When we first took a look at Zombies, Run! a few days ago, I said that, while the concept is great, I hoped it would be $8 worth of amazing. Not to spoil the ending to this story right away, but the short version is: probably. This app could easily be worth $8 to many users. But not for the reasons you might think. And, before you start reaching for your wallet, you need to answer one very important question: are you willing to commit to a workout routine?
Game Of Moans
To call Zombies, Run! a "game" is, perhaps, a bit disingenuous. The developers refer to it as a game, but most games require that there be gameplay elements, the ability to lose, and some level of either skill or luck involved to win. While technically, the game does have the first two elements, there is virtually nothing on the third. As long as you are capable of moving slightly faster than you're currently moving for a bit, it's impossible to lose. Which is actually a very good thing.
Here's how the app works. There are 23 missions (with 7 more on the way) to choose from. You pick a mission before you start your run and let it play. Pop your head phones in and put your phone in your pocket and you're on your way. All the other instructions are done via audio prompts. The story begins with a cut scene where you hear the story and dialogue with other characters. After a minute or two, you'll be dropped into your music playlist. This is where the bulk of the action happens.
While music is optional, I highly recommend it as it makes everything much less boring and gives you a frame of reference in case something goes wrong (more on that in a bit). During songs, you will occasionally here robo-prompts over your music like "Collected a bottle of water," or "Collected a med kit." More importantly, you'll also hear the automated voice say "Warning: Zombies [X] Meters." It's at this point that you run.
This mechanic threw me for a loop on my first run. For a bit of context, I am not a runner. I enjoy a good walk pretty regularly, but running is not my thing. Thankfully, this app follows your pace. If you want to run, run. If you want to walk, walk. Whatever suits your physical needs. The very first cut scene ends with a radio operator telling you, rather emphatically, to "RUN!" Being a good little survivor, I obeyed, upping my pace from a steady walk to more of a jog. After about a minute, I hear a warning that there are zombies 100 meters away. I wasn't sure if I should run faster, slow down, change direction, or how to react. The user is given no indication at this point what to do. Since I'd already been told by my radio operator to run, I slowed down, assuming the warning meant there were zombies ahead. The zombies caught me.
What was frustrating about that was not that I got caught by zombies, but that I didn't notice until about two songs later. I heard an audio prompt that sounded like "Items dropped. Zombies distracted." However, since these alerts play over the music, it was difficult to tell. Those four (?) words, however, were my only indication that I had died. About two songs later I decided to pull my phone out to see why I hadn't received any more instructions and my feed of events informed me I was dead. Sad times.
The moral of the story is don't trust the cut scenes. During your runs, ignore any and all commands from voice acted characters to run. Only run when mid-song alerts tell you there are zombies nearby and, at that point, pick up the pace until it says "Zombies evaded." It only took me one zombie attack to figure this out, but it would be nice if the app was more up front about how this works.
Back At The Base
The web interface looks much nicer than the Android app.
When you're not running, the app has a selection of non-running features to use. For starters, there's the Supplies tab, where you allocate the items you've picked up to different parts of the base. The base has several sections that can each be leveled up if you collect and assign enough of the right kind of items to it. The upgrades are largely useless outside providing a tangible feeling of progress. Anyone who's ever played an MMORPG, though, can tell you how addicting steadily increasing numbers can be.
Runners can also create an optional and free ZombieLink account. When enabled, all your runs will be automatically synced to the app's online counterpart. Login and you can see a summary of your runs. At the moment, the summaries consist of a feed of items you've collected and zombie encounters. You can also see how far you ran, how long it took, and how fast you ran on average. The company promises that "very soon" we'll see maps integrated, so you can also review where you ran.
Each run is laid out in a timeline, showing every event, item, and zombie encounter.
Fitness enthusiasts will probably find the tracking features lacking. There doesn't seem to be the ability to keep track of calories burned, nor is there a way to customize the length of a workout beforehand. Each mission runs between 30-40 minutes. After the mission is over, runners can continue running and, as of the most recent release, can continue to pick up items. However, it's difficult to tell when a mission is finished, and any run less than 30 minutes seems to not be possible. Still, for anyone attempting a decent workout, a minimum of a half hour with no real upper limit on the workouts is a pretty easy target to hit.
Soundtracks For The End Of The World
One of the major components of the app is the music which, as of right now, needs to be downloaded locally. The app allows you to select from playlists you've made previously, although it's more than a little unclear how to go about creating them. The app doesn't seem to tie in to the Play Music app, nor Spotify which I use for most of my music needs. Two playlists were ready for me made from the couple dozen songs I still had on my SD card from over a year ago. If these files weren't already on my device and auto-detected, I would have had a very hard time figuring out how get music in the app.
