The dead will rise again.
Despite being a launch title, Zombie U's innovative use of the Wii U gamepad made it the go-to game to showcase the sort of unique experiences the console was capable of. Three years later, Ubisoft have ported the game to the PS4 and Xbox One. The newly christened 'Zombi' may have lost a vowel, but has it lost any of its tension?
London is the scene for the zombie outbreak and the game has a terrific sense of place. London's streets are grimy, dilapidated, and gloomy with rats crisscrossing through corpses, shopping trolleys and the remnants of the relief effort. The zombies are authentic too. You'll find Metropolitan police officers on the streets, beefeaters in the Tower of London and Royal Guards in Buckingham Palace. Graphically though, the game looks dated. There are some visual improvements on the new versions, but the textures still lack definition and the gloomy lighting, whilst being excellent at creating tension, makes everything appear drab.
With a few exceptions, gameplay is largely unchanged from the original Wii U release. Players explore London's streets hunting for supplies and ammunition, but disappointingly enough, searching is largely fruitless. Cupboards, bins, corpses, all manner of things can be looted but there is rarely anything inside and soon I began to resent searching for supplies at all. I had hoped this would be addressed in the re-release, but London is as empty as ever. One area where some improvements have been made, though, is combat.
The survivors in Zombi are normal people: teachers, social workers, builders, not superheroes, and their abilities reflect this. Combat is a desperate messy affair with every swing of your weapon accompanied by a gasp of fear and effort. In Zombie U your only weapon was a cricket bat which -- judging by how long it would take to kill one of your undead assailants -- was fairly ineffectual. Now you can find a shovel, which increases melee range and hits multiple opponents, and a spiked wooden beam which increases damage. Guns are an option too, but should only be used as a last resort; the noise draws a lot of unwanted attention.
I mentioned survivors rather than survivor because if you die in Zombi, your dead for good and you respawn as another Londoner picking up where the old one left off. Well, first you'll want to recover the supplies from your recently deceased compatriot. They're a zombie now, of course, so you'll need to kill them first. The tedium of retracing your steps is alleviated by a fast travel system that takes you to key areas of London. These areas are all interconnected and as you explore collecting key cards and lockpicks you start to open new, quicker paths between the zones.
The big question around this re-release was how well the game could adapt to a standard controller. Zombie U made excellent use of the Wii U game pad, using its second screen as a mini map, inventory management, picking locks and a number of other activities. Brilliantly the game didn't pause while using the gamepad and forcing you to look away from the main screen left you open to attack. Simply looting a corpse or rearranging your backpack became a deadly proposition leading to frantic glances at the main screen at the slightest sound. The absence of the second screen means that everything happens on the television obscuring your character and almost everything around them. I was worried this would lessen the tension, but the atmosphere and the knowledge that you are in near constant danger is enough to make these activities as nerve-wracking as ever.
Having said that, there is something to be said for the novelty of physically looking down at the gamepad, just as you would an open drawer, or rucksack and I still prefer the Wii U version for this reason. The loss of the gamepad also means that multiplayer is gone too. The second screen centric mode had one player placing zombies strategically on the map while the second player tried to kill them and level up, getting better weapons in the process. The mode, though fun, was not essential to the core experience and its absence doesn't detract from the overall package.
A remake of Zombie U is not what anyone was expecting, but I am pleased to say that the game's tension and atmosphere have survived the move to single-screen consoles. The journey through London accompanied only by the voice of "Prepper" pushing you to ever more dangerous locations in search of a cure is still chilling and claustrophobic.
This game was reviewed with a digital copy on Xbox One provided by Ubisoft.
Images courtesy of Ubisoft.