Our ragged group of survivors shifts nervously, ready to cut and run at the first sign of danger. A horde of zombies ambles slowly towards us, a distraction from the lone runners slipping around the sides to try and catch us off guard. "Hold the line!" someone shouts, but we all know that if it came to it, we'd turn on our fellow survivors if it helped us get out alive. This is Zedtown.
Now, I’m not really a fan of zombies, nor do I care much about Nerf. But the moment I first heard about Zedtown — a huge zombie Nerf war — I knew I had to try it.
Welcome To Zedtown
Zedtown is the brainchild of Dave Harmon, whom we spoke to earlier in the year about the Best Nerf War In History. As it turns out, Dave is kind of your go-to guy for events like this.
The phenomenon started in 2012, when a game for just 80 players was put on at Sydney Uni, and was free for students. After that it became an annual event, and since last year they've gone for the big time with multiple events happening in both Sydney and Melbourne, each with a unique plot and setting. Zedtown has seen 3300 players through its gates in the last 12 months, with 2600 unique accounts used on the game's app.
The past week’s event was undeniably the biggest for Zedtown, accounting for a full thousand of that 3300 stat. It's the largest event of its kind in Australia, and possibly even the world — but that's probably because there's really nothing else like it.
A Live Action Video Game
When I talked to him last, Dave described his games as being like "live action video games", and that's really what it felt like as I checked my ammo and blasters, and checked myself into the app that would provide a backbone to the game that was playing out in real life.
The people who massed in the UNSW quad ranged from obvious experts with full kit, multiple Nerf blasters and hundreds of darts on standby, to people like me in jeans and a T-shirt who had just picked up their first Nerf blaster from Kmart.
As a newbie to the game, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed. You’re handed over your survivor kit — a QR-coded dog tag and red armband — and logged in to the game, after which you can access missions, information and even achievements on a companion app.
The game started with just a handful of zombies, barely one per cent of the 1000 active survivors, though some of the players will be ‘Original Zombies’ or ‘OZs’. These secret zombies look like regular players, and can stealthily turn other players at any time within the first hour. While there are so many large groups of players, OZs are instrumental in helping grow the zombies’ numbers — and making sure you don’t trust your new allies too much.
Once everyone was shuffled through the registration process, we were introduced to the plot. The game this time was set in a Wild West, small-town setting called ‘Concord’, in an undefined time period. We were addressed by the mayor of the town, briefly introduced to its various factions (the church, the oil tycoons and the outlaws), and then sent off at a run as the first — modest — horde of zombies appears.
It was a fast, frenetic start, but it slowed down quickly enough. The first hour was mainly a matter of getting our bearings and finding a faction, as well as popping in at the various plot locations on the map. We stumbled onto Wombat’s Saloon, where you could buy (non-alcoholic) drinks for the price of a Nerf dart, but the saloon also had another more important purpose. If you happen to get shot by another survivor in Zedtown you're stunned, and can’t use your blasters again until you find a respawn point — and one of the only ones in the game lives at Wombat’s.
For the time being, though, it was a fun place to be. One of the saloon girls seemed to have a nasty bite mark on her neck, but it was probably nothing, right? With only 15 or so zombies on a map of 1000 people, the dead wasn't too much of a concern just then. No, factions were the order of the hour.
We're The Bad Guys
We decided to look for the Masons — a gang-slash-family of outlaws who had been driven to the outskirts of town after being blamed for shooting the sheriff. We tracked them down to an old quarry, where induction into the gang consists of getting a M daubed in red paint on your face or arm. It all felt very patriotic.
All signed up, we then found missions to complete for our new team leaders. You can, of course, get through the entire game without ever signing up for a faction, but the missions and plots that they lead you on can be just as fun as the ever-present zombie element of the game. And while it would seem tempting to stay hidden somewhere safe if you wanted to survive the game, you do actually need some involvement in the plot to survive.
In Dead South, aspiring survivors needed either a train ticket, or enough coins to buy a train ticket, in order to be on the "last train out of town". To get these, you have to do something for the NPCs who have them — they won’t just give train tickets away for nothing.
The missions feel familiar to anyone who’s ever played a first-person shooter. Escort this character to the other side of the map, don’t let them get bitten by zombies, pick up supplies, and so on. Surrounding this was Dead South's overarching plot, concerning the election of a replacement sheriff — a position which the Masons were determined to fill with the somewhat dimwitted Hershey Mason, first-born son of the clan. Everyone who had joined the Masons was told to vote — and then told to vote a second time, and vote some more. It was definitely one way to win.
The zombie count started to ramp up as we returned from our first (largely fruitless) escort mission, and our little band of Masons felt the pressure as we waited to hold up an oil train. We had inconveniently set ourselves up at a crossroads — with zombies circling in three directions, and an enemy faction waiting in the fourth. Whoops.
Thankfully there still weren’t too many zombies — so long as we resisted the urge to split and run, most of the Mason Gang was pretty safe. And good thing, too, since the train came through within a minute. We were all curious as to how a train was going to travel down the main avenue of UNSW, but questions were answered as we spotted the train driver — on a mobility scooter, with a trolley being wheeled behind him for cargo. (The train whistle and PVC pipe smoke stack were great touches.)
While Zedtown’s rules work pretty well when it comes to fighting zombies, human-on-human combat gets very messy very quickly — including our Masons versus the rival survivors. The shootout involved Nerf darts flying in every direction, people rushing in to grab the oil canisters we were sent to steal, and moderators standing by and yelling rules. No one really knew what had happened by the end, but an update pinged through the app told us we had succeeded in stealing all but one of the oil canisters.
