We at IGN, and everybody else out there in the gaming news biz, have already given ups to developer Planet Moon Studios for having gigantic balls. These guys are a known entity for Giants: Citizen Kabuto and previously Shiny's MDK, and they bailed on the console rat-race to embrace the PlayStation Portable. Sure, there are developers who are "handheld guys", but not many are that way by choice, and even though the PSP (and its rival Nintendo DS system) is a handheld on a much higher order than anything from the past, making pocket games is still a gig looked down upon in the industry.
That being said, even big brass ones only get you so far, and then you've got to deliver. PSP owners have been watching Infected, Planet Moon's first PSP game, for a while to see if it swings with all the weight of its maker's reputation. In a lot of ways, it does -- the sick-minded humor and blistering action is everything you'd expect from this team. However, Infected has a small-scale concept that intentionally limbos under the hype bar rather than vaults way over it. This is a zombie blast-a-thon, with no puzzles, few special moves, and only occasional story interjections. There's method to the madness, but you'll figure that out in the first hour of the game, and after that, it's all sweat and bullets until the end. If you're expecting production values and gameplay depth on par with a console game in this former console game studios' first handheld go, you might find that Infected's vein run dry. Get past expectations, though, and you've got a mainlined adrenaline rush with multiplayer modes that should keep you pumping.
Dead Day Afternoon
The chief conceit behind Infected is that zombies have overrun The Big Apple, and only you can stop them with your somehow immune blood cells. The idea breaks down the second you start up a multiplayer match, strangely enough, but again, this game isn't about story -- it's about making zombies bleed with your blood. To tenderize the zombies so that they're ready for an injection of healthy death, you've got a handful of choices in guns and explosives that can be upgraded as you go along. Load them up with bullets, then when they've gone red, pop them with a shot of blood. If a zombie is near enough to other zombies when he splats, his blood will help either lower the defenses of the zombies around or, better still, burst those ready to blow for a carnage combo.
It's a simple idea, with simple controls tied easily to the PSP's gamepad. Infected is a game that takes just seconds to pick up and play, but far from a lifetime to master. Outside of the two always-armed guns (one your Viral Gun for splatting creatures, the other your choice of firearm or explosive), there's a button for sprinting and a button for a 180-degree quick-turn. The rest of the gamepad is your map and gun choice, and that's it. The layout is efficient -- games have surely been less fun with twice as many controller inputs. No camera problems, and no need to curse the PSP's lack of a second analog pad. Still, there's not a lot of room for technique in the game control. It can take a heck of a lot of skill in a two-player bout just to keep matches from being a see-saw trade-off on the health bar (and even when you do play skillfully, you'll feel like a wuss for avoiding so many firefights), and single player feels like the same few match types over and over again.
The technique of the game comes in how you approach each map and how you take on the zombie hoards. The infected New Yorkers are fast, lethal, and hungry, and to beat them, you've got to use your brains before they get eaten. Infected will hunt the survivors, and one of your chief goals is to rescue citizens before they are attacked and become rabid. Every one of the game's 40 stages has some differences in this aspect. Some stages will have you collecting up people to have them evacuated by helicopter, while others have men on the field that cannot be choppered out and must be protected. Sometimes the evac zone must be cleared of zombies so that the helicopters can fly in safely, and other zones only allow limited passenger flights in to take a few people away at a time in each zone. One or two areas, at the hardest ranking level, don't even let you get the people out, and you've got to keep them safe while you lock down areas of the map to keep them protected.
Between the crisis zone types and the control, this game is arcade mayhem to the max. In a lot of ways, Infected plays like a puzzle game without the need to think -- kind of like Super Bust-A-Zombie or Katamari Deadmacy. Killing zombies gets to be easy the more your weapons power up and your skill improves, and eventually, just splattering a zombie won't be enough for you -- you'll crave chains. Leaving them alive just long enough to crowd together soon becomes the strategy, and you'll be bouncing bodies all over the stage just for fun so that you can pile up enough undead to get a good rain of blood going. You've got to work fast, however, because in addition to bonuses based on your game clock, there are time limits for zombie masses before they go "berserk" and become much faster and more deadly. You'll also be competing for medals in each stage (in fact, you can't pass a stage unless you at least earn a bronze medal), so you've got to be good to keep going, and there's a lot of replay value in getting back in there for the golds. The game's weapon loadout has a curiously arcade-styled mechanism where you don't bring guns into the infected area, you earn them with splatter chains, but it works for the speed and style of madness here, as you're always trying to chain up and get the weapons needed for big fun.
Sicks In The City
Multiplayer is the other side of Infected, and while its set-up is unusual for reasons that don't always work for its favor, the game can deliver the same kind of thrills both in single and multiplayer bouts. Though you are armed with the kind of firepower that'd make you think, "Deathmatch", there are other match types to play through in the game. Ad-Hoc local play has Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, Savior mode (where you try to save people on the streets without being blown up by another of NYC's finest), and Mad Cow mode (a "keep the ball" mode where you are turned into a cow and must stay alive while other players hunt you.) These modes allow for up to eight players to match up together, and they can get to be a bloody mess of fun. There will always be both zombies and citizens roaming around the stage for more bloodshed (as well as for powering up your weapons with splatter-points.)
