Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Straight Right
Review code supplied by the publisher.
Released back in 2012 ZombiU for the WiiU was an attempt to show that Nintendo’s console wasn’t just all about brightly colored plumbers and party games. For Ubisoft, though, the game didn’t seem to do well enough with a little under a million copies sold, and thus plans for a sequel were canned. It seems Ubisoft aren’t quite willing to completely ditch the potential for a series, however. Dropping the U from the name Zombi has arrived on PC, Xbox One and PS4, hoping to make itself known among the many, many horror-based games that are around at the moment, especially on Steam where every second title seems to be a first-person horror/survival title.
Zombi immediately earns itself some free Awesome Points through its location, skipping the typical American setting, small-town/villages or other traditional areas for good ‘ol London, baby. Now as a Scottish lad I’m legally obliged to poke fun at London whenever possible because, if you weren’t aware, it resides in England, but in this instance I’m going to put that duty aside, legally binding or not, and simply say that it’s nice to see the UK get a chance to shine. And boy do the developers use it, too. Within an hour you’re ransacking Buckingham Palace for goodies, laying the smackdown on the zombified Queen’s Guard, enjoying the satisfaction of knocking their tall hats off their noggin to expose their brains. Horror and comedy have always gone hand-in-hand due to horror’s often inherently barmy contrivances. Although it’s never really focused on there’s a darkly comedic streak running through Zombi. It’s no Shaun of the Dead nor will it ever make you laugh out loud but it’s there, occasionally springing up in situations like the one where you come across some zombies that are somehow being enchanted by colored lights and blaring dance music, with one zombie standing behind some DJ decks. That’s some damn subtle commentary, there. And that was some damn subtle sarcasm on my part.
The actual story is kept basic and isn’t supported well by the bouts of iffy dialogue that pop up from time to time, but some intriguing characters keep it at least mildly interesting. Mostly the game is content to go along with the idea that you’re just a person trying hard to make it from one day to the next, the story simply prodding you to the next location and item to fetch. The game opens with you being directed by a mysterious voice down a subway system to safety. The disembodied voice is The Prepper, a man who claims to not only have known the outbreak was coming and been preparing for it. Most of the actual narrative actually comes from newspapers and letters that must be discovered, so if you don’t enjoy poking around every corner then you’ll probably miss most of it.
It’s not going to win any awards for originality in mission design, that’s for sure. Zombi seems happy sending its players on an endless slew of “go here, fetch that thing and try really hard not to get bitten” missions. There’s no open world to explore, here, instead you’ve got a series of fairly small environments linked together by brief loading screens. Shortcuts can be discovered that let you more quickly get around, and to the game’s credit it doesn’t direct you towards many of these, so there’s a reason to wander off and explore the admittedly less than sprawling levels. It may have been a big title for the Wii U, but with several years between then and now there’s just no getting around the fact that Zombi is not a pretty game. Now to be fair nobody expects a zombie outbreak to be beautiful, although Dying Light would argue otherwise with its beautiful sunsets and vibrant colors, but just in purely technical terms Zombi is quite weak. Textures, for example, were clearly just bumped up in resolution and therefore look kind of crappy in full HD while character models range from okay to pretty poor. Presumably to help hide this and bump up the atmosphere there’s heavy use of fog and darkness which does at least manage to obscure how iffy everything looks. But as unimpressive as the game is on a technical level it does manage to feel pretty tense sometimes, largely because you can’t handle multiple enemies too well and the fog makes it quite easy to lose track of your surroundings and suddenly become engulfed in the undead. The atmosphere is improved by some pretty fine audio work and sparing use of music, letting the silent streets punctuated by the screams of the undead work their magic. In particular the grunts, whimpers and cries of your character during combat are effective at building a sense of dread, even if they are highly repetitive. As a fan of horror movies I can’t say Zombi is scary or that it ever managed to induce a sense of fear in me, but it still delivered a stronger sense of atmosphere than the vast majority of so-called horror titles out there.
You explore this bleak landscape in first-person, armed with a torch which can somehow recharge its batteries when not in use, a device that would in fact be especially handy for your typical horror movie protagonist who always seems to be running out battery at the wrong time. Aiding you is a device that can ping the environment, registering any nearby zombies as a little red blip on your mini-map, although sometimes it doesn’t seem to pick enemies up correctly and I’m a little unsure if that’s deliberate or a small glitch. Either way Zombi does manage to succeed in making advancing through its heavily foggy environments feel claustrophobic and dangerous, which means it’s immediately better than the vast majority of horror tripe on Steam.
By far the weakest aspect of the entire game is it’s repetitive and dull combat system, something of a problem given that a large amount of your time is spent trying to beat the crap out of the undead. Melee weapons have to be “readied” by holding down the right mouse button before you can then take a swing using the right mouse button, hopefully caving in a zombie’s skull in the process, revealing its gruesome brain. Your foes are pretty tough, and while you might sometimes score a lucky hit that re-deads them immediately, most of the time they’ll be able to take numerous blows to the head before collapsing and letting you perform a finisher, which is a fancy way of saying holding down the mouse button for a move that looks almost exactly like your regular swing. Initially bashing in zombie brains is at least satisfying as there’s a decent sense of tactility to your strikes, but boy does it get boring fast. Aside from a small shove you’ve only got one attack regardless of the melee weapon you’re using; an overhead swing. There’s no block, kicks, or other type of move to use, and so killing a zombie is just a case of clicking away on the mouse until it becomes deader than it already is. The only complication is crowds of zombie, at which point you need to keep an eye out so you don’t get surrounded as you can’t take a whole lot of punishment before succumbing. It took me about five fights to become utterly unimpressed with the combat.
