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Building A Better Zombie Game

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jan 02, 2011 at 04:00 AM

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It's an obvious analogy: Like the undead enemies they contain, zombie-themed video games and DLC simply won't die. Zombies have invaded military shooters, westerns, racing games, and even your lawn. Considering how many games I play for my job, you'd probably think that I'd be tired of titles that have legions of the undead in them. You'd be wrong. I hope even more zombie games come out in 2011, because as I see it, the industry's current offerings are missing some characteristics that are key to the genre.

Grim Exploration:
The Left 4 Dead series has set the standard for undead shooters, but its epic set pieces feel more in line with Modern Warfare than a zombie Armageddon. As a fan of open-world games, I would love to see a GTA-style zombie game (Red Dead's newest DLC pack obviously fits the bill, but I'd still like to see something in an urban setting). Dead Rising offers an open world to explore, but its light-hearted nature doesn't make traveling around town very challenging. Exploring a post-apocalyptic city in a video game should be like it is in the movies, where even traveling down the street to a gas station for supplies is a life-threatening proposition. Fallout 3 is probably the closest comparison; exploring its deadly wastelands is a major part of the fun. Perhaps an Assassin's Creed approach would be entertaining, where the player is presented with a giant open city packed with zombies, and traveling between rooftops could offer some mild safety.

Beware The Bite:
Zombie bites are supposed to be deadly. But for some reason video game zombies just gum you like some old geezer that has lost his dentures. How lame would 28 Days Later have been if the protagonist could get bit by a dozen undead corpses, then slap on a bandage and have everything go back to normal? The zombies we fight in video games are essentially melee enemies with incredibly stupid AI. For a game to capture the terror of a zombie outbreak, there has to be a real consequence to getting bit, and that consequence should be death. Instead of giving players the ability to miraculously heal their wounds, employ multiple protagonists and a branching story. When a character gets bit, they die and that branch of the story simply closes.

Actually Undead:
People who get killed by zombies turn into zombies. This is what separates getting attacked by a zombie from getting attacked by a dirty hobo. As such, characters who get bitten in video games - be it NPCs, co-op partners, or even your character - should turn into zombies. Resident Evil Outbreak toyed with this concept, but in most games your allies are still impervious to infection. Rescuing innocents would be a lot scarier if those characters were capable of dying, and a game like Left 4 Dead would be even more suspenseful if, after being bitten, you had to watch your partners for signs that they're becoming a zombie. Also, stick to zombie lore and require headshots, decapitation, or explosions to finish off your undead enemies.

Spreading Infection:
Plenty of games have nailed a post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but part of what makes zombie films like Dawn of the Dead so entertaining is the actual apocalypse, i.e. when the chaos first erupts and civilization goes to crap. Games like Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising always start after 99% of the population has been transformed into shuffling corpses. How about letting us play through those tense first hours as the disease spreads across the city? An open-world game could even do it in real-time - think of GTA San Andreas' gang system, only with zombies. Not only would it be cool to see and combat zombie outbreaks as they pop up through the city, but a random system would also add a lot of replay value.

The undead are supposed to want to eat your brain, but with how underused it is in most zombie games, we doubt it would be very tasty. I'd love to play a zombie game that's based more on strategy than action. The Resident Evil series has managed to do this with slower pacing and resource management, but the games are still linear and sport bizarre storylines. An open world environment would present plenty of opportunities for strategy. Scavenging for precious resources would require figuring out viable routes to target areas and formulating exit strategies, and the player could create safe houses by fortifying empty buildings (with said resources). The addition of a day/night cycle could add a sense of urgency to all of your actions (since zombies would be deadlier at night, 'natch) - anyone who has ever rushed back to their home with a sack full of resources in Minecraft knows how terrifying nightfall can be when your life is truly on the line. Finally, multiple protagonists could provide different skill sets, which would require the player to choose which characters to guard at all costs, and which to gamble during dangerous situations. Don't get me wrong - I still want a game where I can blast the crap out of zombies. I just don't want that to be the only thing I can do.

Do you have any other gameplay elements you would like to see in a zombie game? Share your thoughts in the comments below.