Let's be honest: none of us were expecting the master of horror himself to make an appearance at Summer Game Fest this year, and yet, John Carpenter's Toxic Commando exists. Stranger still, it actually looks like a brilliant contender to finally unseat the king of horde shooters.
You'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes at that term. Being pitted against legions of the undead and letting bullets fly isn't everyone's idea of a party, even less so given the disappointing reality of Redfall or the fact that Back 4 Blood won't receive any new updates just one year after launch. The truth is that Valve's iconic series does its job so well that, despite turning 14 this year, Left 4 Dead 2 is still the undisputed darling when it comes to horde FPS games and zombie slayage. But could it finally have a worthy challenger?
You can kill the boogeyman, actually
Here's our Xbox Showcase 2023 predictions of titles we'd love to see show face at Microsoft's E3 event.
Toxic Commando's announcement trailer had me fooled at first. The establishing shot shows a tree-lined, nondescript road, the camera panning lower to show a single vehicle barrelling down it through the fog. In the back seat, a man stares sullenly out the car window while the woman next to him does the same on her side. "You gotta be ready," says the male passenger in a cheesily gruff voice. "Nobody half-asses it this time," the surly driver agrees in an even lower, more cheesy register. Given the heavily-armored vehicle they're crammed into, it looked set to follow the well-worn tire treads of any other action game. I was already over it.
Suddenly, they all start singing along to the radio, passionately and out-of-time, as the car runs straight over a jawless, red-eyed monster. Bon Jovi's 'You Give Love a Bad Name' kicks in fully at this point, underscoring the rest of the trailer as the heroes lay waste to masses upon masses of the shambling living dead – or something like it.
The trailer is all about setting and gameplay, showing little in the way of a storyline in itself, but John Carpenter's Toxic Commando looks set to offer something unique. It's got the rapidfire FPS action we love about horde shooters, the disgusting monsters as seen in the best zombie games, but this time, you're in a giant tank and strafing to gun down the enemy from above. The character pool seems smaller, too, with just four characters shown in this initial taster.This could make for a little doubling up on the battlefield should Toxic Commando turn out to be fully PvP, but as someone who likes to go solo, I'm not too fussed about tight ranks.
What's actually exciting to me is that the characters themselves look like they are having a criminally good time out there, apocalypse be damned, and it makes me want in on the fun.
Welcome to horrorwood
One of the reasons Back 4 Blood lost its luster so soon is that it didn't break any new ground. The "spiritual sibling" of Left 4 Dead rather than an all-out remake, it offered a lick of fresh blood-spattered paint to a game that didn't really need one.
It doesn't help that it took itself a bit too seriously at times, never fully leaning into the chaotic joy of razing zombies to the ground in favor of simply reskinning a classic. It felt weird to play a Left 4 Dead-like without Bill Overbeak and company spearheading missions that felt all too familiar, and despite the addition of character traits, I found Back 4 Blood a little unnecessary.
But from what little we've seen from John Carpenter's Toxic Commando, even without the Bon Jovi track, the Halloween director's roots in campy yet garish 80s horror are already elevating zombie horde shooters by a mile.
We aren't playing as traumatized survivors trying to fight their way through a waking nightmare, but a band of actual soldiers. Their gear looks a damn sight more military-grade than the melee guitar weapons as seen in Turtle Rock's series, and being hardened soldiers in the heat of battle, there's a hilarious sense of normalcy about the whole thing. This is just what these guys do; what's zombies got to do with it?
Toxic Commando shows another day in the war-torn office, one character not even blinking as window wipers smear away blood from the windshield. There's a hint of a smirk on his lips, though, and that tongue-in-cheek humor is palpable throughout the trailer. It's one of my favorite things about this year's Dead Island 2, which also riffs off the "so gross it's funny" energy of 80s horror flicks to make zombie games fun again. Developer Saber Interactive is no stranger to the genre, being the team behind World War Z and Evil Dead: The Game, so I can't wait to see how it joins forces with a horror titan to resurrect the glory of horde shooters come 2024. And who knows – we might even have to put down Left 4 Dead 2 for good.