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Zombie Apocalypse 2: Never Die Alone hands-on preview

If you’ve picked up a gamepad in the past couple years, there’s a good chance you’ve done so with the intent of slaughtering hordes of flesh-hungry freaks. Freeing zombies of their entrails has become a favorite gamers' pastime few genres won’t cater to – yes, even Dirt 3 has a zombie mode. So, it’s of little surprise then, Konami’s 2009 twin-stick shooter, Zombie Apocalypse, is reloading for a sequel.

The original – an XBLA and PSN download – offered some solid undead-slaying thrills, but grew painfully repetitive by its midpoint. With Backbone Entertainment taking the zombie-wrangling reins from Nihilistic Software, Zombie Apocalypse 2: Never Die Alone promises to not only address this problem, but also blend plenty of fresh ideas into the walking-corpse cocktail.

At its decomposing core, ZA2 is still an arcade-y, dual-stick shooter played from a top-down perspective. And like its predecessor, it encourages players to recruit up to three pals to face the brain-craving menaces. This recipe’s been refined and tweaked, however, yielding a much deeper and – excuse the pun – fleshed-out experience. For starters, it supports a more squad-based gameplay approach by featuring four unique characters. While not as defined as typical RPG classes, each zombie-hating hero sports specific powers, weapons, and abilities that can be upgraded between stages.

Behind the survivalist skills of an elderly priest, British rap star, brainy hot chick, and an intentionally annoying gamer stereotype who peppers all his sentences with “pwned” and “noob,” players are given access to a variety of death-dealers. From face-ventilating shotguns and laser-sighted pistols, to Molotov cocktails and other things that blow up real good, there’s no shortage of ways to stack corpses with conventional means. That said, it’s some of the more inventive methods that got our trigger fingers instinctively twitching. ZA2 brings back the exploding zombie-bait teddy bears from the previous game, but ups the undead-attracting ante with some new traps. Our favorite is a boom box that not only lures the flesh-craving crazies, but also lulls them into a trance-like state, making them easy targets.

Each character also has a special ability meter which they fill by slaying with epic style; general slaughter will eventually top it off, but chaining kills and combos will brim it faster. Once full, this power – officially dubbed “pwnage“ – can be unleashed for a short period of time. Letting the leash off the screen-clearing attacks sees the lone female of the group assemble a baddie-shredding turret, while it imbues the holy man with a spiritual invincibility aura. These powers, while brief, are highly effective at thinning larger hordes of undead or draining the hit-point pool of a single, towering enemy.

Speaking of big bads, ZA2 also introduces boss battles. More than just bullet-sponging meat-bags, though, these level-capping threats require teamwork to takedown. We faced a hulking, oozing mess of a monster that swiftly turned our four-man squad into chunky pavement smears. Thankfully, a generous checkpoint system quickly put the blobby brain-eater back in our sites, where we were able to down him with a more concerted offensive; it seems pitting two players against the primary threat, while having the other pair focus on the flanking foot-draggers, is the smartest strategy.

When not reducing swarms of undead walkers to pulpy red piles, ZA2 tasks players with rescuing survivors. These scared civilians are in a daze when first approached, so smacking them upside the head – a hilarious animation, by the way – is the only way to “encourage” them to follow. As the bitch-slapping of innocents might suggest, this game’s as focused on tickling funny bones as it is taxing trigger fingers. While much of the humor is cosmetic (we’re pretty sure the boss we fought was showing some butt crack) it also influences the gameplay. The priest for example, packs a skull-crushing wallop behind his walker, while the Brit’s viscous melee attack bloodies his Cricket bat. Environmental killers, such as zombie-sucking airplane engines, also dole out the humor and horror in equal doses.

Rather than setting battles in confined arena-like levels, as its predecessor did, ZA2’s stages scroll into each other organically. The world’s also filled with slick lighting, shadowing, particle, and physics effects, providing an eye-pleasing backdrop to the bloodbath. Of course, ogling the pretty sites for too long will see your rubberneck separated from your torso, as ZA2’s infected foes are a relentless bunch. From speedy 28 Days Later-like threats to those that explode on contact, players will encounter plenty of wandering corpses not of the typical shambling variety. While it’s best to face these creeps with a few friends, ZA2 does allow solo players to switch between the four characters on the fly. Whether braving the end of the world by ourselves or bringing some shotgun-toting buddies along for the ride, we look forward to spilling rivers of blood when ZA2 arrives this fall.

Aug 29, 2011

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