The Zombie video game genre is sick, corrupted by the overabundance of imagine-less First Person Shooter games and generic 'shoot people in the face' games, incorporating our favoured undead creatures into the mix with little thought, reason or care. Some gems do manage to emerge from this quagmire of the unworthy such as Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising but these are few and, with the wealth of games released today, in far too great a danger of being overwhelmed.
However, the decline of the dead is not yet set in stone. In the early years of this decade there has been a resurgence – a re-animation, if you will. Titles such as DayZ (triumphantly birthing from an obscure modification of an existing video game into a full-blown commercial release), 7 Days to Die, The Organ Trail, The Dead Linger and Project Zomboid are all making gargantuan strides to turn this maligned video game focus into something breaching the pinnacles of true entertainment.
More can be done. In fact, more was being done; the plague of undeath was spreading to more games of different types, straying beyond your average shooter. Sadly though, for whatever reason, whatever unseen devilry, these games did not rise from the ground as beacons of undeath - signs of animation were present but some untold affliction doomed them to early graves, unmarked and forgotten.
So here are a few of the best, the most interesting, the brightest lights in a dark history, the ones I want brought back. Five brave video games that attempted to break the mould but were squashed before their potential could be realised. I hope, pray, wish, that someone reads this text and finds inspiration so these brilliant few are not lost forever.
Developer: Irrational Games
Genre: Strategic Shooter
Reason for cancellation: Lost due to company buyout
What would SWAT, a game series from Irrational that spanned four iterations, be like if Zombies were added? That jokey question saw the birth of Division 9. In SWAT 4, player's led a five-man team of SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) officers into various hostile scenarios such as hostage rescues and terrorist apprehensions - being a police game, the focus was refreshingly non-violent. You only had control of one officer but you could issue orders to human or computer controlled teammates. From the brief video of Division 9, it is clear that squad-command elements still play a vital role and, with the use of slower 'classic' Zombies, the trademark strategic and tactical experience of SWAT remains intact. In addition, Irrational promised base-building, scarce resources, strategic rescues to form a group of survivors and risk taking - this was no mere Left 4 Dead clone.
Previous decisions would affect future gameplay; for example, if you took on a side mission to restore power to an area of a city, any future missions in that area of the city would be in the light - a major bonus when trying to avoid things that want to eat you. The concept even extended to your base - rescue a teammate-healing doctor from the Zombie hordes and they would take up residence at your base although, by doing so, you may have just sacrificed the chance to adopt an engineer, limiting the quality of base defences. Those defences were crucial too as Zombies were infinite in number - they never, ever stopped (a revolutionary idea back when this game was in development). Wave after wave would appear from surrounding lands, drawn to the chance of food, pushing into your base, moving forward constantly, creeping ever closer until your treasured sanctuary is completely overrun.
Sadly, while heading in the right direction and in the lead developer's own words "would have been very successful", the project suffered at the putrid hands of bad timing. Vivendi Games, the publishers of the SWAT game series, were initially reluctant to fully fund development saying "we don't think Zombies will be big in 2005". When they eventually were ready to stump up the cash, Irrational had just been bought by Take-Two - another major player in the games publishing business. Division 9's unsecured coffin was firmly nailed shut, the promising Zombie title doomed never to rise.
Developer: Kuju Entertainment
Genre: First Person Shooter
Reason for cancellation: Financial problems
Not much is known about City of the Dead other than its cancellation sometime in late 2005 (last being shown at the 2005 iteration of the then extremely extravagant, magical games convention known as E3). What did shamble out from behind the news barricades was that the game was set on a Zombie-infested island called "Ningún Futuro" ("No Future" in Spanish). This should trigger some additional excitement in film goers and avid Zombaholics. You'll remember that the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead ended with the survivors from the mall reaching an island. Initially it was thought that Ningún Futuro was that island and that City of the Dead was a sort of follow up act to the remade movie. Sadly this imagination run riot was quickly brought back under control when the developer's confirmed that Ningún Futuro was not the island seen in the movie and the game was in no way related to the remade Dawn of the Dead.
