Pandemic Express: Currently (Train)Wrecking Through Early Access
Let's get something out of the way first: Pandemic Express has absolutely nothing to do with the hyper-popular Pandemic series of games.
If this game caught your eye because you hoped it'd be a spinoff of the series, created with the same love and care that went into, say, Pandemic: Legacy, you will be sorely, completely disappointed.
Instead, Pandemic Express is a game that seems to have been made in 2016. You remember that, right? Back when the success of games like DayZ and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds meant that any developer could release an unfinished game into Steam Early Access, charge $15 for it, and never complete it?
Yeah. That's what we're talking about here.
To be fair to tinyBuild Games, the gameplay loop in Pandemic Express isn't a bad one, at least in theory. Every game session begins with 30 players, of which one is a zombie. The goal is for human players to make it to a train and ride it to the end of the game's map (there's only one available as of now).
On the other hand, the zombie has to kill and infect other players to add them to a growing swarm; the goal from this perspective is to infect everyone. While it might seem "innovative" at first, you'll realize after a few matches that the general gameplay loop isn't much different from playing a payload map in Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch.
Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing! Not all new games need to innovate in crazy ways to be successful or fun. In fact, structuring a game around a tried and true concept like a payload run while adding new twists to the formula could (and should!) result in an engaging experience.
It's really too bad there's none of that to be found here.
Aiming guns or performing melee attacks is largely a chore because the game doesn't give you a crosshair (or if it does, it's too small to see and there's no option to make it larger). In addition, tinyBuild's servers don't seem equipped to handle the load of 30 people in a game at once, causing crippling amounts of lag even on a super-high-speed wired connection.
As a zombie, the lag issue is even more pronounced because the melee attack — the one players use to infect humans — has a not-insignificant-amount of startup frames. This necessitates players predict where their target is going and be a half-second ahead at close range, which is pretty challenging to do when you're lagging.
That said, it is kind of fun to use your zombie launch ability to hurl teammates across the map, especially given the insane knockback that guns have in this game. The little bit of fun I had during my time with Pandemic Express was in pinballing around the train as a zombie, getting knocked around by teammates and opponents' guns, and trying to pick folks off.
Oh, and you also get an ultimate ability based on how many times you respawn; you can pick from either exploding when you die, knocking folks off the train as you do, or becoming an invisible zombie, picking folks off from the shadows. Because of all this, I generally had a lot more fun as a zombie than I did as a human (but that's not saying much).
All of these issues are damning, for sure. And if that were all that was wrong with the game, I'd still feel confident telling you to stay away. Unfortunately, there's more to say, largely because the game is still full of bugs.
In my time as a human player, I ran into a persistent bug where I was not able to pick up guns unless another player had dropped them or been killed. The game also crashed multiple times on my computer (once forcing a hard reset of my entire rig).
The game also hasn't been optimized graphically, causing choppiness and framerate dips on my computer. This is surprising because the graphics aren't particularly intensive even on high settings. I was worried that this was a problem with my rig at first before I confirmed that I could run Overwatch butter-smooth on high settings. There's something else going on here.
That's not even mentioning the insanely long startup, load, and matchmaking times. While these aren't bugs, they're annoyances that, when paired with all the other issues, leads to a game that succeeds in frustrating you before you've even started playing.
Now, as the game will no doubt repeat to you endlessly, Pandemic Express is still in its alpha stages. But if that's true, then tinyBuild is going to have a lot of work to do to squash these bugs during Early Access. The FAQ for Pandemic Express says that tinyBuild doesn't expect the full game to be out before the end of 2019, and given what's here so far, it seems like that's a bit optimistic.
So here's the big issue with looking at a game before it fully launches on Steam: Most, if-not-all, of the problems I have with this game could be ironed out if the devs really bust ass during the Early Access period to polish what is here. You could be reading this in July of 2020 and laughing at this idiot reviewer who completely wrote the next Fortnite off.
That's a real possibility! And despite the blow to my pride, I hope that it happens.
That said, it seems unlikely, since the developers don't seem to know what this game actually is. The one map featured in the game seems large-ish at first, but that's only because 90% of the actual gameplay takes place along the tracks of the train, rendering the vast majority of the map unusable since it's not along the path of the train.
If you watch the trailer for the game, it becomes clear that the devs think that Pandemic Express is some sort of hide-and-seek meets FPS hybrid, and that's just not true. This doesn't bode well for the future of the game. If the developers don't understand the way folks play the game and the most optimal ways to play, what hope is there for them to pivot the game's focus in a way that is actually engaging?
Because as it stands now, the best way to play the game, whether you're a human or a zombie, is to rush the train and just mash the attack button, whether you're trying to bite folks or trying to shoot zombies. It's not engaging, and it's not fun.
Again, I hope that the folks at tinyBuild can pivot and turn this game into something special, but at this point, I'm not holding my breath.
UPDATE: Day One Patch
Between the time of this review and the game's fully-fledged Early Access release, a patch was released that purported to squash a few bugs and really enhance the general experience of playing the game. In my time with the patched version of the game, that's only partly true.
The game's UI got a much-needed overhaul. Traversing the menus is less tedious, and it's clear that the devs plan to update the game later with more game modes, which is a great sign. In addition, I didn't run into any major bugs, though I did fall victim to a few smaller ones, including some widespread despawning of ammo from my personal inventory, and despawning of drops on the map.
Gameplay is also a lot smoother, with a lot less lag; the servers must have gotten an update along with the visual optimization. The big problem, however, is that the core gameplay still needs to be fixed. You still just have to run towards the train and mash the attack button. At a current price point of $10, rising to $15 when the game launches, the game is still very, very hard to recommend for anybody.
[Note: A copy of Pandemic Express was provided by tinyBuild Games for the purpose of this Early Access preview.]