Playing Zombie Master I experienced an emotion I’d never felt before in a multiplayer game: Fear. Normally found exclusively in single-player games, fear requires a build up of atmosphere and level of immersion not normally found in the online FPS world. The game in question started like any other, a bunch of guys merrily laying into a horde of zombies with assorted firearms in a shooting gallery affair common to just about any online zombie game of the last ten years. There was even laughter as zombie ragdolls flew through the air. But slowly the humans went down, surrounded and outnumbered. Imperceptibly at first, things started getting claustrophobic. Ammunition became scarce. Finally, only two of us remained. We were surrounded. Then the guttural scream from the next room signified the death of my comrade who had 'just gone to look for ammo'. Suddenly I found myself alone in the darkness. A malignant intelligence was watching my every move, plotting my demise.... I felt scared.
Zombie Master is a freely available mod for Valve's Source engine. It revolves around the well-worn scenario of a small group of survivors fending off the massed ranks of the undead, with one unique twist. The idea behind Zombie Master is one of those elegant solutions to a problem that seems obvious with hindsight. Normally, zombie games fall into two categories: The first is where the AI controls the zombies. I find these get very repetitive very quickly. A duck shoot against a predictable, shuffling mass. There is little excitement or tension. The second type being the ones in which players control the zombies. The problem I have with these is that the zombies are too smart. Too un-zombie like. Seeing a zombie duck behind cover to avoid a shotgun blast is just... wrong.
The Zombie Master solution is to have one player -- the titular Zombie Master -- controlling the entire evil horde from a godlike RTS perspective. This means the individual undead fiends are still the brainless, rotting husks we know and love, but as a mass they remain unpredictable, move intelligently, and always appear at the worst place at the worst time.
Anyone who has played a FPS game in the last ten years can jump straight in as a human survivor and feel right at home. Controls are FPS standard, and the usual selection of pistols, shotguns, and rifles are available. (The only strange omission is the lack of chainsaws. I mean, really, what kind of zombie game doesn’t feature chainsaws?) The Zombie Master plays the game from a disembodied overhead view. He can not only spawn and control a selection of different zombie types -- from the slow and hard hitting hulks to the light and fast banshees –- but he can also activate map-specific traps. The nature of these traps varies greatly, from explosions to collapsing bridges.
Maps are mission-based, meaning the human team has a set objective, be it locating a cure for the zombie outbreak or just getting together the parts needed to repair a truck and escape. The quality in these maps varies considerably. Some wouldn’t look out of place in a professional game. Others are unbalanced, confusing, or just plain boring. This really sums up my main gripe with Zombie Master; it’s very inconsistent. Your can have a really tight game, everyone working together to fulfill the mission, the tension high and the atmosphere loaded. Or, on the other hand, you can be wandering lost in a map, trying to figure out what you're supposed to do. Some traps seem a bit unfair, and it's easy to get killed at the start of a game and have to wait for what seems like an age for the round to resolve so you can rejoin the action. Also, as with most multiplayer games, your enjoyment depends greatly on who you are playing with. It only takes one person to decide to play music over the microphone, or put on a 'humorous' accent and start trying to be funny, and the creepy atmosphere is killed.
However if you, like myself, think that a zombie apocalypse -– far from being a terrible disaster -– would actually be the coolest thing that could happen to you in your lifetime, and keep you basement well stocked with tinned food and shotgun shells in preparation, then you'll find there is plenty of fun to be had with Zombie Master. It's well worth a download.