Zombies. They’re become an entire genre of their own, and one that’s been done… ahem… to death. However, while zombies feel like a recent trend, I do remember a sort of mini-revival in the 90s. My theory is this is because Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was first available on VHS, and its new target audience (teens to 20-somethings) finally got to watch it. That audience overlapped video games, and so I remember a few Dawn-inspired Doom mods, there’s the entirety of the magnificent Blood, and then, as you can guess, Last Rites.
Last Rites is a fairly obscure title that apparently only made release in Europe. It had the distinction of being tagged as a “Real Dog” on Home of the Underdogs (their lowest mark), and has a reputation as an early, poor man’s Left 4 Dead. I was asked to take a look at it, and after reluctantly agreeing to play another first person shooter [says with a straight face] I return to you with a full report after somehow beating all ten levels.
I don’t have the benefit of the manual here, so I’m going by what is suggested in the mission briefing screens. Sometime in the future, Earth has been ravaged by dark forces that reanimate the dead. Professor Mordae (more-die??) is somehow responsible, and the zombie armies he controls have driven the world’s remaining humans underground. You are a commander in the resistance, operating out of an unnamed city. Each level will give you a specific objective that furthers humanity’s cause, from rescuing trapped comrades, to recovering supplies, to activating perimeter force fields out in the abandoned city. You’ll eventually set out to recover some critical tech, assemble a weapon to defeat Mordae, and head into his supernatural lair on a solo assassination mission.
Right away they’ve got my interest, and the game does indeed play out something like a zombie-themed version of Terminator: Future Shock. Every level has a specific mission that is clearly laid out, they’re appropriately varied, and you’ll be fighting through a decent spread of areas to complete them. There are no keys to find, but a complex system of locked doors and their connected switches will have you routing around the levels, constantly looking for the next (usually unlabeled) step. Still, it’s kind of neat to finally find the shopping center’s generator, switch the power on (with lights turning on accordingly) and then lower the main shutters to secure the site for resistance occupation.
Your weapons carry over from one mission to the next, so you’ll start weak and gain stronger tools as you go along. Your default is an infinite-ammo pistol, which works just well enough to keep you alive, but just poorly enough to not want to use often. A submachine gun and automatic shotgun make up your earliest gear, followed by a flamethrower, rocket launcher, and two types of energy weapons. These later guns also have collectable tech upgrades out in the world, increasing their damage, rate of fire, or adding a new feature (like tracking for the rockets). You have the ability to revert to a lower tech level with the bracket keys, but I couldn’t find a reason to do this. Ammo is fairly generous, and only the flamethrower is particularly useless.
You also have a headlamp on the F3 key, and a scanner on F2. Both of these draw from battery power, shown as a blue bar above your health, and restored through battery pickups found in the levels. The scanner has three increasing ranges, with the longer ranges drawing power faster. You’ll need to manage your use of these, because they are often absolutely crucial. The scanner can highlight secret caches, groups of enemies (so you can tell where you haven’t been), and mission objectives with yellow dots. There’s NO automap, so having the scanner show waypoints on its outer edge (or mission collectables as you pass by) is about the only thing keeping this game playable.
You won’t exactly be doing these missions alone, which is Last Rites’ most unique feature. Nearly every mission will give you three or four AI squadmates that follow you around and shoot undead walkers. As you can probably imagine, their intelligence is not particularly advanced. Squaddies get caught on geometry, sometimes refuse to follow you through doors, often elect to stand still while zombie hordes overrun them, and even occasionally decide not to shoot at all. They’re a couple virtual neurons smarter than a post, but you should never, ever rely on them for anything – not even bait.
Fortunately, your teammates do a great job of staying out of your way. You cannot give them orders, so no babysitting is required. They will follow you around to the best of their ability, and if any of them get left behind, you will not need them to complete the level. You cannot shoot them, and their attacks don’t affect you. Any time you pick up a health kit, your injured teammates also get a boost – no need to manage their separate health meters. And when they die, which they will, there are absolutely no consequences or repercussions that hit you. You can turn the AI team off in the options, but there’s not a great reason to. As dumb as they are, they do shoot zombies, and it’s nice to have a few extra guns around while they last.
