You'd think in an age where DayZ's gameplay has taken the world by storm that any zombie game we see from indie devs here on out would result in hardcore, open world gameplay. State of Decay, The Dea Linger, Project Zomboid, and of course DayZ all follow this formula down to a T.
So to have an indie zombie game revert to the gameplay styles of Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 is practically nothing short of blasphemy. But if my time with Contagion tells me anything, it's that raising a little hell doesn't have to be a bad thing.
Contagion, from developer Monochrome (composed of members who worked on Zombie Panic: Source* and NMRIH) is yet another zombie game to come out this generation, although where other zombie games focus more on an open world at this point in time, Contagion focuses on small, focused maps across (currently) three modes. I'll be going into details of these modes, soon, but for the TL;DRers out there, let's just say that it is more or less a hardcore version of the L4D series.
What it does different from L4D and L4D2 is that it focuses more on completing objectives than it does on just getting from point A to point B. Often this means there's a lot of backtracking involved, which actually makes more sense than having maps just laid out in front of you to traverse.
Technically rather than being a cash-in of L4D, Contagion plays a lot like what I personally believe L4D should have been. Zombies aren't just sick folk with the athletic prowess of Usain Bolt. They are not composed of paper maché, meaning you can't mow through them with a bladed weapon, and they don't come in special forms (or rather, annoying "grab-type zombies"). They're actually zombies. They're slow, they're hard to kill, they suck up bullets like crazy unless you hit the head, and they come in large, stupid numbers.
In fact, aside from the whole objective based gameplay, Contagion has little in common with L4D. And to be honest, as much as I enjoyed my time with Valve's slaughterfest, that's a good thing in nearly every possible way.
For starters, the visual presentation. While running on an outdated engine which doesn't look as good as it could in this day and age, Contagion reeks of atmosphere from the first time you set foot in the Roanoke Police Department or the Aurora Estates. Like every zombie game there's a lot of blood and guts and broken windows littered about, but in Contagion each horrifying scene almost tells the story. Take a look at the zombie caught in the lawnmower, and you can almost see how a perfect Saturday morning of trimming your grass got brutally interrupted by a very sick looking mailman. Or the blood filled shower in the police station that leaves the bloodshed that ensued up to your morbid imagination. The atmosphere never lets up.
I told you not to drop the soap!
As far as I can tell, Contagion will feature only a single zombie type but often times that one type is enough to completely slaughter your team, anyway. Given the atmosphere, it's probably for the better, too.
As I stated before, zombies are real zombies this time around, meaning they go down in one hit from any headshot. But they suck up bullets like crazy, and ammo is incredibly scarce. There's often plenty of ammo available to players who just resort to headshots, but in the chaotic events that ensure in Contagion, you're probably not going to get an opportunity to hit the head of any zombie in the first place.
Zombies can also be player controlled, should a player get killed. Intriguingly, a player zombie can blend in with other zombies by letting an AI take over... and then taking control and pouncing on the survivors like a rabid flying squirrel. These player controlled zombies also have the ability to infect fellow players if they manage to latch on, putting more pressure on the survivors for each player that goes down.
The best part of Contagion, hands down, is the melee combat. True, it isn't nearly as good as Dea Island's melee system, and probably no game will ever be, but Contagion boasts an incredible "oomph" to it that no first person game has, period. Even though there's no actual zombie animation to go along with it, you can almost feel the weight of your trusty sledgehammer digging a crater into the skull of a zombie. I almost always feel sorry for my victim, though not so much when I see it regain its balance and lunge at me again, only to have it jump at me another time.
You don't need controller vibrations to feel that.
One issue with the melee combat, however, is the insta-kill sneak attack. It's not necessarily bad, broken or whatever, but it really breaks the atmosphere by shifting the game into third person and then providing a short kill animation that would make Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines proud of its own animation quality. Really, it's the whole unnecessary "third-person-ness" of it all that detracts from the experience, because if it were in first person it would look perfectly fine and not detract from the atmosphere at all.
Contagion has a bit of a lack of content (mostly in the maps department), featuring only 3 maps, each with its own (or sometimes 2) gamemode(s). But what's here has a certain level of quality. In addition to the objective based "Escape" mode, there is "Extaction" mode, where you break into people's houses and help them survive a zombie attack until a rescue unit shows up for you to escort them.
Extraction mode is easily my favorite mode. As a sucker for survival modes in which I am given an open space to take care of, Extraction brings something new to the table. Zombies don't actually invade houses unless prompted by the user (i.e., entering the house and starting the mission). From inside the house there's lots of weapons to fight back with... but often not enough. Your job is to barricade the windows using the nail gun to hold off the zombies, and boards are in limited supply, much like ammo. When the extraction team arrives, you have to escort the survivors over the fence. upon doing so, for each survivor saved, you get extra items and ammunition for your next endeavor.
Extraction mode also allows you to use your phone as a GPS in order to provide the "best route" to the house you're supposed to defend next. The GPS also displays the position of each survivor, allowing you to keep tabs on them. However, it doesn't pinpoint teammates, just just the survivors you're meant to escort to the extraction point. Effectively, it's a minimap which has to be equipped like a map. Or backwards. Or something.
Siri, find me the closest survivors and the nearest Burger King.
There is also a PVP mode, and also unlike L4D, it's a free-for-all mode, but with a twist: All the players are human, zombies litter the map so you have to stay quiet, and there is only one life. Players fight until the end of the round and are encouraged to form alliances until they're the only one's left. I'm not entirely sure what the phone is supposed to do in this mode, but it seems to search for devices in its proximity, sort of like looking for a bluetooth connection.
Sometimes it's the little things that make a game so great, and Contagion has quite a few. For example your smartphone is clearly an android phone and it is customizable in the options menu, allowing you to change your background or your ringtone. In addition, your phone actually tells you the real date and time according to your computer settings, the phone battery is actually your laptop battery, and the phone signal is server ping. While this only shows up in the "Escape" gamemode, it's pretty creative and worth mentioning.
Need to find a way out of the zombie infested police station? There's an app for that.
What I did find very disappointing was that Source's iconic user-generated spray painting was missing, just as it did in CS:GO. As a big fan of plastering my face on the walls over my victims in L4D's versus mode, it depresses me to see fewer and fewer Source games are doing this, let alone games in general.
Here's the problem. There isn't all that much content in the game as it stands, and it's already in beta, so not much is guaranteed to change at all (though a posts by a dev stated there will be more maps). With only four maps, one of which is the objective mode, two of which are Hunted's PVP, and one Extraction map, there's not a lot of content or replay ability to go around. However, it has been said that the game will support Steam Workshop, which is bound to spice things up a bit after launch, and who knows, maybe the devs will provide the free DLC they hoped to deliver on the kickstarter eventually?
Currently the game is being worked on by the devs at a crazy pace, dishing out updates, patches, and hotfixes on practically a daily basis, so the little extra cash you can give them for their hard work would certainly be appreciated, and quite a motivator. So think about that when you decide whether or not to support the game. I would say yes, if only for future Extraction mode maps.
*It should be noted that while it was made largely in part by the ZP:S team, the gameplay is far, far different and often criticized by the community for bearing little resemblance to Zombie Panic: Source.