Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Zombie Gaming

So I recently ran into this little Flash zombie game called The Last Stand. Zombie games are plentiful, but this one is interesting in its focus on zombie defense with light RPG elements. Each night you defend yourself against the zombie horde, and each day you decide how to split your time between repairing the barricade, searching for other survivors, and looking for weapons.

The dormant game designer in me really wants to take some of the ideas from that game to the next level. While I enjoyed The Last Stand, sitting behind a barricade madly clicking at impeding zombies does eventually get old. Fundamentally zombies just don't make very dynamic enemies. You've got to add something else to spice things up. Thankfully zombies are a common topic, so we can look at some high profile games and think about what they did to keep our lumbering friends entertaining.

Dead Rising is filled with traditional zombies. They mill about slowly and don't pose much of a threat if you're paying attention. The tension in the game comes from the sheer number of zombies, the scarcity of weapons, and other survivors who have turned homicidal. The zombies are more of an environmental hazard than a direct threat. Dead Rising has a survival mode, which on paper could be exactly what I'm looking for. Unfortunately success involves gathering up food, finding a good hiding place, and watching the clock count down before you need to make another food run. The zombies will never disturb you in your high perch, so really 90% of the gameplay is waiting. Success is only achieved by being completely risk averse, and I'm pretty sure Burnout taught us years ago that risk = fun.

Half-Life has a lot to teach us here, both from a perspective of zombie variety and entertaining defensive gameplay. The basic zombies here are easily manageable, but their agents, the jumping screeching headcrabs, demand that you keep on your toes. Your foolproof tactic of waiting it out from high ground could work against the basic slow zombies, but not when there are headcrabs crawling out of the ducts and fast zombies crawling up the pipes. Half-life has also demonstrated that defending your turf can be extremely engaging (the turrets in Nova Prospekt, the standoff in the Antlion cave, and the epic Strider assault from Episode Two). It's a shame Gordon's never had to hold it out against a zombie onslaught (the closest would be the elevator sequence from Episode One, which isn't as epic as what I'm thinking of).

And of course we can't forget the "fungal zombie" that is Halo's Flood. These guys leap more than they shamble, and have maintained the ability to use firearms. Paired with the humanoid zombies are swarmy parasites that require you keep an eye on as-yet-uninfected corpses. In addition to all this, Halo 3 added Flood that can change form to prevent you from playing too defensively. The strategy of fighting the Flood never gets as layered as what you get from some of Half-life's set pieces, but the moment to moment combat is always top notch.

As we can see, two of the greatest shooters of all time have stooped to using the zombie cliché. They've mixed things up as much as possible, but you're still basically just shotgunning down shambling masses on your way from point A to point B. And don't get me wrong, that's still fun. But would a more strategic zombie game work with survivors to rescue, barricades to maintain, traps to set up, and resources to secure? Well, you tell me, but I sure think so.

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