The guns don’t fair too much better. Being the end of the world and all managing ammo is important and guns tend to be a last resort, especially given how hard ammo is to come by, or at least you’d think so, but they feel rather useless most of the time, especially in comparison to cricket bat. Guns simply attract too much attention to be worthwhile for most of the playtime.
The upside to combat is that it’s always tense and dangerous, which manages to somewhat make up for the otherwise boring mechanics. Even a couple of zombies prove to be a genuine threat, especially if one of them happens to be wearing a riot helmet because those bastards take a lot of work to put down. A single zombie is a chance to let off some steam, two is a little challenging and any more than that can leave you quickly trying to find a chokepoint or debating just trying to get the hell out of there. Or maybe its time to use some of those Molotovs or Grenades you’ve been saving for a rain(ier) day. The way the game handles death is simply brilliant, instantly respawning the player as a new, fresh-faced potential bite victim and then demanding that they go off in search of their zombified ex-body and reclaim their rucksack containing all the hard-earned loot. There’s something darkly funny about hunting down your previous body and then beating it to death with a heavy object before reclaiming all your random crap with a triumphant, “Hell yeah”. Take that, zombie me! The only negative is that it’s hard to form much of a bond with your fleshy avatar since they are entirely mute and you’ll only catch brief glimpses of their faces. It’s not so much emotion driving you, rather than the need for resources. You won’t care about your dead vessel, but rather about the gear. Likewise staying alive isn’t so much about wanting your character to keep going, but rather the thought of potentially losing your stuff.
Speaking of your precious candy bars, ammo, flares, medi-kits and guns simply using any of it isn’t easy. Hit the inventory key and your character will swing his or her rucksack off their shoulder and on to the ground in order to dig through it. Up to four items can be assigned to keys for easy access, but outside of that all inventory management handled in real-time. In short, if you suddenly need a med-kit or your hunting crossbow and don’t have it mapped to a quick-access key then you’ve got to rummage through your backpack for it while zombies stumble ever-closer. Good preparation means you should rarely have to frantically paw through your rucksack in the midst of a zombie attack, but if you do then it certainly adds to the tension. Another small change is the scanner, used to hack into CCTV boxes and highlight what containers actually hold loot, which on the WiiU was used via the secondary screen. Here you simply bring it up to your eyes by holding the correct key, although it’s slightly strange that you can’t walk around while using it. Presumably the game reckons you can’t multitask or something. Still, it’s nice to have a device that can instantly tell me if a container actually has loot so that time doesn’t have to be wasted by checking out empty boxes, even if I didn’t find myself using it very much as being rooted to the spot felt stupid.
There’s some other basic mechanics tossed into the mix as well. You can’t really stealth your way around zombies but you can distract them with flares and there’s a hunting crossbow that let’s you unleash silent attacks from afar, and doors can be barricaded using stacks of wood found lying around the place. Occasionally there’s locks to be picked and you can also apply upgrades to your firearms through a very basic system. Aside from that there’s a couple of more powerful zombie types with special attacks that are used sparingly in order to make encounters with them feel more interesting, and some enjoyable little set-piece moments along the way.
Ubisoft don’t exactly have a stellar reputation when it comes to their PC ports, and sadly Zombi only reinforces this with a pretty lazy job having been done. For starters if you have your controller plugged in then even if you’re actively using a mouse and keyboard all the button prompts will be for the controller. Key rebinding is possible, but for some reason you can’t remap anything to the mouse, which frustrates me personally as I like having the ability to sprint right under my thumb. Meanwhile graphical options are restricted entirely to changing the resolution and turning V-sync on or off. Luckily it’s not a very demanding game, so it runs pretty smoothly, but that doesn’t excuse the sheer lack of options available. C’mon guys, this is 2015, we expect more than this from our PC titles.
The weird thing is that even though Zombi has a lot of problems, like it’s repetitive combat and quests, there’s something strangely compelling about it all. It’s not a full-blown horror game, but it does hold a decent sensation of tension that makes exploring the grim vision of London a pleasure. Really its biggest problem isn’t even its fault, in a way. The problem is that Zombi has been ported from a much more limited console to PC, Xbox One and PS4 and must not live in a world where the vastly superior Dying Light exists, even though Dying Light does still have some performance problems. Dying Light does too suffer from a weak story, but holds far stronger gameplay mechanics. The combat is clumsy, but there’s much more variety to it, while the parkour system makes getting around fun. It plays smoother, looks better and trumps Zombi’s mechanics at almost every turn.
But that doesn’t make Zombi irrelevant. Dying Light may be comparable in gameplay style and superior, it also requires hefty hardware to run and is still expensive compared to the cheaper Zombi. While I have quite a few gripes with the game it’s an enjoyable first-person horror/survival game that managed to keep me entertained from start to finish. I have no problem considering it a successful jump from the WiiU, then, even if it’s something of a lazy port. Zombi falls short of earning itself an outright recommendation sticker from me, then, because ultimately it doesn’t do anything amazing to make me urge you to add it your collection. It’s hardly an essential title, but it is quite fun and more than worth picking up if you’re a big zombie fan.