry? So let’s just assume that you have the pick of any firearms that you could possibly want: which ones do you carry?

"We need to get bigger guns. Big fucking guns!"

We need to remember that, despite what video games would have us believe, one man cannot carry that much in the way of guns. A typical handgun weighs a couple of pounds, fully loaded. A submachine gun weighs in at around eight pounds. An assault rifle, twelve. Shotgun, seven. Add in a reasonable amount of ammunition for the guns and you’re talking between three and ten pounds per hundred rounds. A soldier may carry up to ninety pounds into combat, including water, first-aid kits, GPS, radios, a belt of ammo for a squad support weapon and so on. And they are trained to do it.

Go to a mirror and take a long, hard look at yourself. Reckon you could manage it?

Thought not. Realistically, an average person could probably carry a pistol and an assault rifle or auto-shotgun, plus enough ammo to be useful, for any extended period of time. Of course, you can load up the 4X4 with extra weaponry, but each additional gun is a couple of days worth of food or water that you don’t have room for.

While we’re on the subject, how good a shot are you? Do you practise often? And I’m not sure how much Time Crisis counts. The point is, headshots (the traditional method of dispatching the zombie menace) are tricky, especially in a high stress situation. The good news is that you don’t need to kill them. Blowing their legs off would allow you to get away too. Ok, so you’ll be leaving an extremely pissed off zombie lying around with no legs, just waiting for the next poor sap to stumble past, but fuck him! At least you’ll get away. Don’t waste time and ammo on fancy shots. Take out chunks of zombie with some massive tissue damage and simple engineering principles will do the rest. It can’t run after you if its femurs are shattered. Of course, if you’ve got a safe, elevated position and a sniper rifle, then knock yourself out!

Mum! I got an ouchie!

As I mentioned earlier, melee weapons are asking for trouble, but explosives of various types can be useful. Molotov cocktails, if you have a plentiful supply of petrol, will crisp a zombie up nicely, but leave the more tricky ones to the experts. Grenades are fairly simple to use, but hard to get hold of unless you’re in the military, and homemade explosives are just a cheap way to blow your own arms off.

Old school defensive structures are surprisingly useful against zombies, because they don’t have the sense to spot them. Pit traps, log falls, even mechanical bear traps can all be used to keep zombies away from your perimeter.

Who’s With You?

The final part of this article deals with the people around you. How do you decide who you band together with? The obvious answer goes hand in hand with the ‘planning’ suggestion earlier; figure out before the apocalypse who is going to be a useful addition to the team. Mechanical skills, medical skills, survival skills are all useful, and don’t forget someone who can make tinned food not taste like week-old arse. Once you have a good idea where you are going, you can figure out whose skills will be most useful to you. The temptation will be to save family members and other loved ones, but you may not have the luxury of compassion in the zombified world.

Unless they are plump and slow-moving, in which case you might want to take them along in case you need a distraction. Working in groups is a good idea, though. Safety in numbers isn’t just a cliché, it could save lives. Ideally, contact other potential survivor cells before the apocalypse and arrange to meet up at a secret location and form a super-commune, to help repopulate the world.

But remember to invite some members of the opposite sex…

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“I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favourite blog on the Citadel.”

 ATTENTION: SPOILERS INCLUDED

It’s not long now until the third and final installment in the best-selling and award-winning science fiction series Mass Effect is released, so I think it’s a good time to look back and see what makes this game so successful.

The games are described as action role-playing games; basically third-person shooters with role-playing elements, including decision-making that shapes the story. This decision-making affects the story across the installments as well, because you are able to import your character information from the earlier games (a feature that is continued in the latest title, making it possible to continue your character development through all three games). You play Commander Shepard  (either male or female, depending on your preference), a human soldier who uncovers the existence of a race of mechanical beings called Reapers. In the first game, a Reaper called Sovereign, aided by a Spectre (SPECial Tactics and REconnaissance) named Saren Arterius, is attempting to open a route for the other Reapers to enter the galaxy and exterminate all sapient organic life. They are aided in this by the Geth, a race of artificially intelligent synthetics, originally created by the Quarian race as servants/slaves. Once this threat is dealt with, the Reapers (in Mass Effect 2) work through a shadowy race called the Collectors, who are kidnapping entire human colonies. Shepard is killed by the Collectors at the start of the game and brought back to life by Cerberus, the human supremacist group responsible for some of the nasty side missions in the first game. You find out that they are not necessarily as evil as they appear, but you decide how much to trust them and work with them. The third game apparently focuses on the final attack of the Reapers as they enter the galaxy determined to exterminate all sentient life. I think it’s fair to say that we can expect a really big fight, especially if the trailer and this screenshot are to be believed!