The zombie count ticked over 100 as we headed back to base — putting in another vote for Hershey on the way, of course. At this volume, we were starting to encounter little clusters of zombies on a more regular basis. It was unnerving, at least until we realised that the zombies weren’t really ready to take on a large group, especially one organised enough to charge them down. Safety in numbers still held true — for now.
After stealing the oil from the Dixon Oil Company at the train heist, it was time to go back down to see them — to sell the oil back to them. Yup, we were definitely the bad guys.
The negotiations dragged a little. We had five oil cans to trade for a mix of coins, train tickets, and a Dixon characters' shiny blue top hat that we took a liking to. Though we'd bartered up from a measly price of two coins, it was still not much to go around the group of at least 20 of our compatriots on the mission.
Unsurprisingly, it ended in disaster. The Dixons shot us in the back on our way out, leaving the Masons vulnerable on the trek back across the zombie-infested main avenue. Even worse, the Dixons stole back half of what we ‘fairly’ traded with them. We may have been the bad guys, but at least we weren't the worst guys.
The Rise Of The Zombies
On the way back, we heard some news that definitely annoyed the Dixons, though: our very own Hershey Mason was the new town sheriff, netting himself over 3000 votes in a town of 1000 people. Wait...
We’d no time to celebrate, however, as the announcement coincided with a massed zombie attack on Wombat’s, the release of a Witch, and the town’s general decline into genuine zombie-fuelled anarchy. The Witch was an interesting wild card — a powerful zombie who couldn't be stunned like regular ones, her arrival coincided with the app’s zombie count shooting up alarmingly quickly. Luckily, we managed to avoid her.
Everyone was a little on edge as we returned to the Mason camp. We had just put ourselves at risk again with very little to show for it — and though Hershey promised that as the new sheriff, that he would get every Mason onto the train at the end, the claim was pretty dubious. When the offer of another mission came, with potential rewards we were quick to take it.
Escorting the wheelchair-bound Nana Mason right through to the other side of the town of Concord was where things really started to get rough for the gang — but also undeniably fun.
For the first time, we were outnumbered by zombies that milled around, a whole horde distracting you while one or two tried to catch stragglers off guard. The wheelchair was a challenge in its own unique way, especially in a place with as many stairs as UNSW. We had to hold off zombies while Nana and her escort navigated the long, circuitous wheelchair ramps, and checking around every corner was a must. The number of zombies was creeping up on 500: beginning to outnumber humans.
We had been sent out to discover information on the other factions, which was easier said than done when those factions were starting to fall apart to the rising tide of zombies. It felt like we only just got away, skimming the very edge of the game’s boundaries with a bit of a walk down High Street. There were fewer zombies on this side of the map, but we were about to enter the thick of it again.
We met some of the rival faction's Church members on the way down to their base which, when we got there, was almost completely gone. It was now home to more zombies including one who, in a baffling moment, revealed he was another ‘special zombie’ who couldn’t be shot. Gizmodo’s Campbell Simpson was turned here, and I ran for it on my own, joining up with a motley group of survivors from all factions, who were making their way up the main avenue.
With only one problem: at the top of the stairs was a zombie spawn point. If we had realised this earlier, at least some of us might have survived, but as it was we were essentially walking into a hundred-strong army of unkillable zombies. Whoops.
We readied ourselves for our final stand, and the zombies counted down their respawn timer with undeniable glee: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1...
I miraculously lasted the first wave, and was starting to think up any desperate escape plan when the second wave descended on the final survivors — one I didn’t escape. I had forgotten that my guns only held six darts each, all but two of which I had used on the previous wave. Oh well.
Joining The Undead
My tag was surrendered, and I retreated to the zombie hub so I could ‘turn’. Down here, there was a makeup station where you could get yourself properly zombified — but with only an hour left in the game, we decided to head straight out again to hunt.
Once we became zombies, I realised how much we had been missing out on by staying alive all this time. Being a zombie is way more competitive — every survivor you kill nets you a dog tag, so the most successful zombies are festooned with jingling, militaristic bling.
As a zombie, there’s more running, more chasing, and less worrying about what fresh hell the NPCs are leading you to. The zombie hub isn't too bad either: there was some great music blaring, and zombies were much more free to just chill if they needed a break.
I managed to make a lucky kill in the last half hour of the game — jumping out from behind a fortuitously-placed pillar to pounce on a straggler — but other than that it was quite hard to do anything useful as a zombie in the dying minutes of Zedtown. Our main role now was to be part of the large, menacing horde. Zombie numbers climbed over 700, and the survivors were either scattered or already safely on the last train out of town.
Yes, the train was back. This time, instead of a trolley, survivors were clustered nervously behind the enthusiastic train driver — who was conveniently equipped with ‘anti-zombie spray’ for the occasion. The survivors who made it to the train with a ticket in their possession were essentially the winners of the game — all nine of them. Zedtown was a high-stakes poker game, as it turned out.
In the end, it wasn't really about winning. There are a lot of different aspects to Zedtown: survival, team work, role playing, running like hell from a group of people who really want your dog tag.
Getting in to try one of their games — their biggest, no less — left us unsurprised that Zedtown tickets consistently sell out, drawing so many enthusiastic players without fail. I know I’ll be trying to get in on their next event for sure — and this time, I’ll be bringing a bigger gun.