Infection Free Zone’s early access bugs weigh down its intriguing premise

Infection Free Zone, now in Steam Early Access, has a basic premise: Zombies have taken over the world, driving humanity into underground bunkers to wait the plague out. Eventually, the radio fires up, and a message goes out that the disease is fading. While the surface is still dangerous, it’s time to step up and make an attempt to build a new society.

This isn’t my first rodeo with a game like this, where you have to build a post-apocalyptic society that’s constantly under attack by hordes of zombies. However, this is the first time I’ve done so from the comfort and safety of my own real-world block. Instead of a fictional setting or a careful diorama based on an actual city, Infection Free Zone pulls from map data to create a one-to-one re-creation of cities and towns, using that information to create places for looting and building up a base of operations.

An Infection Free Zone run starts with the player choosing where to begin. The game offers my own region as a starting location, and I even found my own apartment. The map also draws on real-world data to categorize each building. For instance, the walk-in clinic across from my apartment is recognized as a hospital, which made it an ideal starting HQ. My apartment building lacked medical supplies, and its size meant it would be difficult to defend. Meanwhile, I could lock down the clinic easily, and help myself to all that free medicine left behind.

Image: Jutsu Games/Games Operators

The real-world function of each building factors into how it’s interpreted in Infection Free Zone. Learning about the perks — and downsides — of each building in my area would be necessary if I wanted to survive. From there, I started organizing my population into small squads for scavenging the homes in the area for canned food. We found other survivors and started planting food and building infrastructure.

Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out yet how to escape one of two inevitable fates: turtling until I starve to death, or attracting so many infected to my fledgling settlement that we’re overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s because I live in a humble Canadian neighborhood where guns wouldn’t spawn frequently, but I couldn’t find enough firearms to fend off the endless hordes. You can play anywhere in theory, but in practice you’re going to need to pick a major city for more resources.

There are also other little early access issues that are all individually annoying, but build up to make challenges feel insurmountable. Do you want to renovate a building? You’ll need to clear everyone out first. Want to dedicate time to research? The advancement tree has disappointingly few options, so that doesn’t feel very satisfying. I managed to plant lots of crops in the park near my place, but they stopped producing food. By the time I realized they needed fertilizer, my colony was already on the brink of starvation. Many of these problems aren’t broadcast or explained by the game in any way; I figured them out as I went, and usually died for the trouble. These annoyances go beyond the typical faults of zombie games or base builders; they seem much more related to the game’s early access state.

Plus, seemingly everything requires an endless amount of wood to build, upgrade, or advance. At first, I thought that the easiest way to get wood would be to chop down trees, but found it’s actually more productive to break down buildings in order to also get other materials, such as bricks. However, that turns what seems like an impossible barrier into merely a deeply boring and irritating grind. All those extra materials also fill up my storage, requiring lots of micromanagement. It’s all very awkward, and the threat of the roving undead means I didn’t have much time to focus on solving these issues. Add in constant transmissions and radio chatter, and I walked away from Infection Free Zone irritated.

A squad of survivors in Infection Free Zone struggle to fight off a horde of incoming infected, in a night time urban environment. Image: Jutsu Games/Games Operators

Instead of fighting against the zombies and feeling them emerge as a natural threat, I felt like the real enemy was the game itself. A base builder zombie survival game like State of Decay 2 can be difficult and terrifying, but I always felt as though my fate was in my own hands. I’d like more agency as an overseer, and more ways for the game to evolve. Right now, my settlement seems doomed to perish from hunger or get overrun by the inevitable hordes.

There’s a lot to iron out, but this is an early access release, and Infection Free Zone has a lot of potential. The ability to choose a real-world neighborhood or rebuild society literally from the comfort of your own home is very cool. I’m intrigued to see if Jutsu Games can turn things around and clean up all the UI issues, early access bugs, and janky systems. There’s something special about surviving the post-apocalypse in my own neighborhood and using my local knowledge to benefit my community of survivors. Alternatively, it’s neat to start a game at the base of a famous landmark and enjoy a little post-apocalyptic tourism. It’s just a shame the rest of the ride is currently so rough.

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