So why are these games so good? Well, Bioware (also responsible for the Dragon Age series and the recent MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic) have put a lot of work into designing and developing their universe. The locations (while occasionally limited) are well realised and the cut scenes well animated. The voice casting is excellent, with characters voiced by Seth Green, Martin Sheen, Armin Shimerman, Lance Henriksen, Marina Sirtis, Claudia Black, Adam Baldwin, Carrie-Ann Moss, Dwight Schultz and Michael Dorn among many others. It’s like a cult TV/film convention guest list. The bonus is that the voices sound familiar without being distracting, allowing you to immerse yourself into the game without spending time muttering “I know that voice. Who is that? For fuck’s sake, who is it?” and missing half of the plot.

Or is that just me?

The depth of the universe is well demonstrated by the number of non-human races, all of which have their own talents and weaknesses. There are the Asari (blue, pseudo-psychic squid-haired women), Batarians (four-eyed criminals and slavers – very anti-human), Collectors (insectoid bad guys), Drell (lizard people with eidetic memories), Elcor (elephantine and slow speaking, the Elcor state their emotions explicitly to avoid confusion), Geth (sentient machines with a hive-mind), Hanar (religious jellyfish), Krogans (hardcore warrior toads), Quarians (interstellar travellers with poor immune systems and excellent technical skills), Salarians (hyperactive scientists and spies), Turians (honourable raptor-like creatures), Volus (dumpy diving suits), and Vorcha (barely sentient scavengers and fighters). Over the two games so far released, Shepard will build a team featuring several of these races, with recurring characters who come to trust and respect the leadership of the player. Other races have been introduced through the downloadable content, comic books and iOS games: I have focused on the main installments here.

Some of the races you'll encounter in the Mass Effect universe

The universe is arranged in star clusters, which Shepard can travel around at will using the galaxy map in his ship (more about that later). Some planets can be landed on, with side missions and main missions taking place in a wide range of environments. In the first game, the player has access to the Mako, a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle armed with autofire weapons and a single shot cannon. This allows Shepard to roam the surface of terrestrial worlds searching for resources to collect and enemies to slap. This vehicle is missing from Mass Effect 2, replaced by a system whereby you scan planets from orbit using the map screen and launch probes to collect resources. This does rob the game of some of the exploratory feel of the original, and makes it feel somehow smaller in scale. However, it does bring me to the next item on my list: The Normandy.

l

SSV Normandy - Possibly the most beautiful ship in Sci-Fi history

Look at it! Just look at it! Isn’t she beautiful? Sleek and sexy, a design classic! Sorry if I’m getting carried away, but I really love the Normandy. As you play the game, she becomes more than just a vehicle, more than just a base of operations, more than a home, even. She becomes a character in her own right. Which is why the opening scene of ME2 is so heart-breaking. An enormous Collector ship appears from nowhere and blasts the Normandy into scrap, killing Shepard in the process. I don’t mind admitting that it brings a tear to my eye every time I see it, even though I know that Cerberus will bring Shepard back to life and supply him with the SR2 (a slightly redesigned Normandy). It is the design of this ship that helps breathe life into the franchise. The designers could easily have created a functional, practical ship to haul Shepard’s team around the galaxy. Instead, they came up with something iconic. Good for them.

Another area in which the design tem excelled themselves is the armour and weapons. Shepard’s N7 armour has become something of a classic among the fans, and the weapon sets available match the design perfectly. In ME1, you could choose from a range of armour, depending on preference for heavy or light, colour and appearance, but this option was removed for ME2. In the second game you had one set of armour, although you could customize it in terms of colour, pattern and material, as well as purchasing add-ons which altered the appearance and granted combat bonuses.

