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Wot I Think: Contagion

You've got undead on you

Contagion's a multiplayer zombie shooter game. Yes, it's a co-op game where players are the survivors and the undead, and yes it's even in the Source Engine. But it's good. It's not great, and it has problems, but for the 9 hours I sunk into it in the past week, I've had lot of fun, and I've even had something happen to me that I've never had happen in a game before. Here's Wot I Think.

I will tell you the story. I was wandering the corridors of an abAANDoNnNned police stATIon ooohooh, tracking the cardboardy crump of bullets being fired. There were only two survivors left: your handsome narrator and a guy I'll call SFU (it was something like that). It was his panicked shooting that I was zeroing in on. The confusing layout of the station had turned me around and around in previous playthroughs, and when I loaded into this game I knew it would be a struggle to find anyone. I think that's the point, but it's a bit of design that I'll complain about later on.

Thump went the bullets, and I could tell that the person clicking the trigger wasn't doing very well. It sounded like most were hitting the walls, but at least that thump was pulling me closer. It popped through oppressive groan of the undead, leading me on. I only met a couple of zombies on my way there, through the corridors and up the stairs, and each died to a single bullet to the head. A strobing light helped me to narrow down where SFU was, and I walked through the door and into a room full of zombies.

"Don't shoot so much," I typed. "A headshot should suffice."

Yeah, I used the word "suffice" in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. He thanked me and we moved off. We were on the first floor, and I knew the way. Unlike Left 4 Dead , it's tougher to find your way about, and the levels are built for exploration and examination, not to be dragged through. This was Escape mode, so we were to find out way out, and in this level it would be up the stairs and across the wet roof. I pointed out a few clips and SFU and I were off.

He spoke little English--did he even know what suffice meant?-- so we communicated with actions. He'd duck and I'd shoot over his head. We weren't just against NPC zombies: there were players out there, and I was calmer and a better shot, so it was a good bit of teamwork to allow me to stand and fire and watch. This police station level has a few flaws, but the biggest is it sends you to the roof from the ground floor and then tells you to go to the basement. Even after a few plays I was still getting lost, and leading SFU was only making it tougher. We were surviving, but I'd shot at least two zombies who were within inches of clawing his face off. As I was doing that, a player zombie grabbed me and sunk his undead gnashers into my shoulders. SFU took a few seconds to spot it, and finally managed to pop his skull. I was weakened, but still alive. We clamoured into a lift shaft and followed the game's text message instructions down. The phones still work.

It was back inside the station that I realised something was wrong. The colour was draining from the screen, and a swimmy effect was swooshing my camera around. I looked to SFU, who had looked to me for guidance for the past ten minutes, and realised that I'd been infected, and my health was slowly sloughing off because I was becoming a zombie. I didn't want him to see it, and I didn't want him to have to kill me. I ran away when he wasn't looking, and took off through the confusing police station. As I changed, I ended up strolling around the station. Undead, alone. I wasn't going to be one of those bad zombies. Not this round at any rate. I could still hear the pop of his gun, but this time it was telling me where to avoid. Then it stopped and the game was over.

I'm not really getting at anything with that story, but I like that the game gave it to me. I've never had that moment in a game before, where a small team dynamic shifted as one was turned evil. I could've role-played a bit more, but in my mind I still had that human connection with the other player. I couldn't turn on him.

Besides, there's a game mode for that. The police station largely seems stuck on the Escape scenario on the servers I've found, and it's annoying because it's an interesting space that could be used to better effect, but you mostly join others and try to escape. The route through it is confusing. You're informed of where to go via pseudo phone messages from the rest of the team, telling you what tasks have been performed (bolt cutters found, door unlocked), but thanks to the nature of the game you could be arriving after others have covered a lot of ground, so those messages could be about an event towards the end of the mode. It doesn't help that in this particular level, you escape by climbing to the roof and then heading to the basement AND that the objectives are randomly generated.

Even though my favourite story is from the Escape game mode, I've had most fun in Hunt. Hunt is a PvPvPvZ mode. As each player dies, they join the undead, so survivors have to worry about humans, human controlled zombies, and the undead cruft that shuffle around. There's a park level that allow people to float in and out of hedgerows, listening--always listening--and I've died more than once from an act of shrubbery, but it's the city map--Barlowe Square-- that's kept me coming back.

Contagion is a slow game, kept even slower by a stamina bar. It's pitch black in Barlowe Square, hammering with rain and barely lit. All your senses are sucked in like a deep breath, so you move slower still. There, in the wet dark, any shelter is welcomed. The square map isn't huge, but the density is impressive. There are alleys and fire escapes. There's a working cinema, a gun shop, a multi-story town hall, and a huge subway space for players to hide in. It feels more like a first-person multiplayer Resident Evil 2 than Left 4 Dead. Each person begins with a pistol, and everyone wants better guns, so you're fighting for the little ammo and weaponry spread around the level and to see who'll survive until the end. That's where the tension comes from. A survival of the baddest, but where the people you kill will return as the undead. I don't have stories from it, but one moment stuck out: I was watching a player controlled zombie through the a sniper scope. They move differently from regular undead--though you can press B and lumber around like an NPC-- and as I tracked him he grabbed another player from behind and started gnashing. I counted down a few seconds and shot the zombie before he fully killed the player. He was rescued, but he'd soon turn into one of those things.

In Hunt, it's necessary to keep everyone in a state of confusion because it's a mano-a-mano-a-zombo. I am fine with the humans being a bit lost, but when you end up dead you'll often be placed far away. In this mode you need to know the layout of the level as there's nothing but gunfire to lead you. In Escape your alternate vision mode will light the way with glowing footsteps, but I'm surprised that something similar isn't employed when you're life-challenged in Hunt.

Extraction is a happy medium, and it's probably the smartest mode in terms of gaminess. It works because it directs you from scene to scene, though the open maps will allow you to move as you choose, and then lets you get on with the event. The survivors move between houses, hunting for NPC survivors to rescue. You find them by following a map on your phone, then hole up in their house as the zombie numbers increase, before leading them to safety. It's a classic scenario of the zombie oeuvre, and people dash about the house boarding up windows and closing doors. Then the hands start scrambling through windows and doors.

I haven't really touched on the undead. When you die, you'll return as a zombie. Human controlled zombies have swipes and bites they can inflict, a vision mode that lights everything up, and a roar that gathers more. They also have twice as much stamina as the humans. That last part is a good compromise, but I think more needs to be done. In Escape the alt vision mode will show footsteps leading to the players, though it sometimes delivers you to the floor below. Fix it and stick it in every mode. Hunt in particular needs it, because there is no structure. I can understand the human players being left to fight, but if the role of the undead is to make life tough for the players, a way of finding them on Hunt is necessary. It's too much guess work for now. But it's generally not a punishment to die. I quite like being a zombie. Play it tactically, use your bite to separate people from the group as well as adding that unease about potential infection, and it's as much fun as the survivors.

It's not a game that will trouble the Steam Stats, and it's in a genre that's already well represented on the PC, but Contagion does have a small role to play in the great gaming zombie apocalypse. I quite like it.

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