Judging by the comments section of most articles we write about new games and DLC that feature zombies, we'd say that Jeff Strain and his band of merry reanimated corpse enthusiasts (collectively and appropriately called Undead Labs) are at an immediate disadvantage with the announcement of their zombified XBLA title, Class3. We can't help but sympathize with their worries -- in the past three years, we've crushed, shot, sliced, exploded and generally obliterated more virtual zombies than we could ever possibly hope to count throughout the fullness of time.
That's exactly where Class3 -- a temporary codename, mind you, and a direct reference to Max Brooks' seminal Zombie Survival Guide -- sets itself apart. We recently spoke with Strain about how the team's first onus (which recently found a publishing partner in Microsoft Game Studios) stands out among a veritable field of undead offerings, and he explained succinctly, "In a real zombie apocalypse, you wouldn't just gather up the guns and go hunting zombies. You'd be trying to avoid them. You'd be trying to survive."
All zombie-centric games run a balance between providing the player with impetus to destroy zombies, and tasking the player with not being destroyed by zombies. Based on Strain's vision for the title, Class3 sounds like it leans decidedly towards the latter.
"We wanted to build a game around the central question of 'What would you do in the zombie apocalypse'," Strain explained. "We've all had the experience of going to a great zombie movies, coming out with our friends and grabbing a beer and, you know, you sit around talk about what your personal strategy is. Would you go to a helicopter, would you try to get on a boat, would you get in a car and try to drive to some remote farm somewhere -- everyone has their own idea of how they'd survive. We thought it would be fun to build a game around that concept."
Players will carry out their strategies in a third-person, over the shoulder "fast-paced action" shooter, exploring locations scattered across the zombie-infested sandbox town of Dunniway. While exploring, players will make decisions that affect how the zombocalypse evolves, all the time searching for a home base that they can fortify with resources scattered throughout the environment.
"What makes this game really different is the focus not on combat with zombies, but surviving the zombie threat," Strain said. "Stealth, evasion, securing your resources, figuring out ways to distract the zombies so they don't pile up on you, and moving through the world in a very kind of realistic way."
"Finding weapons is certainly a big part of it, but by weapons, we mean more than guns," Strain added. "You live in this world that is filled with the clutter of 21st Century civilization that's now yours for the plucking. There's all kinds of things that could be weapons: from the serious, like knives and crowbars, to the humorous, like golf clubs and baseball bats."
On top of armaments, players will also need to keep a constant eye out for other tools necessary for their survival -- Strain named copper wire, food and (for more permanent zombie-free settlements) fruit and vegetable seeds as examples. Players will also need to rescue "human resources" who can help in their plight, such as electricians who can help repair any damaged electronics in their home bases.
"Everyone has their own idea of how they'd survive. We thought it would be fun to build a game around that concept." -- Jeff Strain, Undead Labs
In Class3, your very life is a commodity that you have to risk to collect these resources. So, what happens when one of your risks doesn't exactly pay off, resulting in the wholesale digestion of your delicious, delicious brain?
"If you're going to make a world where survival is your key goal, then death has to matter," Strain explained. "We have some strong thoughts as to how we can accomplish that -- our designers will be talking about that on our website over the next couple of months. The short answer is yes, there will be some notion of sacrifice, some notion of death being meaningful in the game, and we'll talk about details at a later time."
What's the win scenario in a game where surviving in the face of insurmountable odds is the day-to-day objective? Strain wouldn't say, but stressed that exploring the root cause of the zombie outbreak would be a core focus for the player in Class3.
"Figuring out what caused the zombie apocalypse, what caused the downfall of society, how did it all start -- that's a big part of the fun," Strain said. "When you think about a television series, like Lost, part of the fun of something like that is that you don't really know how or why this happened until the very end. That's one of our goals for this game as well."
Most of the online features planned for the title when Undead Labs first announced their incorporation in late 2009 won't actually be implemented until the release of Class4; however, Strain said he's hopeful the game will support two-player co-op over Xbox Live, where a fellow survivor can join your world (or vice versa), and help collect resources, fortify bases, and make decisions that alter the state of your surroundings. (Couch co-op will "certainly" be in the final game too, he added.)
But what about that initial point -- that the zombie genre has reached the point of complete and total oversaturation? Though it sounds like it's a clever take on the time-tested undead formula, Class3 is still a zombie-focused game, of which the gaming community has seen plenty of over the past few years.
"No game has really captured, in our opinion, what makes the zombie genre so popular and so compelling," Strain said. "There's a lot of games out there that play to the horror aspect of zombies. There are plenty of games that play to the humor aspect as well. I think that's all great, but a very strong part of what makes the genre so pervasive is the survival aspect, and there's really never been a game, especially a modern take on it that really captures that aspect of the zombie genre."
"Setting aside the 'zombie' aspect of the genre, the gameplay itself that we're endeavoring to make here is going to feel fundamentally different from any other game that's come before, because of this emphasis on survival. I think it's going to feel very fresh."
We've got a while before we find out how thoroughly Undead Labs capitalizes on its vision -- Strain said Class3 is currently six months into development, and moving ahead rapidly, but said, "I would suspect we won't be showing the game at any events this year, but I think it's highly likely that we'll be showing it next year."
Either way, we've got plenty of time to brainstorm some truly winning zombie survival strategies. (Us? We're booking a ticket on the SS Huckleberry. Obviously.)