A Note On The UI
Left: The app's landing page. Center: Swipe up to open the door... Right: ...to an ordered list?
While most of the UI takes place audibly (and even that interface needs a bit of work), it feels necessary to point out that the UI of the app itself is generally atrocious. It still uses the old style Gingerbread tabs. This wouldn't be too big of a deal, except that the first tab, Home, is an image of a door to the outside of the compound. Sliding up on this door, which is meant to simulate leaving the base, merely takes you to the next tab, Missions. It's nice that they're going for this illusion, but the giant tabs at the top break the illusion rather quickly and make the entire Home tab feel pointless. Moreover, the Missions tab is just a black, scrollable list. It would make more sense, given the context, to at least make that tab a poster board, or a computer monitor with a stylized scrollable missions list. At least then the illusion would be consistent.
Since this is tertiary to the main point of the app, I'm willing to give it a pass. As stated before, there are other, more pressing issues that need to get ironed out, like notifications for when a mission has ended, and better instructions for how to add music. Still, it would be nice to see support for Ice Cream Sandwich style UIs. Or at least, if it's catering largely to Gingerbread (the developer correctly pointed out when I asked about this that Gingerbread and lower are overwhelmingly the most used versions of Android right now), for the UI to be consistent. As it is right now, the whole thing feels very unfinished and very rough.
Work It Out
There are plenty of things to nitpick about this app, though it is worth pointing out, the release reviewed here is 0.9, so it's not quite final, and updates are on the way. However, at the end of the day, this app has one, overall point: getting you to run. For me, this is not an easy task. While I don't exactly enjoy sitting around motionless all day (I maintain a retail job when I'm not here mainly to get me out of the house and moving around), sticking to a rigorous workout routine is not something that comes naturally to me.
If you're like me, then this app is perfect. It has an interesting story and, more importantly, a workout routine all planned out for you. Even if you do one mission every day, the 30 total missions will give you a solid month of workouts. Run every other day and you stretch it out to two months. Plenty of time to get into the habit of running regularly without the aid of an app.
There are also a few other motivators. For starters, there's the price tag. Whether or not this app is worth $8 is highly subjective. It's still a little rough around the edges, and a few kinks need to be worked out, but $8 is $8. If the structure of the episodic story isn't enough to motivate you, then perhaps not wasting eight bucks will. The cost will scare off a number of people (which the company says they're comfortable with), however, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that might just keep the bar high enough that only people who really want to make themselves run will buy in.
As if the clear-cut structure of the missions or the price point that's well above impulse buy territory wasn't enough, the base upgrades are also a bit of a motivator. While the upgrades are entirely useless, having numbers steadily increase as you progress gives the feeling of accomplishing something. All the parts seem minor, but when getting into a workout routine, every motivating factor helps, and this app offers nothing if not a lot of little bits of motivation.
Ultimately, this app is probably going to disappoint a good number of people, but that doesn't make it bad. It's not a fitness app. It certainly won't replace RunKeeper and its ilk any time soon. And, as stated before, to call it a game is a little misleading. The only real gameplay mechanic is "run faster for a bit," so it's hard to say that "game" is the right word to describe it. If you're expecting it to be either of this things, you'll walk away pining for those $8 you miss so dearly.
The advantage of Zombies, Run! though is that it is neither of these things, but rather sits in a sweet spot right in the middle. Despite the UI, despite the comparative lack of fitness features (many of which the developers say are on the way), the app does everything possible to entice you to workout. Few apps can boast this. Apps like RunKeeper are great for fitness nuts who already have a routine, but Zombies, Run! gives people who don't (or people who are just looking for some new entertainment on their runs) an engaging reason to use their legs for what they were made for: fleeing from zombies.
My advice is this: forget your expectations about what this app is and what it should be. If you don't already have a proper workout routine, and downloading apps with charts and trackers just isn't the motivation you need, then grab this app. Does it sound too pricey for you? Do it anyway. You won't want to have wasted the money, so you'll be all the more motivated to use it. The story will take it from there.
If you already have an established workout routine, or if you're not interested in making runs a part of your every day life, then give it a little more thought. The story is certainly neat, but it is still secondary to the point of running. It will keep you entertained for a bit, and perhaps spice up your usual routine, but you will sacrifice some of the more fitness-related options of a proper running app. Whether the story is worth $8 is up to you.