Pale-skinned, shambling monstrosities of the night - but enough about this year's E3 attendants, let's talk zombies. Since the rise of survival horror, there's been no shortage of the rotten-fleshed ones on the console scene and any game wanting to sink its teeth into the brains of jaded gamers is going to have to do something pretty special. Thankfully, George A. Romero's City of the Dead is already cocking its shotgun and waiting to kick down your doors.
First up, let's talk about that "George A. Romero" bit. Any horror fan will recognise the name of film's premiere zombie-meister, director of the legendary Living Dead trilogy. According to Hip Interactive's Lead Designer, Alex Trowers, Romero is doing more than just sticking his name on the box. With full approval of the story and even taking directing duties on the title's cut-scenes, Living Dead aficionados should already be slathering over the possibilities.
The game itself is a full-on, first person rampage where the goal is simply to survive the unstoppable undead onslaught over a twenty-four hour period. So far, so familiar though - it's the attention to detail that's got us excited. While not a direct continuation of the Living Dead mythology, the action unfolds within the same universe - this means that all of Romero's zombie rules apply here. Unlike Resident Evil and its ilk, there's only one way to permanently dispatch your shambling pursuers - by destroying the brains.
With your shotgun at the ready (which, in a nice bit of tension-cranking realism, must be cocked each time you want to unleash a shell), aim for the head and pull the trigger. A direct hit between the eyes and it's bye-bye to the brain muncher. Strike anywhere else and you'll remove a limb, but the monster keeps on coming. Watching the rag doll physics in action when a newly quadriplegic zombie flies through the air on the back of a shell, only to have the remaining torso stump roll over and hump toward you, is hilariously unsettling. You won't be laughing too long once he's gnawing at your foot though - in this game, when you're bitten, that's it. You're on your way to Undeadsville and unavoidable defeat.
With movie gore guru Tom Savini supervising the slaughter, when those bullets hit rotting flesh, the after-effects are gut-wrenchingly spectacular. In the demo we saw, a succession of sharp shooting resulted in a bullet time-style switch of the camera where a close-up zombie skull shattered in a burst of blood-spewing, brain-splattered beauty.
In story mode, you'll be fending off a vast array of undead cretins, ranging from your typical slow moving sort to leapers, flamers and chuckers. The latter, we're told, make great use of the free-form physics engine and can literally lob anything they find around the environment to dish out some damage - including other zombies' dismembered limbs.
Hip Interactive aren't twiddling their thumbs back at HQ though and there's also multiplayer and challenge modes thrown into the mix. Multiplayer takes the form of four-player online co-op where, in a neat twist, you turn zombie, chasing down and chewing out your comrades if you're bitten during a match. Challenge mode is likened to Soul Calibur 2's "Edgemaster" mode where you're set objectives in some seriously unlikely conditions. In the example we saw, the aim was to destroy as many zombies as possible with nothing but a lone shotgun shell and judicious use of the environment. Other examples given include relentless slaughter in half-gravity and racking up the undeath count solely by pile-driving overhead helicopters into zombie
brains. The emphasis here is on arcade-style challenges and high scores, which Hip Interactive hopes will pump replayability through the roof.
City of the Dead is due for release on PS2, Xbox and PC in early 2006. We're already moaning in anticipation.