Clearly, the game's designers are fans of the campy zombie genre, as the premise and tone reflect the upbeat influences of George A. Romero rather than the serious and horrific tones set by filmmakers such as Clive Barker and John Carpenter (who inspired the Resident Evil series, no doubt). The game kicks off with a cinematic involving the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at New York City's Rockefeller Center. After the mayor finishes up his speech, a boy in a wheelchair flips the lever to light the tree, which reveals a gaggle of blood-dripping zombies lurking underneath. Mayhem ensues as the zombies proceed to chow down on everyone in sight, including young Bobby. Later scenes are portrayed through fake news footage, as well as conversations that take place between the lead character and his/her commander, a dense fellow who at one point mistakes a retarded kid for a zombie. Oopsie! The game's script is filled with twisted humor like that.
Eventually, we come to learn that a disease has been spreading worldwide, turning healthy human beings into blood-thirsty creatures called the "infected," and that certain individuals seem to be immune to the disease. In fact, the blood from these individuals is potent enough to cause the infected to splatter if they come into contact with it. That's where you come in. Your blood is resistant to the virus, so you've been enlisted to help eradicate the infected.
Other games, like Rengoku and Ghost in the Shell, have tried to bring the third-person shooting genre onto the PSP with mixed results. Infected manages to avoid the pitfalls of those games, because it doesn't bog players down with puzzles, half-assed aiming schemes, or ammunition management. Throughout the single-player campaign, you'll encounter three types of missions (extermination, escort, and rescue), but success always hinges upon killing all of the zombies in a level and your own survival. You won't fail a level if someone else dies, although you can earn extra cash to spend on unlockable items by keeping civilians alive. Killing the infected is paramount, and doing so is usually as easy as lining up one in your crosshair and giving a quick tap-tap-tap on the "fire" button. There are fast zombies, and slow ones; fat ones too; and zombies with chainsaws and shotguns. Pressing the right shoulder button activates a lock-on cursor, which lets you focus on the target as you move and strafe. To kill a zombie, you first must weaken it with your ballistic gun, and then finish it off with a shot from your viral gun (which is powered by your own blood).
Factors like item management and ammunition are non-factors, because the game automatically upgrades you to the most powerful weapon once you've killed a certain number of zombies, and because weapons never run out of ammo. Aside from a brief pause to load a fresh clip, you're always good to go. There are five main weapons (pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, and B.F.G.) and an assortment of limited use items, such as grenades and shields, which are left behind by splattered enemies. The variety of weapons, while small, is satisfying, mostly because of the blood that sprays off of the infected from multiple bullet hits, and the eventual chunky splattering that results from the final killing-blow from the viral gun. Another nice ripple of the viral gun is that you can use it to splatter multiple zombies at once, which saves time and causes them to drop better items. Doing so is simply a matter of wearing a few zombies down with normal weapons and finishing one off with the viral gun. The splash damage from the resulting explosion will cause any nearby ghoulies to explode as well.
The drawback to all of this ease of use is that Infected is an extremely single-minded affair. Combat is point-and-shoot, with little other strategy apart from "don't get surrounded." Some areas have multiple zones to clear, and zombies will go berzerk if you don't clear a zone in time, but it's not like that extra back-and-forth travel adds any depth to the process. By the same token, you can use the money you earn to buy different avatars and costumes, and to upgrade your character's health and speed, as well as the damage doled out by individual weapons, but, again, it's not like any of that stuff adds any variety to the game itself. Split into brief play periods, killing zombies in Infected is good, nasty fun. Playing for extended periods, however, or trying to finish up the single-player campaign in one or two sittings, isn't recommended, because killing the same zombies over and over will eventually lead to burnout. Four or five total hours of play spread throughout 35 missions may not seem like much on paper, but it's more than enough when the action is so focused on a single task.
You can prolong your enjoyment of the game a bit longer by taking advantage of its multiplayer modes. They're nothing too special; just deathmatch and tag games; but there are definitely upsides to blasting away at your buddies locally and strangers online. Local (ad hoc) matches support as many as four players, while Internet (infrastructure) matches only support 1-on-1 battles. The crazy thing is that you can actually "infect" other players' systems with your character. When matches are played online, the winner's avatar is downloaded onto the loser's game and ends up appearing as a zombie during missions. Furthermore, that character then has a random chance of being passed onto other players. An avatar tracker ties the concept together, by allowing players to log on and see how many times their character has been passed on and what cities it has traveled too.
Despite the risk of contracting boredom from gunning down the same zombies over and over again in the single-player mode, the game is still very enjoyable on the whole. The easy controls and simple combat mechanics make killing zombies a fun endeavor. At the same time, the overall presentation is simultaneously charming and dark. The environments look like New York neighborhoods at Christmas time. There's snow on the ground and obvious NYC landmarks are visible all around. Cars and gas lines have a habit of exploding randomly, or when you splatter a zombie near them. Discarded newspapers and trash can be seen blowing past you. In some stages, you'll light snow falling. Quite wonderfully, setting the game during the Christmas time-frame gave the programmers an excuse to transform all of New York's department store Santas into zombies. Between missions, the campy news-style cinematic sequences really contribute to the atmosphere, showing the direness of the situation and how completely unhinged that poor anchorwoman has become thanks to reading stories like "Rockefeller tree decorated with o-no-ments." The commander's radio transmissions that play from the mission menu are a hoot too. At one point, he tells the player to stay strong and then saunters off to the bathroom with his microphone still on, where he has a total nervous breakdown for a minute and blathers on about being trapped in a basement for three months with only rodents, rotting vegetables, and his own feces artwork to pass the time.
From a technical viewpoint, the graphics and audio don't push the system to its fullest potential. The levels are small, open areas that are roughly two or three blocks in size in real world terms. There's a fair bit of detail to the surroundings, things like park benches, upturned cars, paper boxes, and various NYC-specific tidbits that help impart the appropriate atmosphere. You can't really interact with anything in the environment though, except for moving between areas through subway tunnels, and the flat streets and giant rectangular buildings make the levels literally feel "square." At least they're not nearly as claustrophobic as the levels in Coded Arms or Rengoku. All of the various infected people look suitably ugly and move with the kind of lankiness you'd expect to see in this sort of game, but there are perhaps only 10 different enemy designs that are re-used constantly throughout the entire game. They hurl gooey pus and explode into bloody clouds when splattered though, which is always a plus. The engine also doesn't have a problem when twenty or more of them are roaming around a level in plain sight. In-mission audio is a mix of heavy metal music, zombie moans, and weapon FX that get the job done, albeit unremarkably.
When push comes to shove, Infected rises above its shortcomings because the overall experience is enjoyable. Yes, it is repetitive and somewhat light on content, and it doesn't really push the PSP's capabilities, but it is also fun and extremely charming (in a dark, twisted way). Anyone that has been looking for a fast-paced, not-too-complex zombie killing game should definitely check out Infected.
1/31/2006 Frank Provo