Other news that came to light was that Tom Savini, actor and make-up artist in many "of the Dead" films (he also directed the splendid 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead), would lend his likeness and voice-acting skills to the game - the character William "Red" McLean would both look like Tom Savini and sound like him. This character would be a computer-controlled support character when first encountered, becoming playable later on in the game - presumably he is a trapped city-dweller you rescue from the undead hordes roaming the island.
The video above clearly shows early work, and while it is unlikely City of the Dead would have brought anything drastically new to the genre that has not been seen today, it is a shame a game bearing the prestigious "George A. Romero" title never saw the light of day. To me, the slumped over, slow moving Zombies are a major factor of why the game appeals - the majority of modern Zombie games fall back on fast moving undead freaks to provide challenge and action, leaving the traditional shufflers back in the graveyard. Another reason it is disappointing this game got canned was that it would have sparked a whole generation of "George Romero" Zombie games - games directly based on Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (the 1978 original) were already on the developer's agenda.
Genre: First Person Shooter
Reason for cancellation: Company "changing priorities"
© See Gun Hero, A Cancelled Zombie Game | Siliconera
The Zombie games above could be described as falling at the last hurdle, running the development marathon, crashing into oblivion just before the finishing line. Gun Hero, the third cancelled game to grace this list, barely left the starting gate.
Almost nothing has leaked from the fridge of its frozen development - the name of the development company is not known, it is not known if a publisher ever took on the game to see it through to release and aside from some conjectures by the art director plus a smattering of concept art, there is very little to prove this game even existed. Why then do I think it deserves a mention in this list, why should it beat back the other hordes of cancelled games to earn a place in the minds of The Dead Times intellectually superior readers? One simple and utterly overwhelming statement about the creative director's intentions for this game: "[to] emphasize the personal scale of [George] Romero's first Zombie film, Night of the Living Dead.".
In terms of gameplay, Gun Hero (a strange name for a Zombie title that involved more than simply shooting everything that moves) would have played a bit like Dead Island - a focus on hand-to-hand melee combat over ranged gunfights. From the concept art, environments seem to be flooded or partially flooded, suggesting boat travel to bring back larger supplies to a defensible area like that seen in Dead Island: Riptide. Thinking about it, partially flooded semi-rural environments would be a wonderful setting for Night of the Living Dead style isolation and risk taking. Just imagine being holed-up in a house, the outside swampy and waterlogged, restricting the ease of escape, supplies in the house dwindling prompting a costly trip to a nearby town, armed bandits patrolling the newly-formed seas, Zombies undeterred by water and possibly even masked by it, hidden in the depths - the mind swims (pun definitely intended) with possibilities.
However, for all my wild dreams, the game was not to be. Very shortly after being revealed, the aspiring game was canned, cast to the sunken depths of Davy Jones' Locker. Maybe it'll resurface someday... maybe...
Developer: Volatile Games
Genre: Real-Time Strategy/Survival Horror
Reason for cancellation: Never officially cancelled but no updates since 2006
Possession earns its place in this list by promising the most outlandish take on the Zombie game genre - unique ideas are always to be praised, no matter how bizarre. From early footage and the plot outline, the game reminds me heavily of Radical Entertainment's [PROTOTYPE]. In Possession, the player would take control of a nefarious citizen of the futuristic Restoration City who breaks into a laboratory owned by the Prometheus Corporation. This illegal behaviour is not without misfortune as our would-be saboteur is exposed to hazardous chemicals turning him into a Zombie - not your typical old decaying, re-animated corpse though. The Zombie you become retains all intelligence and has the power to, not only summon vast armies of undead but also control them.
Using an odd mix of third-person and army command not unlike Sacrifice or Overlord, the player would unleash hell on Restoration City in attempt to bring down the shining headquarters of Prometheus Corp.. There would be different types of Zombies to find on your crusade of destruction, each type having their own unique set of abilities. You would have to utilise each type of ghoul effectively to ensure victory. Just imagine the cackle-worthy moments you could have as legions of Zombies, fast and slow, move towards your hapless human adversaries, each man that falls only adding to your unholy armada.