The famous N7 armour

I am, as I’m sure you have realised, a huge fan of the Mass Effect universe, and I am really looking forward to receiving my copy of ME3 when it is released. But I am a little worried. I hope they have managed to keep the feel of the game. I hope that they have kept the sense of scale. I hope that they haven’t lost the love. If they have turned the game into a bog-standard shooter it will be an enormous disappointment. The well scripted and intricate story is what makes these games great.

They need to keep the promise made by ME1 and 2. If not, it will be a massive tragedy.

#writing – or trying to

Ummmmm...

I am currently (or constantly) trying to write. I am aiming to complete a selection of short(ish) stories based around the same world setting. I must have started a hundred stories, if not more, before becoming disillusioned with the plot, characters, or, usually, my level of talent. I am beginning to understand that my depression has had a lot to do with that, but I refuse to allow myself to use that as an excuse any more.
So why do I want to write?
The fame? The groupies? The money?
No. Don’t be daft. I want to write because…well, I want to write. Simple as that. I have always enjoyed writing stories. I used to borrow my mother’s typewriter as a young child and write terrible superhero stories (the one I remember featured Captain Forcefield, who had to overcome a dastardly plan whereby his nemesis stole the ladder to his bunk bed, thus stranding him in bed). I moved on to running impromptu role-play style games for friends at primary school, based on my love of choose-your-own-adventure books, such as the Steve Jackson/Ian Livingstone Fighting Fantasy books.

You enter a 10X10 room. A goblin is guarding a chest...

Later on, I met someone who was far better at running these games than I ever was, so I generally stuck with creating characters and playing. I enjoyed the way that the story developed as we played, and that we could affect the outcome. It satisfied my creative temperament, as well as forming a solid group of misfits and outcasts. This social interaction was an excellent way to avoid doing the stupid things that many of our peers were involved in (such as sport, drinking in crappy pubs, joyriding and so on) and to make some very good friends in many parts of the country and beyond.
I have always read avidly, often having two or three books on the go at any one time, usually in various locations in the house so I can pick them up and carry on with the story when I find myself there with a few minutes to spare. One of my regrets is the speed at which I consume books, especially new ones, so the pleasure of reading is over far too quickly. I envy the imagination and skill of a huge number of writers, from the obvious to the obscure. In fact, the writing doesn’t have to be of a particularly high standard for me to enjoy, as long as the story itself is engaging. Some of the writers I would not hesitate to recommend include Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, Toby Frost, George Mann, Ben Aaronovitch, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens… and so on (and on, and on…).
I have, over the last few years, stopped playing role-playing games on a regular basis. This has, oddly, left a rather sizeable hole in my life. Sad, I know. Not so much because of the lack of role-playing per se, but rather the lack of creative thought. So I’ve started trying to write again.
However, writer’s block is killing me! I have tried lots of different techniques in my writing. I’ve tried just getting on with it and making it up as I go along. I’ve tried planning out the story in as much detail as I can. I’ve tried creating a general ‘road map’ of where I want the story to go. Nothing seems to be working. I can’t get the story onto the page no matter how hard I try. Part of my depression (and I suspect everyone’s depression) is the feeling of being a failure in everything I do, of feeling that it isn’t worth doing anything because I will be judged harshly by others, or I will be held up as an example to avoid. All this tells me not to write.
Fuck that. Fuck that sideways.
I am a writer, even when I can’t write anything that I want to read back. I have to believe that, or I won’t write anything ever again.
And that thought is too horrific to contemplate.
So, my current project is a series of short Steampunk stories featuring a group of adventurous types led by an inventor/academic who has had a ‘device’ stolen by a group of Prussian mercenaries. The group is going to investigate… and so far, so predictable. I need to develop the idea in new and interesting ways, unfortunately I have no idea which direction to take! I would like to use this blog as a way to bounce ideas off people but I obviously don’t want other people to write it for me! So, any ideas that people feel happy offering would be gratefully received!
More to the point, I would be very interested in writing collaboratively with other people. I am happy to write in a range of genres and styles, although my preferred area would be fantasy/sci-fi (including urban fantasy, steam- or cyberpunk, pulp etc.). If you’re interested, DM me on Twitter (@Bailey_san75) leave me a message here, or email me on bailey_san75@hotmail.com. Also, any helpful advice would be gratefully received.
So, is that needy and desperate enough?