Last Rites uses a true 3D engine that’s close to the DOS version of Quake. There are rooms over rooms, bridges, and some architecture (like the cathedral) that gets away from the blocky feel of the city. City textures also feel limited, but the later ones (shopping center, tech labs, even the sewers) feel appropriate. Lighting is done well, with light maps that cast strong shadows, localized gun flashes that brighten up the surrounding area, and of course, the working headlamp.
Engine speed is quite good and runs fluidly in DosBox. Using sprites for enemies falls apart when looking down on them from a higher elevation, but does allow for large groups on screen at once. I saw groups of around 30 max, which when crammed into a hallway was more than enough. Mouselook is also fully supported (called a “Virtual Head” setting here) and activated with the F4 key. You can invert the Y-axis with F5.
Befitting of the genre, Last Rites is gory – real gory. Weapons blow apart every zombie type in splashes of blood. One kind of zombie even has a chance to have his legs keep walking after you after getting blasted, with nothing but a flopping spine on top. Squadmates, or the occasional evil human mercenaries, fall in a disgusting pile of vitae that still twitch as you walk by. You can even see the head trying to speak – ewwww. You’ll further see fingers, or maggots, or some kind of bits come off certain zombie corpses and crawl around. They serve no purpose (and don’t attack you), but offer some extra unpleasantness. In short, not at all one for the kids.
The worst part, hands down, is the lack of an automap. True, your squadmates are kind of useless, and there were a few “Oh Christ, more zombies?” moments after I was particularly tired of the current level, but stumbling around without any kind of map is easily the worst. Levels where you are supposed to find three items (supply crates, insect hives, etc) are particularly mind-numbing, and the scanner won’t point them out to you at long range.
Occasional copy/pasted areas make it even harder to figure out where you’re supposed to go. Since switches don’t tell you what they opened, you’ll have to find your way back to every door that wouldn’t respond and see if it works this time. Plus, there are the rare spots where a door isn’t advertised as such (like the mall’s security gates), and you won’t know it opens until you get so desperate that you’re running along each wall and smacking the “use” key.
No maps appears to be a design decision. They want you running through these mazes. The most egregious levels have maps you can find mounted on the walls – it feels like a concession, and unless you’re prepared to copy it down, not all that useful. The scanner will point mission items out once you get in range, but as covered before, battery power is too limited to run it all the time. Besides, you’re going to have to figure out how to get to the new area first. Fresh zombies are a great clue that you’ve haven’t passed through an area yet, but corpses disappear, so backtracking is another matter.
Also, admittedly, the staple action of shooting zombies isn’t that thrilling. It works, it’s serviceable, but there aren’t so many as to make it unique or exciting. Some levels will teleport a handful back in after you’ve killed the lot, but most areas stay nice and clear once you’ve passed through.
It’s also not a particularly difficult game. Gray zombies are the meanest, but only because they can take multiple shotgun blasts before falling. They’ll chew through your squadmates, but advanced weapons like the Shredder Cannon will keep them off you. You can also boost your health to 200% with health kits (that’s why you’re the commander!) meaning there’s not too much that poses an imminent threat. My only deaths came from some extremely rare monster closets that let a group of grey zombies pin me against a wall.
The above issues made bashing through all ten levels a bit of a slog, but I made it, and the game wasn’t as bad as I had heard. The graphics engine was already a bit dated compared to Quake, but it does a nice enough job at swiftly rendering clean locations, plenty of undead, and it never bugged out once. If there was an automap, this would be an easy 4 stars. There isn’t though, so prepare to wander around and have some of your time wasted. There’s no reason for anyone but FPS enthusiasts to play this today, but again, it works, and it works reasonably well.
Decent true 3D engine. Nice tone with actual missions to complete and real sense of campaign progress. Beautiful between mission loading screens by Pete Burrows. AI squad is incompetent, but won’t hinder you.
No automap, limiting battery system, and unlabeled door switches means lots of confused wandering. Not too many enemy types, so combat can get fairly routine. AI squad can’t be given orders, so pretty much just plinks erratically at nearby zombies until they get eaten.