‘Contagion’ Review: Undead Delight

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They’ve done it, zombies are everywhere. There’s no escaping them. They’ve permeated every medium of entertainment, from movies to television, books to video games, and we let it happen. We sat back and watched as the undead hordes shuffled and shambled their way into every facet of our lives. Whether or not you’re okay with this, they’re here to stay, it’s best if you just embrace it. Among them is Contagion, a crowdfunded spiritual successor to the popular Zombie Panic: Source! mod for Half-Life 2.

After going through a Steam Early Access phase, the game released in full last month. Find out if it’s worth your time in my review.

For starters, you should know that this is in no way a story-driven game. Contagion doesn’t waste any time trying to shoehorn an explanation for why there are zombies roaming the streets, and I’m thankful for it. I’ve heard so many stories that try to make a zombie epidemic sound something other than completely nonsensical, and it never really works.

Maybe there’s no more room left in hell, or perhaps there was a leak in a secret lab underneath the city that somehow spread to the surface — you can come up with a reason for it if you like, but why the dead have risen is never as important as what you’re going to do about it.

The think I love the most about Contagion is that unlike nearly every other zombie game I’ve played in the last five years, where ammo is bountiful and headshots aren’t required, this game takes the subgenre back to its roots. You can’t blindly shoot into a gaggle of walkers, because that would be a massive waste of precious ammunition and it’d also make you look like an idiot.

In Contagion, the only way to take a zombie down is by swiftly embedding a bullet in its cranium before it embeds its teeth in yours.

I absolutely love that about this game, because it’s the way it should be. And more than that, when you pair it with the borderline ridiculous rarity of healing items and the fact that your character can’t endure many hits before you become another statistic, it makes even a lone zombie a threat. It’s a smart idea, in terms of design, since it makes the game scarier and it forces players to be strategic. Because when life is precious, fleeting, and there’s always something lurking just out of your field of view waiting to take it from you, the “badass” and “hero” approaches are no longer options.

Since Contagion is very much a community-driven game, it’s always changing, evolving and improving. Developer Monochrome has done a splendid job so far supporting it with a steady stream of updates, new content, and special events. They’ve also been both communicative and open to feedback. If they keep that up, I can see Contagion’s community staying strong for years, and that’s obviously very important for a game like this.

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Contagion currently only features three game modes: the co-op centric Escape and Extraction modes — both of which can be played solo or with other players via LAN or online — and the competitive free-for-all Hunted mode.

In Hunted, it’s survival of the fittest, as players are dropped into a map and turned against each other in a fight to see who can survive the longest. You’ll need to either eliminate or outlast your foes, while evading the occasional smattering of walkers. Escape is completely different, in that it forces teamwork by having players locate a group of survivors, defend them from the undead hordes, and lead whoever is left to safety. The third mode, Escape, is a more traditional gametype where a team of four players must make their way through a map and to the extraction point (i.e. Left 4 Dead).

The current offering of game modes does a good job of covering all the bases. Each mode has been thoughtfully constructed and well-balanced, including the maps, which have seen numerous tweaks to their layouts and objectives since the game was in Early Access. The items you’ll find, which include various guns, ammunition for those guns, melee weapons for when you’re out of ammunition, and miscellaneous other goodies are randomly spawned each time the world is loaded. This means if you find a room filled with a treasure trove of life-saving loot during one playthrough, don’t expect it to be there in the next.

As for the available maps, it really is a matter of quality over quantity, with three maps available for Escape, two for Extraction, and four for Hunted.

The environments are expansive and usually do a fine job of rewarding those who take the time to explore them. If I had accrued enough ammunition to stray off the beaten path, I always took advantage of it. Even if there’s nothing in terms of loot, these environments are interesting enough to make them worth exploring. I was never stopped being impressed by the sheer amount of detail that’s been invested into every environment. The world feels alive, even if it is filled to the brim with the undead and the dying.

All of the above is aided by a top notch presentation and stellar sound design that gives away Monochrome’s impressive attention to detail. This is an indie game, though you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it. The graphics aren’t likely to have anyone picking their jaw up off the floor, but they do their job and then some. The lighting is especially well done; fires burn, casting flickering shadows that are easy to mistake for a threat when the tension is high, and muzzle flashes in a dark room can temporarily give away a particularly well hidden enemy.

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The production values — or in this case, talent — extends to the sound design, which is greater than you would normally expect from a low budget indie game. There’s not much in terms of voice acting, but the undead howls, growls, and gurgles are enough to send shivers down your spine if you hear it after having strayed from the group. The guns, too, sound powerful, like their real-world counterparts.

When playing Contagion online, it’s always a good idea to stick together, because other players can join the game as the undead, or if a survivor falls, they can return as an enemy. This introduces a welcome layer of suspense, as human-controlled zombies tend to be significantly more difficult to dispatch. And as if that’s not intimidating enough, when playing as a zombie, a player can actually summon nearby walkers rallying them to their cause. There’s nothing quite as scary as seeing a horde of zombies coming at you, led by someone who used to be your ally.

Usually, indie games with multiplayer components require a certain level of know-how to set up a multiplayer lobby. Monochrome has kept casual PC gamers in mind, so if you’re like me and you don’t necessarily understand or want to deal with trying to set up a server so you can play with friends, Contagion has you covered with an impressive 500 official servers for all to enjoy.

Assuming you haven’t gleaned this a few paragraphs back, Contagion is a great game. It can sometimes be a little rough around the edges — especially when the zombie AI gets a little wonky trying to traverse the game world — but it’s a more polished multiplayer experience than most games like this tend to offer.

The Final Word: In its current state, Contagion is a gory, addictive horror game that’s well worth its $20 price tag, especially seeing as it will only get better, thanks to a developer that’s more interested in fostering a strong community around a great game, rather than making a quick buck.

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