A final point worth noting about Possession was the rather unusual multiplayer mode it promised: one player would act as the Zombified individual releasing wave after wave of Zombies against human defenders, controlled by other players.
As so often happens, Possession failed to find a publisher to fund it and thus completion was impossible. Nowadays, games lacking funds can pitch to the baying public through Kickstarter, ensuring quality, however unusual, never misses a chance in the light. And yes, that was a hint.
Genre: Open-world, Third-Person Shooter
Reason for cancellation: Unknown
I just know I'm going to get ridiculed for putting Dead Rush at the bottom of my top 5 list because, when the game was announced back in 2004, it gathered an absurd amount of fans (although, prior to writing this article, I had no recollection of ever hearing about the game). I suppose it is not really surprising fans gathered like an unspeakable horde of Zombies around an isolated survivor as the game was basically, and in my mind this does the game some discredit, "Grand Theft Auto with Zombies" - Grand Theft Auto being the awesomely popular open-world, crime-simulator.
The player took on the role of Jake Walker. From the start of the game, Jake has amnesia - he has washed up on a beach with a gun, a radio and a wound but no knowledge of where he is or how he got there. He later learns that he is in the island city of Eastport, a city ravaged by ungodly earthquakes; blackening the sky, re-animating the dead and allowing terrible Hell-born demons to walk the streets. With rampaging dead on the loose, the national guard were ordered to destroy all the bridges onto the island thus cutting off it from the mainland and, it was hoped, stop the massed minions of Hell from spreading. Unfortunately, that leaves you trapped perilously inside (the thought that some of the demons might be able to fly off the island obviously never crossed the minds of the National Guard).
The island of Eastport is big - really big. To get around this huge cityscape, you would need a car and vehicular carnage formed a large part of the game - hence the catchy tagline of "Drive to Survive". Once you purloined a vehicle you could modify it, adding nitrous or nasty zombie-killing spikes, and keep it in tip top condition with spare parts found scattered around the island. You could even scrap the vehicle altogether and remake it into an entirely new beast with the aid of a hot-headed mechanic - another person trapped on the island.
This 'Road Trip of Death' was not to be though as Activision officially halted development on the game just a few months after it was announced, shifting Treyarch onto the upcoming next-gen Call of Duty. Angry gamers took to forums, spewing out badly punctuated hate posts and raising petitions to try and resurrect the game. However, nothing worked and Dead Rush was left to rot proving that when Duty calls, publishers don't listen.
Developer: Kuju Entertainment
Genre: Survival Horror
Reason for cancellation: Aborted when development company entered new management
The feature list for this first-person survival horror game was as extensive as it was awesome, talking about the careful pacing needed for extreme horror, a realistic Alaskan town to explore, an environment without loading screens or breaks (an astronomical deal back in 2007) and town inhabitants that may not be as trustworthy as they first seem. Still, the plans make no mention of Zombies. Why, then, am I even bothering to give this obviously flawed sixth title space in this lengthy top 5 list?
The answer is because I simply adore the idea of a horror game set in a cold, dark environment. It just adds so much tension and atmosphere - the risk of freezing when venturing too far from shelter, footsteps crunching in the snow, the howl of cool winter winds whipping through leafless trees... Just imagine the blood-curdling moans of Zombies carried on the chilly breeze. Shadows, reflected on bright snow, always moving as trees moved and shook. Partially frozen twigs would crack loudly as mindless Zombies brushed passed. Zombies walking slowly, no prey in sight, or even draggers, those forced to crawl due to broken limbs, blanketed by falling snow, ready to strike at ill-attentive players.
The only horror games I can remember that went with this concept are The Thing and Cryostasis. I really hope that this ripe setting of videogame terror will be explored more fully in the future.
History is littered with failed games - entertainment projects that rose from the ashes only to fall back into the pits of development hell. For some, it was fortunate - sparing us terrible play experiences - but for others it was a shocking oversight. Some forgotten gems, mostly the ones involving Zombies, were so good, so brilliant in concept that hearing of their untimely demise was like the agony of a Zombie's teeth rending flesh from bone. Compiled within this sacred manuscript is a summary of five such games. Five hits that will never reach stardom. Five dead games that deserve a second chance.