Zombies. They've swarmed into games in many ways and countless times over the past decade. Some are slow, Romeroesque brain eaters, some are fast moving "infected" a la 28 Days Later
. No matter the type, their presence often causes a stir among gamers who have grown weary of studios going to the zombie well so often. They've unofficially overtaken Nazis as the villain du jour for the modern video game. Personally, I don't get bored of a zombie game as long as it brings something new to the subgenre. Different titles have tried different things over the past few years during this undead uprising to do just that. Ubisoft Montpellier's ZOMBI
helped sell the idea of third-party support on the WiiU a few years ago. Now, like its titular monstrosities, it has resurfaced, this time as a downloadable title on Xbox One. Unfortunately, it does very little to separate itself from the horde of other similar titles.
Zombi Hey, I thought you guys weren't allowed to move.
is a first-person survival horror with roguelike elements set in a literally and figuratively dark London. Calling it a survival horror is maybe the first mistake. While there is a great deal of emphasis placed on survival, and you're certainly caught up in a horrific situation, there are very few scares to be had, shy of (if my count is right) a pair of scripted jump scares. That's not to say the game is without tense moments. On the contrary, it absolutely does have frequent moments of high tension, they just aren't unsettling or fear-inducing like most games given such a classification.
Equipped with what is apparently the world's most durable cricket bat, your character, who has a name and some background, none of which matters, sets out to get out of the city alive. Your character can and probably will die during the course of a playthrough, and though that means he or she is irreversibly undead, you restart from your last save with a new character. All the characters are on even footing. There are no personal upgrades to be had or lost, while weapon upgrades and inventory carry over. Any supplies left in the backpack that your now zombified former character is sporting can be retrieved by returning to the site of their death and killing them again. This was one of my favorite features in the game. Luckily if you head straight for your past character with your new one, much of the zombie killing he or she did will remain intact, giving you a clear path to retrace your steps. Reclaiming these supplies is also optional, except for when your character was carrying a story-related item, then you must retrieve it.
Speaking of story, there's not much to say about it. Borrowing already overused genre tropes like the search for a cure and confusion surrounding the cause of the outbreak, the narrative is definitely not a strength of the game. Most of it unfolds via your in-ear communicator from an all-seeing watchman who calls himself The Prepper. He guides you along your quest to escape in one piece and when you get a new character post-permadeath, he dishes one of several one-liners about how he hopes you fare better than the last guy. The voice acting actually isn't so bad, though. The lip syncing and facial animations are, however, and it seemed Ubi Montpellier knew this and strayed away from showing characters up close most of the time in the game's few cutscenes. There are some collectibles scattered around the city that try to build the game's mythos, but it never really captured me. Offering alternate endings depending on subtle choices along the way is also one aspect that was unexpected and welcome, even if the story preceding it felt like a throwaway. It was cool to see some of London in a post-apocalyptic light as it's an underused location, but even the game's use of landmarks like the Tower of London are disappointingly lacking atmosphere.
There are hints of a bigger story here, but it never captures you enough to make you care.
This is partly because the visuals are so underwhelming. For a game that blankets the player in darkness for much of the ten hour story, its light and shadow effects are pretty dysfunctional. I spent my first hour messing with the in-game brightness options, as well as those on my TV to try and get the picture to look how a modern game should. I never succeeded. I just got used to it. Talk of graphics is almost a moot point with modern games because they essentially all look presentable, so we only really point out when a game struggles in this regard. Zombi
is one of these games. Poor lighting aside, the characters and environments aren't awful. They certainly aren't excellent, but they're forgivable when you recall the game's roots as a WiiU launch title. Aesthetically, the game would fit in well with the middle of the 360 generation.
Over time, firearms, molotovs, and mines, among other weapons and items, can be scavenged by looking in lockers, crates, desks, and the rotting corpses littering the London cityscape. While these weapons can be upgraded, the method to doing so is never formally introduced and I was left to figure it out on my own. Not that I'm incapable, but when I finally did get to the upgrade workbench, the interface was strangely counterintuitive. In fact, a lot of the controls in and out of the menus feel off, leaving me to wonder if the transition from the WiiU's unique dual screen interface is to blame. Melee and gunplay are both subpar, too. I elected to go through most of the game swinging the bat because it felt more reliable and I didn't have to manage ammo that way.
Damn, I can never find the right key!
To this point, I've been admittedly negative on the game, but it did have its moments. Each encounter with the undead could be the one that kills you. Literally a single zombie is enough to challenge you, and a group of three or more provides the best moments in the game because it gets so riveting. You fear death because of the progress you'll lose and fight like hell to avoid that. Preparation is also key to the game. Managing your limited backpack space and assigning quick menu items via the D-Pad were absolutely crucial to surviving. Figuratively leaping before looking is the quickest way to lose your character because when you're facing down a half dozen zombies at once and you need to get into your backpack for essential supplies, it simply isn't going to happen. You also have to plan your moves smartly, as zombies can corner you in a hurry, crawl through small areas, pull you off ladders, and even climb ladders themselves. The game punishes you for an absent-minded approach, which is one area it got exactly right.
In my playthrough I lost eleven characters and admit nearly all of them could've been saved if I had just taken the necessary precautions. There are also a few sequences that are really exciting, particularly toward the end of the game. Special infected types emerge too, though, like much of the game, these are pulled from other games that had the ideas first. Some spit acid at you, some move faster than the normal stumblers, some are dressed in riot gear - sounds familiar, right?
The achievement list, short of one really tough one to beat the game without ever dying
, is actually very easy. I popped all but three, and really it should've been two, but the difficulty achievements, of which there are three, don't stack. Beating the game on normal left me with the achievements for both easy and hard difficulties (the same one that demands you don't die). This is a tactic almost entirely unseen since the early Xbox 360 days and playing this game three times will definitely test the patience of any completionists. There are plenty that will pop with natural progression, either because they are story-related or because it's pretty much guaranteed you'll kill 200 zombies
in one playthrough. Besides the two difficulty achievements, the only other one I didn't pop relates to a collectible. It would've been easy to earn, but I just wasn't inspired to see more of the game than I had to. A full playthrough on normal difficulty will almost surely earn anyone the same unlocks I earned, and maybe that collectible one, too. If you like generous games and don't mind leaving one or two off your unlocked list, Zombi
is an attractive option.
The zombie subgenre is plagued with tropes. Movies, books, games, whatever format in which they're found, the undead just seem to feast on cliches. The better of those stories still insert something new to the landscape, though, and Zombi
doesn't really do that. Managing your backpack and scanning environments for supplies and routes might have been fun on the second screen of a WiiU, but on Xbox One those features are watered down to just another mini-map and inventory menu. If that's what ZombiU
added to the genre, then Zombi
isn't left with much to hang its hat on. What does remain are genuinely tense interactions with the undead, at least, and the difficulty of survival is well executed. Ultimately, however, that's the case for a dozen other similar games, many of which do a lot of other things better than Zombi
. At times it felt deserving of a score slightly higher or much lower than the one you see below, but ultimately, with a little getting used to, it's a functional but unpolished experience shambling down the streets of London.
- Consistently tense combat
- Focus on preparation and smart traversal
- Clunky controls
- Poor visuals, especially with regard to lighting
- Throwaway story
The reviewer spent over 11 hours running through the streets of undead London, collecting 17 of 20 achievements (790G) along the way. A digital copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.