World Of Warcraft treats death as a mere slap on the wrist. Urban Dead uses player failure to transform gameplay: The action happens in Malton, a quarantined town in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. You start as either a survivor or one of the shambling dead, but these decisions aren't set in stone. If the living are careless, or merely unlucky, they'll soon wind up among the ranks of the zombie horde. Brain-eaters aren't safe either. Prowling hunters hope to slow them down with debilitating bullets to the skull. Healers armed with an experimental genetic cocktail can cure members of the undead, starting the cycle anew.
Urban Dead's interface is bare-bones. Navigation takes place on a map of the town. There are no player avatars, no graphics to speak of—just text descriptions of ramshackle police stations, weapons scrounged from the rubble, player speech, and the ever-present moans of the walking dead. In spite of the stark presentation, the game still manages to conjure dread and tension. Players spend action points to move, fight, and interact with the world. Fifty of these deeds go fast, and they accumulate slowly (one per half-hour) making every action feel like a life-or-death roll of the dice. A struggle between man and monster can go down to the wire. Even worse, some conflicts can end prematurely, forcing players to spend an anxious hour waiting for the juice to finish a fight or run for shelter.
Beyond the game: Urban Dead launched a new town, Monroeville, in conjunction with the UK release of George Romero's Diary of the Dead. This new map is the ideal starting place for new players, and proof that creative indie game-makers can cook up creative advertising schemes to finance their creations.
Worth playing for: Player organization can result in historic in-game events like the Battle of Blackmoore, or the first, second, and third sieges of the Caiger mall. Small victories, like your first kill, are just as satisfying, though.
Frustration sets in when: Most MMOs ease new players into the game with plenty of rewards and plenty of weaklings to hone skills on. In Urban Dead, players start out empty-handed and incompetent. Patience and prudence are the only way out of that hole.
Final judgment: There are things to do in Monroeville when you're dead.