An Arrow in the Knee

'Mind if I smoke?'

On the 11th November 2011, Bethesda Softworks released the fifth in their fantasy role-playing series The Elder Scrolls. The game is set in the icy northern province of Skyrim and, like its predecessors, is an open world game, allowing the player to wander the extensive map at will, ignoring or engaging with the various quest lines as they see fit.

Skyrim builds on the world created for the earlier games with technological advances in NPC interactions, character animation and graphical improvements. It offers the choice of first or third person gameplay, although the third person view is not as easy to control as most third person games, and the character animation is a little simplistic compared to NPCs and enemies. The game also introduces dragons into the series as random enemies, led by the Dragon Lord Alduin, the focus of the main quest line.

Bethesda has been criticised for releasing the game before it had been tested properly, as many bugs have come to light since release, including the game becoming painfully slow as one’s save file becomes larger and larger, dragons flying backwards and so on. The company has promised that these issues will be addressed through patches.

The focus on character development has been simplified from the earlier games, with levelling up awarding an increase in either Magicka, Health or Stamina, as well as one perk to purchase from any of the skills. These perks allow different bonuses to the skill, such as additional damage and so on. Using the skills in-game increases their level and once you have increased enough skills, you are granted the next level. The perks are dependent on the level of the controlling skill, so you cannot, for example, craft dragon scale armour until you have reached level 100 in the Smithing skill and have purchased the preceding perks.

So what is it like to play?

Well, the extensive world map allows hours of aimless wandering with random creature encounters and bandit attacks to keep things interesting. The game engine allows you to collect ingredients for alchemical potion making, as well as catching fish and mining for various ores with which you can smelt materials and forge armour and weapons. Which is nice. It would be vastly improved if you could design the look of the weapons and armour yourself, of course, rather than be stuck with the generic ones. Even a simple collection of modular parts that you could choose from to assemble weapons, and a selection of armour styles that changed in finish depending on material perhaps. Even being able to choose the colour of your armour and weapons would add a little more of a personalised feel.

The main storylines are interesting and challenging enough to keep you playing through, although many of the side missions become boring after a while as they tend to follow very similar paths: find this person and kill them, steal this item, clear this dungeon… If you are a completist, you may find yourself growing frustrated with the lack of diversity in the side quests, but there is still a sense of satisfaction in becoming the head of the Companions, or a master assassin.

The main quests involve the Stormcloak rebellion and the return of the dragons to Skyrim. You can choose to side with the native Stormcloaks or take up with the controlling Empire. Your choices directly affect the outcome of the game and the way that people act and react to you. You can become a wanted criminal across the land, or a welcome hero in this time of need. It’s up to you.

Is it worth purchasing?

Well, yes. Clearly. It’s huge and engrossing, with a suitably epic feel, helped in part by the soaring Jeremy Soule soundtrack and sweeping vistas.

Let it snow...

As you can see, it is graphically impressive, with a good sense of distance and some realism. The NPCs you meet are a reasonably physically diverse bunch (although all the guards look eerily similar) but the limited vocal utterances of the non-essential NPCs can get really old really quick! The voice acting of the main cast is generally very good, with a few well-known actors, including Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow, Joan Allen and (one of my first childhood crushes) Lynda Carter (only mentioned here for an excuse to include this picture…)

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. I would…

 Anyway, the game is excellent. Well worth the massive investment of time it requires to play to completion. Of course, if you don’t like RPGs, you will want to avoid it like the cliché, as it is pretty much the finest RPG on the market. It features a solid, branching storyline, excellent graphics, competent writing and immersive gameplay.

What more do you want?
Oh, Ok then. At the recent DICE 2012 convention in Los Angeles, Bethesda’s creative lead, Todd Howard, revealed a few of the ideas that his team have been exploring for possible future DLC. He was careful to point out that these were all just ideas, and he was in no way saying that they would become DLC, just that they were looking at various options. Some of the ideas he did mention were dragon and other epic mounts, the use of the XBox’s Kinect system for Dragon Shouts, additional weapons such as spears, the ability to adopt children and the ability to hire/use minions.
Dragon mounts? Hell yeah! Bring it on!