You can’t go anywhere without bumping into a zombie these days; tropical islands, large American cities, the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham… but one thing I took away from my visit to GAMEfest last week was that the undead are going down. In fact, UK developer Double Six are so adamant about it that they have made it very clear in the title of their upcoming multiplatform release; All Zombies Must Die!
With Associate Producer Aaron Yeung beside me (kitted out with some awesome make-up to look like one of the undead minions) I was guided through a hands-on demonstration of the upcoming twin-stick shooter. If you have a feeling of déjà vu about this one so far you need not worry; Double Six were responsible for another downloadable zombie title called Burn Zombie Burn, and while their previous release was more of an arena based game that had a very Gauntlet-esque feel to it, AZMD! takes what made BZB an enjoyable game and expands the experience by adding some RPG-lite elements into the mix, along with 4-player local co-op (no online with this one, but we’ll get to that later on.)
Double Six have aimed to make AZMD! a bigger experience than their previous release, and they done so by expanding the play area from a fixed screen to larger, explorable areas that connect together to form the town of Deadhill. The game has also been given a plot that matches the cartoony art style; for example, the lead character of Jack loves the fact he is in a zombie apocalypse, but he is also very aware he is in a computer game and spends most of the game trying to convince everyone else. This includes his ex-girlfriend Rachel, another playable character, who can’t stand being around Jack but really has no choice thanks to the undead claiming the brains of almost every other living person. The duo eventually comes across another pair, Brian the mad scientist and Luxo the alien, with whom they combine forces to take on the seemingly never-ending hordes of zombies.
Each character has unique special abilities to use against their foes whilst wandering around Deadhill. For instance, Jack retains the special ability from Burn Zombie Burn by being able to wield a flaming torch to send zombies running and, of course, set them on fire. Rachel on the other hand can combine her mobile phone with a megaphone to stun enemies by yelling out her various grievances. Additionally, each character has their own storyline and quests to fulfil, such as Luxo’s quest to learn English by getting hold of a copy of The Big Lebowski, and mimicking The Dude.
No, really. And that’s just a taster of some of the charming humour that encompasses the experience in AZMD!
Of course, as much as the wacky nature of the storyline and abilities are important to the entertainment value, Double Six have been working hard to keep the gameplay as accessible as their previous release while allowing the opportunity for a deeper level of investment at the same time. This has been achieved in a number of ways, the addition of experience points perhaps being the most prominent. While it is possible (although quite the challenge) to get through the story without upgrading any skills, players can improve their stats to increase their strength, defence or speed, which in role terms effectively translates to damage, tank and medic (as speed allows players to revive their fallen comrades faster.)
The objectives that are given to the player are well presented and easy to identify, with markers on the screen pointing in the direction of item that may need to be collected (or even those that are optional.) While the main storyline quests will be given to you by your fellow survivors or other weird and wonderful characters, most of your objectives will be given to you by robotic gateways that will only let you pass if you complete a specific request for them. This varies from collecting a certain number of items from fallen enemies, to killing to a specific amount of zombies with a particular weapon of their choosing.
Speaking of the weapons, AZMD! has plenty of them scattered around its levels. We got to see a few examples in the hands-on; from the humble shotgun (and its aptly named “Campbell Bonus” for multiple kills) and devastating chainsaw (complete with “Leatherface” Bonus”), to the trusty cricket bat and menacing katana. The melee options can be charged for extra damage and effects; for example, the cricket bat, once charged, can deliverer three powerful swings that knock any zombie that happens to be within its reach off the map. Meanwhile, the katana has the ability to decapitate anyone within striking distance… and that includes any players, as I found out when our freelance photographer Rebecca sliced me up good and proper without warning (thanks for that, by the way.) After he finished laughing at me, Yeung pointed out that an option had been added to turn off friendly fire after receiving feedback from testers, but we both agreed that having it on not only adds a layer of challenge to it all, it added a bit of sadistic fun.
And when you’re being closed in by many, many zombies, that’s what matters, right?
