The film 28 Days Later was an interesting take on the zombie phenomenon, with the agile, screeching infected certainly shaking up the image of zombies being nothing more than shuffling, moaning corpses. That wasn’t the only part that stood out though as it was the use of London instead of Generic City USA that truly gave it an identity and personality of its very own. This does make me ponder: why doesn’t the iconic city get more love in the gaming world?
This year will have seen Assassin’s Creed and The Order: 1886 take on the big smoke of course, but that’s in a period setting. So, up steps Zombi, a port of an underappreciated Wii U launch title that sees you traverse a modern London in ruins as the undead destroy humanity, and – as an Englishman who’s somewhat familiar with the sprawling shitstorm that is our capital- it feels eerily close to home. Especially if you compare it to that fetid sinkhole in Chelsea known as Stamford Bridge, which already appears to have seen the end times many years ago.
Zombi begins with your randomly-chosen character starting out on their journey to escape the city after being rescued from a dire situation by a mysterious voice on an intercom known as ‘’The Planner’’. The first time you play Zombi, that journey will likely be short and end quite horribly, meaning you start again with a new character. But don’t fret, you’ll get to meet that person again soon enough because you’ll probably (definitely) have to cave their now undead skull in to get the backpack of supplies they dropped.
It creates a more cautious take on the zombie genre, the antithesis of Dead Rising’s over-the-top nonsense and paced much slower than the recent Dying Light. Zombi has far more in common with classic Resident Evil and the Source mod game No More Room In Hell. Get too confident or too sloppy and you’ll be punished with sweet hot death. It’s the Dark Souls of smashing zombies with a cricket bat in first person (in terms of the gameplay loop) which is a great direction to take in any game. Death will occasionally frustrate and annoy, but the game’s excellent design encourages you to head straight back in to try again and reclaim those lost goodies (you only get one shot to prise the backpack of your previous self from cold, dead fingers before it goes forever).
That slow pace I mentioned before even extends to the combat. Lining up a good headshot with any weapon is easy enough when you’ve spotted a lone zombie from afar, but it’s when you’ve been taken by surprise that the trouble starts. You swing wildly and maybe knock them off balance, every extra hit required increasing the likelihood that any creeps lurking nearby might saunter into the free buffet you’ve now inadvertently provided. It makes for quite the adrenaline surge and surviving such encounters can leave your heart racing, a feeling of exhilaration at the brief respite. Then you remember it isn’t over, and onward you trudge.
Sadly, the limited nature of bludgeoning husks to a second death does dilute this feeling the longer you play; guns and explosives add some variety to the combat even if they don’t stave off the eventual feeling of a tired routine forever.The action heats up at certain points in the game with the use of turret guns and larger swarms of zombies heading your way to be mowed down before you can feasibly escape. It’s to the credit of the developer that these moments still feel entrenched in the survival horror nature of the rest of the game instead of a jarring aside. The feeling of grim glee you get by having a weapon with monumental stopping power is short lived as you realise the horde are crawling out of every hole and the ammo is getting eaten up at an alarming rate. It isn’t long before you’ll have to retreat and try to pick off the stragglers with your own arsenal, and so begins another frantic moment of panic that will lead to you either wasting supplies or dead when the dust settles.
The feeling of unease and panic isn’t just in the swinging of cricket bats and firearms though. Even checking your inventory is racked with fraught tension as it happens in real time with only a peripheral view of anything sneaking up on you. In the original version the Wii U’s gamepad screen handled this as well as the later hacking and unlocking parts, and the act of having to look away from the telly was a wonderful trick to induce panic as you flit your eyes back and forth, hoping that when you looked back there wasn’t something gnawing your face off. Now of course, that doesn’t happen, but aside from those who’ve already put many, many hours into Zombi U, it’s not really an issue as the tension is still very much present, it’s just a different way of presenting it.
The only missing part that is unfortunate has to be the online functionality that added a Dark Souls style messaging and invasion system where the undead failures of other players could turn up in your game and cause you grief. It’s an odd omission considering the consoles the game is now hosted on are better set up for online play. Messages were one of the aspects of the game mapped to the Wii U gamepad screen, but surely it wouldn’t have been all that tough to implement them into the PS4 version in the same manner other gamepad-related stuff was? It does nothing to help dissuade any naysayers from calling this a rush job.
Aesthetically speaking, that rushed out feeling is just as true. Zombi definitely looks smoother than the original, but beyond that it appears not much work has been done to get it looking respectable for its first day at big school. It still looks suitably dark and moody though, conveying an oppressive atmosphere whether you’re in a well-lit safe house or a dank alley. The use of shadow, corners and weather to keep the undead just out of view until it matters is a classic horror tactic and one that is implemented superbly here. Coupled with the use of sound to keep you on your toes at all times it makes for one of the finest horror experiences around even with the technical limitations of the game build.
That only serves to remind you of how well recieved a truly polished and refined version -or indeed a sequel- could have been. Zombi shows that, for all the repetitive AAA ‘’content’’ Ubisoft pushes out the door each year to make the megabucks, it still has that inventive, creative heart of the 2000-2009 era snugly tucked away to allow games like this, Child of Light and Valiant Hearts to be. How fitting it is that the company laughed at for shoving the same mechanics into all their games provides one of the freshest takes on probably the most burnt out genre in modern gaming. Here’s hoping Zombi gains enough of a following on PS4 to ensure it isn’t a mere cult footnote in Ubisoft history. With a little extra attention it could have been one of the greatest modern survival horror games around. Instead it remains a rather good game that’s needlessly rough around the edges.