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PAX 2012: Contagion hands-on preview

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Monochrome Games’ Contagion is a spiritual successor to Zombie Panic: Source, a popular Half-Life 2 mod created by Monochrome. At face value it’s easy to look at Contagion and write it off as a Left 4 Dead clone. But Contagion—also a source-based shooter—emphasizes a starkly different style of play compared to Left 4 Dead.

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Josh Lennen, COO for Monochrome Games, acted as my tour guide while I played their fledgling zombie shooter at PAX 2012.

Old School Zombie Apocalypse
Where as Left 4 Dead is a frenetically paced, horde-blasting, bullet-spraying shooter, Contagion sticks more closely to “traditional” zombie apocalypse and survival horror roots. The common traits of zombie shooters are still present—there more zombies than there are survivors, zombies want to eat you, and you will need to defend yourself with a variety of firearms.

But given Contagion’s more “traditional” survival horror approach to the Zombocalypse, it uses an ‘iron sights’ aiming method, which slows your movement to improve accuracy at the expense of movement speed. Headshots are vital to survival and conserving precious ammo, which is in short supply.

And while there are plenty of variant zombies, unlike Left 4 Dead there are no ‘special’ zombies in the game with weird, mutated powers.

Three men and a stripper
Four characters were available to choose from for my play through, each with different starting weapons but otherwise fundamentally the same. I chose the guy (an “ex-cop” if memory serves) with the boomstick (shotgun) and pistol. (Side note: Although it does keep to some degree with Zombie movie tradition, I’m not sure making the sole female character a stripper is good move.)

Contagion’s multiplayer experience—or one of them at least—lets you and up to 7 buddies start in a co-op game against the AI horde—but if you die as a survivor, you return as a zombie and resume play against your (former) friends. And as such you do get one ‘special’ power—the ability to howl and call more of the horde to attack.

It's all about survival
The map(s) demonstrated at PAX 2012 were “Extraction” games, in which myself and other players began in a residential neighborhood filled with zombies and must rescue other survivors barricaded in their homes. Playing at PAX obviously provided less than organized play, so I just tried not to get eaten and get to the objective point while avoiding the numerous packs of shambling zombies.

I noticed that some zombies without legs even dragged their sorry carcasses along the ground in an effort to eat me. I'm not sure where their legs went, but I wasn't complaining. According to Lennen, even though location-specific damage isn’t in the game yet, Monochrome plans to implement it in some fashion—so headshots will continue to be important, and you’ll also be able to shoot legs (and possibly other body parts) off of zombies too.

Because most houses were barricaded and I wanted to conserve ammo, I ducked down allies and went from back yard to back yard—climbing over fences and occasionally scaling up ladders to reach rooftops and survey the area.

Eventually my pick-up team and I locate a house of survivors, clear a few zombies out of the way, and escort them back out front. Zombie mobs continue advancing. I continue to fire away with my shotgun and cover the survivors. Our first batch of survivors makes it onto the chopper, but the horde closes in.

A new objective point is marked for us. I explode some zombie heads with my shotgun, then run out of ammo and fall back to my 9mm pistol. Ammo is getting low. I start running, looking to get to some higher ground again and hoping I can locate some ammunition somewhere.

This particular map was one of Contagion’s ‘survival’ style modes, the objective of which is to keep playing as long as you can, until you succumb to the inevitable and give up your brains.

Zombie movies rarely end well for anyone but zombies.

When is it coming?
Monochrome currently plans to release Contagion in early 2013 release through Steam “at an affordable price point” with 4-5 maps and plans for continued expansions and DLC releases. He mentioned character skins and weapons as likely target for expansions. Contagion will ship with full Steamworks support (achievements, etc.), so maybe we'll eventually get hats too.

Monochrome is currently in the process of transferring/re-coding Contagion to a new, unspecified engine Lennen couldn’t reveal at PAX—but they have revealed that Valve is helping them do it, so it’s probably a fair bet that Monochrome is moving Contagion from the Source to the Source 2 engine.

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