Online, however, is left anemic from its late addition to the game -- only two players can go at each other at a time, and only deathmatching is possible. Scaling back from a field full of players to just mano-a-mano bouts makes it a lot less fun, and the challenge level is ironed flat. If you've played a two-player FPS before, you know how that can be just a teeter-totter slugfest of players trading bullets until one and then the other dies, and Infected doesn't even have the ability to sneak up on or snipe an opponent -- it's lock-on combat with a permanent map. We beat programmers who have been working on the game for many months, and we've had our asses handed to us by players who have just played a few rounds of play. Either way, most matches have been too close to call either one dominant. Sure, there will be players online who are so good that they seem bulletproof, and newbies will get toasted a lot, and it all plays smoothly, but with so few control options and just two players, we don't see online being the draw that this game can be in bigger-scale multiplayer.
It's too bad this got cut short, because one of the coolest aspects of Infected is its "Infect the World" concept. Essentially a personified record status system, players will be able to "infect" defeated opponent's systems with their own special virus. Zones in an "infected" system will have your player's character avatar show up instead of regular zombies, and when you play multiplayer, you will be the infected character until you've cleared out your infected areas. A cool idea, the "Infect the World" concept sinks in completely when you check in online (via infrastructure mode right there on your PSP) and view how far in the world your virus has spread. Infected only tracks North America and Canada (as far as we know, it'll stay that way, but the tracking system is web-based, so it could be changed when a European or Japanese version is launched), but it does show clearly how deadly your spread has been. We would have loved for the Infected system to track more than one virus at a time (you can either pass your virus or your infected virus), but there's enough incentive there to winning as it is. A handful of other stats are also kept, including top player stats and kill count -- and nicely, the kill ratio tracking should help keep down on drop-outs, since stats are still uploaded by the winner up until that point. The loser may not get infected, but the game will still get him if he has, as the game accuses when you start back up from dropping, "punked out." If you travel and play others while way, there's the added benefit of Infected loading up not just online, but also local stats for multiplayer matches to the tracking service. Every time you fight a fellow zombie hunter, your rep is on the line.
West Side Gory
Before getting too deep into the graphics and sounds of Infected, we've got to mention the game's humor, because Planet Moon is known for being twistedly wicked with a joke, and Infected busts guts in more ways than one. The undead have taken over the city at Christmastime, killing thousands in bloody and hideous ways. The lead headline on the local news that horrific night: "Worst shopping season ever? Find out at 11..." A series of radio chatter discussions between the grizzled Dr. Schaeffer and the pompous Commissioner Burgess play out between missions, and while sometimes the talk is there to inform, it's mostly just idiotically hilarious rambling. When the Commish throws out the idea of funding the war on zombies with advertising (to the zombies), it's sheer lunacy, and the sad demise of little Timmy is as demented as it's ever gotten in videogaming. The only complaint I could lodge here is that there just isn't enough funny stuff to go around. You'll hear repeat radio chats by the game's half-way point, and only a couple of cutscenes are interspersed throughout. Infected is a big production on PSP, but compared to other games by Planet Moon like Armed & Dangerous (which never had much hope of being more than a sleeper hit), this handheld game feels like it was given a little less than its fill of the funny.
Visually, Infected has powered through its early builds to become one of the better looking games on the system. The level of carnage is awesome when you open up with the big guns (especially when you're tossing zombies around like rag dolls), and a bunch of effects have been tossed in to class up the joint. Brilliant searchlights scroll the area, while fire effects burn in the war-torn city. It looks great, with sharp textures and fast play throughout, and the framerate only chokes when the bombs go off on crowds of enemies. The only qualm we had with the visuals, besides the goofy way the characters always have both arms raised to shoot (it goes with the territory, but it looks goofballs) was the choice in putting a color halo around all the zombies to show their health levels. It takes all the fear out of the character to see them as just glowing yellow and red blobs, and though they're animated with regular zombie lunges and fright faces, they just don't look real anymore once they're treated with videogame effects. It makes the play fast and easy to see, at least, and when you see a siege of yellow berserker zombies charging at you when you're armed with a simple shotgun, you know you're f'ing f'ed. There are only a few enemy types in the game -- the big, hulking beasts that shed their skin about half-way through are pant-fillingly frightening, but after that, the character set is tapped out.
Infected's soundtrack is jacked up with screaming metal bands. Anywhere else, this would have my ears bleeding and my teeth gnashed to the nubs, but Infected is working me into a convert. The raving yelling of bands like The Agony Scene and Chimera work with the game's relentless action, and the freak-show band Slipknot is featured as a set of playable characters in addition to showing up on the soundtrack. You'll have to unlock them for the character creation mode, and there are a couple of other surprises in there as well as the regular character options. We would have liked for there to have been a more open character designer feature (you can only put certain hairstyles and outfits on each character type), but the color choices and variation of choices are deep enough to make each character you create a little different from others when you set out to infect the world.
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