While never ending waves of zombies will be after your delicious brain as you trek across Deadhill, there are ways of creating a home base for you and your team. This involves completing a “All Zombies Must Die” quest where you have to survive increasingly difficult waves of enemies, and once defeated your victory ensures the area remains zombie-free for the rest of the game. It also unlocks the customisation options, such as the previous mentioned stats upgrade (which takes place in the toilets... I dared not question the reason) and a basic form of crafting which Yeung stated would not be complicated, and would “make sense” for players. For example, if you combine fire to a shotgun it gives a chance to do fire damage to your enemies when attack. Simple and effective. There are other elements than can be used for different results, such as electricity, but I sadly didn’t get to see them during my hands-on.
All these features sound great on paper, but we have to ask the important question; is it fun and accessible to play?
Just as with Burn Zombie Burn, the control scheme is easy enough to get to grips with. The left stick moves you, the right stick aims your weapon, with the shoulder buttons used to attack. It’s simple stuff that can be picked up very quickly. Weapons and other objects are picked up by walking over them, which Yeung pointed out can lead to a sudden rush towards ammo packs (although there are infinite ammo boxes located at various points.) During the hands-on we were at a point in the story before Jack meets Brian and Luxo, and even before Rachel accepts to go with him, so Rebecca and I were controlling a couple of nameless army men, kitted out with M4 assault rifles. Yeung, who was controlling Jack, explained that the game scaled the amount of zombies spawning depending on how many players are in the session, so with three of us playing we had three times the normal amount.
Taking on the zombies proved easy enough at first, but there were times when the hordes began to build up in numbers and provide a challenge for the three of us. There were a few moments where I ran out of ammo and ended up punching the enemy with my fists, slowly but surely knocking down their health. While satisfying to do and watch, it meant I was relying on the other two to dispatch the remaining zombies as quick as they could. It created a survival element that had me trying to be careful the ammo in my possession, but with the arcade nature of the game it kept trying to tempt me to go in all guns blazing. It’s an interesting gaming dilemma, but one I feel doesn’t take away from the fun of it all. That said, Yeung did state that Double Six were still fine tuning the difficulty of the game after feedback from testers had said it was too hard at times, so things may vary come release. I did ask if it meant they would be adding in difficulty settings, but Yeung explained it would more than likely boil down to balancing the game, although they might look at difficulty settings if they needed to.
At a couple of points during the hands-on, Yeung demonstrated how players could use the environment to their advantage. Flames on the ground could set zombies alight, so leading them into them would not only help damage them, but also set fire to any other zombie that it touched. Additionally, car alarms and radioactive material can stun and weaken zombies, but they also have a downside if you cannot slay those afflicted quickly; a zombie stunned by a car alarm will eventually don some ear protectors and charge at you, enraged, while radioactive zombies will eventually mutate into larger and tougher variations that will aim to bring the pain to you and your friends. It’s an interesting feature that ensures players use the environment with care.
As mentioned near the start of the preview, the developers have opted to stick with local co-op with this title, and while it was certainly a little disappointing to hear initially, Yeung explained that they felt AZMD! worked best when played with a bunch of friends at your side, comparing the experience to when you play a sports game and relentlessly mock your opponent after beating them (go on, admit it, we’ve all been there.) After playing my hands-on experience I have to agree with the assessment; while online co-op would be fun, the moments of sheer chaos as you deal with a massive horde of the undead work better when you have your friends next to you… plus with the friendly fire option on, you can even unleash your own justice on your fellow players. For example, while you play a golden star appears above the player with the most XP earned during that specific area, and Yeung gleefully detailed how during playtests other players would purposefully kill the leading player and revive them only once someone else had taken over. While a little harsh, it does open up the possibilities of competition for those that want it.
Or for those that plan on being dastardly. Either or.
From my time with the game, I feel AZMD! manages to mix the old school arcade gaming mentality with the RPG-lite elements well, and it creates a fun, brutal, and comical experience. Fans of Burn Zombie Burn will no doubt enjoy Double Six’s next title, and with an aimed release time of this winter 2011 there’s time for fine tuning to ensure it is a downloadable co-op title to be recommended.
All Zombies Must Die! will be released on the Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and Steam.