[I think this is the last WiM Atlas entry from sister online worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz before we're up to date again - and this time, Mathew Kumar takes a look at the v.interesting Urban Dead, which has, hush your heart, lots of zombies in it.]

Here's an overview of Urban Dead, developed by Kevan Davis. Strongly based upon classic play-by-mail games, this online world is inhabited solely by players -- with not one single NPC -- as both humans and zombies in a city-wide battle for the streets.

2008_08_27_urban.jpgName: Urban Dead

Developer: Kevan Davis

Established: July 2005

How it Works: Urban Dead is browser based and runs in HTML. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

Overview: In Urban Dead, players create a character, either a zombie or a survivor (and if a survivor, from a number of classes, including consumers, firemen and army privates) and is dropped into the city of Malton either to cause as much destruction as possible (as a zombie) or to survive by an means possible -- most usually by banding together with other players in barricaded buildings (if a player.) Players have a limited number of action points each day, but are forewarned that even if they have run out of action points, the rest of the world goes on around them, while they "sleep".

Payment Method: Urban Dead is free to play, and earns revenue via banner advertising on the site.

Key Features:
- Massively multiplayer “always on” virtual world where every single inhabitant of the world is played by a real person
- Heavily based around player vs. player (or more accurately, survivor vs. zombie) combat
- Survivors who die becomes zombies
- Players can talk, use radios and join groups to “socialize”.

Urban Dead: In-Depth Tour

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I know what you're thinking -- Urban Dead isn't much of a looker. In fact, with its near-luddite pure HTML basis and lack of graphical finery, you might wonder why I've decided to talk about it.

Well, because in its own strange way, it's one of the truest MMOs I've ever experienced. Beginning to play Urban Dead is easy enough – pick your character's class, pick their name -- I went for "Echo Bunniman" (an obscure reference to Ian McCulloch, star of Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, by way of Ian McCulloch, singer in Echo and the Bunnymen) and made him a consumer (one of the hardest classes to start out as) due to my interest in really "roleplaying" the experience.

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Dropped in a church in Havercroft (a suburb in the middle of Malton, the game's location) I was immediately lost -- but realistically so! After all, do you know what you'd do in a zombie outbreak? I set about doing the obvious -- trying to find myself a weapon and then shelter. I searched the local police station but didn't turn up much of use, so headed off to find a fire station, where I got my hands on a fire axe, as good a melee weapon as I could imagine. On seeing that the fire station had been very strongly barricaded (Urban Dead's buildings have a barricade level, from "doors open" to "extremely heavily barricaded" -- a barricade level so high that even human players can't get in unless they have the right skills to bypass the barricades) I so decided to rest, as I was nearly out of action points. Action points are replenished at one point every half an hour, which sets the game apart from many other browser RPGs which tend to "tick over" once per day. The reason? So players don't get stuck in dangerous places for as long as 24 hours without a chance to move.

The most important thing to remember when playing Urban Dead is that every other human or zombie in the world is another player. So while playing the game it can feel odd -- a frozen world, where you weave in between motionless zombies while using up your action points -- for all you know any one of those zombies could be a live player ready to attack you the minute you log out.

And the way my game continued bore that out. After resting at the fire station and wandering about lost for a few days more, stocking up on supplies such as first aid kits in hospitals I stumbled across and picking up a radio which, when correctly tuned, informed me of what other players were saying, I found I had gravitated to the nearby Ackland Mall. Under siege by zombies, I took the opportunity to dash inside the mall during the confusion (malls are usually extremely heavily barricaded, barring new players from entry) and hid in the "safety" of the north-east corner healing other players with my first aid kits -- secure in the knowledge that my fellow players would repair the barricade and keep us all safe.

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But then I didn't log in for a full 24 hour cycle – and when I returned, Ackland Mall had fallen; Echo Bunniman had been sadly killed, and everyone in the mall now lived again as zombies!

I was not particularly pleased, but as a zombie you have just as much potential to raise your skills and play an interesting game, only one far more interested in death and destruction. But I didn't want to play as a zombie, because I was having quite a good time playing as a human. So I shambled across to the nearest "revivification point" – locations designated by players as places where zombies can stand to wait for other players to inject them with a special syringe that will turn them back into a human.

And since then, that's where I've stood. Waiting. And I'll probably wait quite a bit longer, as zombies far outnumber human players -- who are definitely fighting a losing battle. But it's one that I was having fun fighting.

You might notice that I haven't discussed the social aspects of the game in very much detail -- well, that's because while there are many possibilities for socialization, they're limited by a strange decision for it to cost action points even to speak! As a result most players remain quiet, but in cases such as the defence of malls, players actively work together (even if sometimes silently) and with every agent in the game controlled by a player, simply stepping back to watch the ebb and flow of the zombie/human war is a quite remarkable thing to see -- but I'll go into more detail on that in the upcoming conclusion.

Urban Dead: Conclusion

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Well, since my last update, poor Echo Bunniman has stood as one of the living dead at the Randal Monument, waiting to be revived by a passing lab assistant (filling in the time by attacking, and being attacked by, the other zombies also waiting) and with so much waiting around Urban Dead maybe doesn't sound that amazing. But it absolutely is.

What makes Urban Dead special is that in the world of MMOs (where the temptation is to add more and more features) the designer, Kevan Davis, has made the limitations inherent in the HTML-based world strengths -- part of the reason its one of the most successful MMOs I have played in terms of adherence to its themes.

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The themes of the zombie genre are generally loneliness, hopelessness and desperation, and the game makes the most of these while never stopping being fun. It's lonely because although everyone in the world is a human player, talking takes effort and many of the players are your enemies; it's hopeless because attacking zombies is hard (the hit percentages for most weapons are shockingly low); and it's desperate because finding anything of use, or anywhere safe to hide, is a difficult and lengthy quest.

Just survival is hard, and so the world is deeply compelling, without requiring missions or obvious playthings to keep users entertained -- users truly do make their own fun by trying to defend (or ransack) locations such as malls. The design decisions don't only fit the theme but are what make the game work functionally -- for example, hit percentages are low to give everyone (zombie and human) a fair chance of surviving one on one attacks.

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There are a few problems here and there. While the lack of chatter between players is an interesting decision, I can't help but feel being able to talk a little more might make the game feel a bit more alive -- as would an improvement in the graphics (which is actually offered by a third-party add-on, the UDtoolbar). Players can't trade items either, but I'm not disturbed by the lack of an economy -- it's something that would crumble in a zombie apocalypse anyway. The biggest problem I've found is the length of time I've spent as a zombie when I don't want to be one -- players who wish to play zombies seem to have an easier time of it as they can never die permanently, while humans face a long slog if they succumb to a zombie horde. It's be nice to see how a "hardcore" world would work where both zombies and humans could die permanently and the world was rebooted after one side or the other won; but that's a personal idea, not a complaint one way or the other.

Urban Dead is a great example of the possibilities that MMOs have when you think outside of classic RPG or social world formats: a genuinely scary and compelling world that needs no embellishment to the central concept of survival in a dangerous world -- one filled with other human players.

Useful Links:
Game Statistics
The Urban Dead Wiki - Official Wiki
UDToolbar – Firefox Extension