Zombies and games, games and zombies. There seems to have been an unprecedented amount of games featuring the undead in the past few years, in some form or another. Despite the fact that infected have been present in videogames since its conception, zombie games seem to keep rising even when we thought they were dead. DayZ, The Evil Within, 7 Ways to Die, Dying Light, Call of Duty — that pointless Zombie Mode —, The Last of Us, How to Survive, The Walking Dead... and the list goes on. Even this year seems to be quite zombie-infested. As a matter of fact, they have been so popular that the WiiU featured a zombie game in its release, ZombiU, a game that although had good critical reception, got lost amidst the ocean of zombie games in our catalogues and a not-too-receptive demographic. Now, it´s been tweaked here and there, and ported to the big consoles, getting a much wider publicity and renaming, piquing many people’s interest.
Zombi gathers mechanics from a litany of zombie games, but creating new ones that offer a new twist in story-telling and brain-splattering. Like in every zombie game, there are hordes of zombies that you have to avoid or fight. However, Zombi presents every zombie as a potential one-hit kill, as if they grab you and knock you to the ground, you can considered yourself dead — but not really. The first-person mechanics, similar to the ones in Dead Island, make combat visceral, and have no problem with getting zombies so close to your face that you could run a larynx check comfortably. Skulls shatter, legs get maimed and it all happens within a meter of your face, as you swing your cricket bat towards them — or the classic nail-bat. Contrary to Dead Island, there is hardly any benefit in slaying zombies — loot is rare and your own survival is your driving force for violence.
As in any zombie game, there’s a resource management system, but much tenser than any I’ve seen before — maybe The Last of Us in the hardest difficulty is an exception. Ammo is incredibly scarce, despite being able to find a huge variety of weapons: pistols, shotguns, rifles and even a crossbow! However, you can’t carry them all in your backpack, preventing you from hoarding. Choosing the weapon to take from the safe house is usually a gamble, as you won’t know what sort of ammo you’ll find throughout the next mission. The variety of weapons, combined with the limited amount of upgrades, ammo and space in your backpack, forces you to focus on one or two specific weapons and use the rest very occasionally. Your bat, however, will be your best friend at all times, as saving up your ammo when superfluous will be essential to survive.
As one should expect, zombies entail danger, but they're able to do much more harm than a few scratches. As if all the remarks about the one-hit kill zombie in The Last of Us hadn't been enough, Zombi expands that idea to all zombies, but slowing them down and allowing you to have much more control over the distances — usually by fending them off with a little help of our skull-cracking "God save the Queen" cricket bat. More often than not, the clunky and slow combat will make it impossible to keep up with the sieging hordes of zombies. The near absence of medkits and the crestfallen usability of snacks and soft drinks make life a treasure to safeguard. Despite always being able to go back to the base and have a revitalising nap to top up your life bar, the thrill of pushing forward to find the next safe house - and your inevitable demise — is certainly some adrenaline rush!
And there will be plenty, as any corner can hide an ambush, and every corpse you find may not be as dead and hunger-free as you may expect. The prep pad only shows so much of the 'living' activity happening around you, and in many occasions, those blinking red dots are nothing but carefree crows or rats. The prep pad, given to you by 'the prepper', who leads you throughout the game and assigns you missions, is one of the many characters that barely fills a narrative void, at least in the first part of the game. This is particularly strange because the story has depth, with a near-sectist group called the Ravens, working, more or less, for the survival of the living. And even though the PS4 controller hasn't got the best speaker — difficult to understand at times —, it's a great fourth wall-breaker simulating a walkie-talkie. The main problem is the tendency to become the errand-boy of the prepper himself, or the doctor — which ticks all cliche boxes —, feeling more like a pawn than somebody with any input in the story. It's realistic, but doesn't do much for my investment on the plot.
One of the many outstanding design choices in Zombi is the spiraling, interconnected and urban level design. As a game set in London, the tube becomes a key element in the travel and exploration system, but it's also where your world hub is located, and the starting point of every mission. From Brick Lane to Buckingham palace or the Tower of London, the game feels like post-apocalyptic virtual tourism, however unlikely it may be to still be alive after you stop minding your back. The different parts of London become replayable as new skills and unlocks allow you to take different diversions and progress further into each area. The combination and pace of closed and open spaces keeps you constantly on your toes, forcing you to change your approach to combat accordingly. The details in the visual and structural design of the levels make London feel like a city that is dead, inactive, desolated and dormant, but that contains life that prefers to go unnoticed and plenty of remains of what it used to be before the outbreak.
When starting up a game, you'll have to choose the difficulty of the game. In the Normal mode, the death of your character entails the loss of all items carried at the moment of your demise. In a very Dark Souls-y fashion, you will spawn in the flesh of a new character with whom you will have the chance - but only with the one subsequent character — to recover all lost items by killing and looting your old character's zombie. If you meet your fate on the way there, those items will be gone forever. In terms of story progress, everything remains the same. I don't even think that the prepper notices your sudden change from bald fat man to blonde secretary.
Aside from the Normal mode, Zombi features a Survival mode which has so far become the centre of the metagame narrative of Zombi, due to its hardcore and uber-challenging nature. You start the game with a character, and if you die, that's the end of it. You'll blink back to the beginning of the game, progress lost, no weapons in your inventory and a new name and face. Ubisoft have even honoured those accomplished survivors who have beaten the game in Survival mode, without dying, by including them in the game itself.
A key aspect in Zombi may be its unstriking drop of the U from its original name. The port to adult consoles — yes, there is plenty of irony in this statement — has revisited a few of its core mechanics, which many praised of the original game. The most obvious one is the transposition of the second-screen utilities onto the main screen. Whereas the prepper pad with the documents, the map, the inventory and the loot system were all previously managed through the Wii U's controller's touch screen, now all these are menus that pop out on top of your gameplay, with the map taking a considerably distracting amount of space. I can't imagine how stressful looking back and forth between two screens must be, though.
Another key removal of features is the interconnectivity with friends. In ZombiU, you could find your friends' undead characters roaming about London, fully equipped with all the weapons and items they were carrying when they died. Zombi, sadly, doesn't have this functionality anymore. Most other noticeable changes in the game are generally for the better, like the inclusion of new weapons and finer textures. The only big problem I had was when aiming down the scope of the sniper rifle, which never actually happened — even though I had seen videos on Wii U using the scope, I was unable to find out which button allowed me to do so.
All in all, Zombi is a game that is much welcomed in the new platforms. It opens up a large space for a new audience barely compromising on features. It is a game where every aspect of it is very good, albeit never extraordinary. Its combat is clunky and inaccurate, which makes it tense and brutal, but at points falling through the cracks of a button-mashing-based melee mechanic, somewhat reminiscing of the lackluster Dead Island series. It's levels are a mix of linear and open, and the loot system will be ultimately reduced in the dichotomous weapon/health items management. There's permadeath for your characters, but the game's drive is ultimately narrative — around an 8-hour long campaign. On top of that, there's noticeable points that give it away as a WiiU game. It's a tremendously enjoyable game, but it feels strange to play. Different, rather.
ZOMBI (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
All in all, Zombi is a game that is much welcomed in the new platforms. It opens up a large space for a new audience barely compromising on features. It is a game where every aspect of it is very good, albeit never extraordinary. It's a very enjoyable game, but the combination of design choices make it feel both unique and strange.