It’s not uncommon for a group of friends to have a hangout game. For some it’s a mindless shooter like Destiny, for others it’s whatever competitive title is hot at the moment, but my title has always been the same. Since 2008, I’ve been playing a pretty terrible Half-Life mod called Zombie Panic. This past decade has been one of change for me, I graduated high school, changed career paths a few times, and have struggled with various states of depression, but there’s always been one constant: me and a few friends love to play this broken game together.
I don’t blame you if you’re unfamiliar with Zombie Panic. Online servers were pretty much dead when we started playing it in 2008 (the community had moved onto an updated version called Zombie Panic Source, although I feel like it loses all of the charm of the original), and it was never that huge of a deal to begin with. The premise of the game is sound, though, as it pits zombies against humans in a test of survival. The twist is that there is only one zombie at the beginning, and that dead humans join the zombie team after they die. Victory is achieved by either the human team killing 20 zombies, or the zombie crew killing all the humans.
If playing with a large enough crew (like 10+ players), I could actually see Zombie Panic being semi-balanced. After all, if humans cooperate and play smart, then killing a singular zombie repeatedly shouldn’t be that hard. However, my play sessions usually maxed out at around six players, and victory was extremely rare. In my entire decade of playing, the humans have survived less than a handful of times. It’s a game where the outcome is pretty much expected, but it makes those rare victories all the more meaningful and legendary. I know I’ll never forget the shame of when I was the starting zombie and lost a match.
So, why play a horribly unbalanced old shooter that looks terrible (even with some custom graphic mods installed)? Well, we started playing a Half-Life mod since a lot of our friends group had bad computers and this could be played on practically everything. We then just wound up digging the general brokenness of the game. Sure, no humans were going to win during any given play session, but the gameplay provided plenty of laughs, and we were there to hang out with each other rather than concentrate fully on something else.
When we first started playing Zombie Panic, it wasn’t all that uncommon to see other players join an online match if servers happened to be live. It’d just be one or two players max, but we definitely had some fun playing with random people that joined in. That number quickly became zero after a year or so, though. So, imagine the pure shock when in 2017, roughly eight years since we had seen another soul online, a random player had joined one of our matches. I distinctly remember thinking one of my buddies had changed their nickname, but after quickly checking the lobby, I realized we had an extra player in the match. We all collectively lost our minds in the Skype chat, and couldn’t believe that someone else had decided to boot up this abandoned Half-Life mod. They only played a match or two with us, and barely talked via the in-game chat, but it remains one of the most shocking things to ever happen to me while playing a video game.
Honestly, that’s what makes Zombie Panic so special to me. It’s such a broken and abandoned game that small things (that are taken for granted in literally every other multiplayer title) are celebrated. Winning a match as a human is about as rare as Halley’s Comet, and a random player popping in is just unheard of. It’s hard to make an apt comparison but imagine playing Lawbreakers a month after release and there being other players online. It’s that crazy!
Throughout the years, we’ve constantly added every random map and mod that we could find for the game. From enhanced graphics to a map that is heavily inspired by The Shining, we’ve found some pretty cool stuff that the community had made when it was active. Despite all of these additions, I thought I had seen everything the game had to offer in the near decade I spent playing it. That wasn’t the case, though.
On my 25th birthday, I got two of my best friends to play Zombie Panic with me. Since there were only three people, the matches were incredibly unbalanced. Despite this, it wound up being a really special session due to a shocking discovery in a map that we had played literally hundreds of times before.
Most of the time there’s some text that accompanies a map before you join a team. Nobody ever takes the time to read it, and I know that none of us bothered to do so for the many years we played the game prior, but for some reason on that night we actually paid attention to the area that was usually reserved for some meaningless flavor text. However, this wasn’t just some window dressing, it revealed that there was an alternate win condition on this map (Quad17) that was achieved by activating switches throughout the level.
This absolutely blew our minds and led to a map where both the zombie and the humans were working together for a common goal: to find the six switches and see this new twist to a game that we had been playing together for years. We had found a few of the switches in previous sessions (we just thought they did nothing) but couldn’t quite find them all. There was a good reason for this: the map (much like the mod it was for) had issues and one of the switches was invisible. Thanks to some creative googling, we eventually found a decade-old forum thread that had outlined where all the switches were.
We followed the instructions as if we had found a secret treasure map, and it eventually led to a bunch of alarms going off in-game. We couldn’t believe what was happening, as some text appeared on-screen and directed us to go to a room with a gigantic sealed door in order to escape. All told, it was sort of an anticlimactic moment as the screen just fades to black after opening the door, but it was so crazy to us that Zombie Panic still had new facets to show us (even if it was just because we’re too stupid to read map info). We were so captivated by the moment that we even called up another one of our friends, who hadn’t played with us in several years, to tell them about our discovery.
My friend was equally as flabbergasted by our discovery. Although their shock may have just been due to the fact that we were still playing Zombie Panic in 2017.