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Contagion aims to save the zombie game genre from itself (hands-on preview)

Take a quick mental inventory: How many zombies have you killed in the past couple years?

I lost count somewhere approaching “a crap load.” And yet developers continue to pump out games pitting players against legions of the undead. With all the fast zombies, slow zombies, and zombies-that-aren’t-really-zombies-except-that-they-are coming at us all the time, it’s hard to see the value in yet another first-person shooter that tasks you with surviving waves of things that used to be people.

This was going through my head when I wandered into independent developer Monochrome‘s booth at the Penny Arcade Expo gaming convention (PAX) in Seattle last weekend. Monochrome was showing off an early alpha build of its debut title Contagion, which is a “spiritual successor” to the popular Half-Life 2 mod Zombie Panic! Source. When I talked to Contagion’s lead programmer Declan Doyle after the demo, I asked him why people are still making zombie games.

“No one’s done it right,” he said. “I don’t want the arcadey blood and guts. I’m more interested in fear and survival. I want to work with people as close as we can get it to real life — like what it would be in the apocalypse. You want to be conserving your ammo and working with fellow teammates to try to rescue people. It’s what the game’s more focused on than how many heads and arms and shit you can shoot off.”

The demo featured a game mode (one of many to come, according to Monochrome) called “Extraction,” in which players start out in a suburban battlefield straight out of the opening scenes of director Zack Snyder’s film Dawn of the Dead. Your goal is to find survivors holed up in houses, defend against a subsequent zombie attack, and then escort the refugees to an extraction point.

Contagion

The twist comes when you die — and you probably will, but more on that in a bit. If the undead horde overpowers you, you respawn as one of them, and then your job is to track down your former teammates and put the chomp on them. You accomplish this with “Zombie Vision,” a red-hued display mode that shows you a glowing blood trail leading right to your prey.

With what Doyle says about making Contagion as realistic as possible, it’s not surprising how hardcore the game is. First, characters do not automatically reload their weapons when they’re out of ammo; you have to press a button to make them do it. At several points during the demo, I forgot about this and found myself facing off against platoons of undead only to have nothing happen when I clicked the left mouse button.

The good news is that you can reload while you’re running. The bad news, however, is that you run faster forward than backward. So if you get into a situation like the one I described above, your best choice is to turn around and sprint away while you replenish your ammo (and yes, your sprint is limited). This will keep you safe long enough to reload, but it also means that you’ll have no idea how close your attackers are until you turn back around. It might sound kind of frustrating, but in practice, it adds a lot of valuable tension and realism to what would be the most casual of encounters in most other games.

Also adding to the suspense is that Contagion has no aiming reticule at all. It is possible to aim down your weapon’s sights to fire more accurately (I learned this later; I never realized I could do it while I was playing), but other than that, you’re on your own. And of course, a headshot is always your best bet. Monochrome toned down the difficulty of the demo for PAX, but according to Doyle, “Normally, if you’re not getting headshots, you’re just wasting your ammo.” I managed to pull off some shots that I didn’t expect to make and missed some that I was sure were dead-on, but both outcomes were equally exciting.

Contagion

Contagion will also employ randomization of levels and items to add replay value. This might make you think of what Left 4 Dead developer Valve did with its “A.I. Director,” which decided enemy and supply placements based on how well players were doing, but Doyle doesn’t think the idea has gone far enough.

“[Valve] went for it, but it didn’t do anything,” he said. “They had a random weapon system, but it wasn’t random. You know where the weapons will be: They’ll either be here or here. It’s like the ammo locations were a table with shit on it. [Contagion is] completely random. It’s just the luck of the draw every time you’re playing.”

While the PAX demo included a complete heads-up display showing your character’s health and inventory, the final game won’t have one. “It only shows up when it’s used,” said Doyle. “When you change your weapon, it shows up. When you’re damaged, your health shows up. So that’s a nice, immersive feature.”

If all of this is sounding like a sign that says, “N00bs need not apply,” Doyle said that Contagion will feature different levels of difficulty, including entire servers set aside for players who don’t want too much of a challenge. But, “It’s not difficult if you work together,” he added.


Contagion has a tentative release date of March 2013. It will be available for PC, but Monochrome is also considering Mac, Linux, and console versions.


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