ZombiU was a fantastic game when it launched alongside the Wii U. Years later, it's arrived on other platforms with minor tweaks, including a new name: Zombi. As it turns out, it's still great.
Here's the short version of what to expect from Zombi, which I played for an hour today on the PC: it's still a very good game. Some tension is lost by ditching the GamePad for a traditional controller (or mouse/keyboard), but the foundation remains strong. Zombi is scary as hell, and the first time you die in the middle of the street, losing everything earned over the last three hours, you'll scream. Seconds later, you'll be back out there, hoping to track down your body.
Now, the longer version.
Zombi takes place in modern London following a bizarre outbreak. Some time has passed — it's not clear how much. You're quickly introduced (through a radio) to a man calling himself The Prepper, after he saves your life by guiding you to a safe room. He starts by sending you on missions to fix CTV cameras around the city, alleging the apocalypse was not a surprise: people knew it was coming. That may be true, but for the moment, surviving is what's really important.
Dying happens all the time in zombie games, but it's pretty different in Zombi. You don't simply respawn around the corner or at the start of the level. No, no, no. Friend, when the blood drains from your corpse in Zombi, it's all over. You maintain story progress and weapon upgrades, but all health items, guns, and anything else in your backpack are now gone. That's not entirely true, though. The backpack still exists in the world, but you'll have to track down your body, potentially your previous self, and retrieve the backpack. Die a second time? It all disappears.
I shouldn't have liked Zombi, as late 2012 Patrick Klepek strongly believed two things:
- Roguelikes (roguelikelikes?) were overly punishing and made for weird masochists.
- Animation priority was stupid and overly punishing and made for weird masochists.
- Gosh, there sure are a lot of weird masochists.
Prior to Zombi, I hadn't outright dismissed games like Dark Souls or Monster Hunter, but I didn't really get them. "Not for me!" I'd boast, snarkily. Besides being difficult, they were known for what's called "animation priority," in which players commit to an attack (often a slow one) and live with the consequences. Most action games give some leeway or let you to interrupt an attack and replace it with another; these games demand players be careful about choices. Pff!
But, then, a certain launch game entered my life. Since I've always (happily) been the horror guy at every company I've worked for, Zombi was tossed to me during my Giant Bomb days. Zombi hit the above checklist — overly punishing, stupid animation priority, made for weird masochists — but my desire to play a horror game with the unique GamePad overrode all that. (It may or may not have also been my job to review ZombiU for the site. Details, details.)
I fell head-over-heels in love with Zombi in the first few minutes, and I consider it directly responsible for allowing me to understand why games like Souls are so terrific. Let me illustrate:
The original ZombiU only gave players access to a single melee weapon throughout the whole game: a cricket bat. I didn't mind this, honestly, as it allowed me to become intimately familiar with how my limited moveset — strike, push away — reacted to the game's various enemy types. For Zombi, Ubisoft has added a shovel capable of striking multiple enemies at once and a nail bat with some powerful critical attacks. Whatever, man, all I need is my trusty cricket bat!
Melee weapons are useful for all sorts of reasons, though it's mostly to pop the heads off the walking dead. There's no way to trust a zombie is actually deceased until their head explodes, so you become the kind of mistrustful psychopath who smashes every single head they see:
You do this, of course, because the game teaches you to. Enough enemies will seem dead that one can never be too careful. Goodbye, faces! The heads have a satisfying pop that makes it enjoyable the whole way through, a detail I'm wondering if I shouldn't have just admitted to.
The biggest change between ZombiU and Zombi is the lack of the Wii U's GamePad. Players used to access their inventory through the GamePad, which meant literally looking away from a game where everything is out to kill you. Since there is no way to pause the game, it was a calculated risk, and you were constantly listening for grunts and shuffles to tip off any danger.
Obviously, things are different in Zombi, with players pulling up an inventory screen that blocks your field-of-view. It's a reasonable compromise that, while less effective, still gets the job done.
The GamePad also functioned as a scanner to search the environment for useful items, a clever trick I haven't seen more games of this type take advantage of. There are endless closets, drawers, bodies, and other spots to search through, and it's a chore to open up five of them in a row, only to discover there's nothing in them. It might not be "realistic" to have a magical piece of electronics that's able to tell you whether a piece of luggage has a useful item, but who cares?
Here's how it looked on Wii U:
(Thanks to YouTube user Glaciercano for the screen shot!)
And as with the inventory, this new version tries to make it work by covering the screen a bit:
On the Wii U, the act of physically moving your head from the GamePad to the TV was enough time — fractions of a second, usually — for a surprise walker to begin gnawing at your arm.
What hasn't changed is these play off one another early in the game, as you combine their useful attributes. An early encounter with multiple zombies happens outside a supermarket, and thanks to a ladder, they're out of reach. Whip out the scanner to mark down how many enemies are around, and what you should be looking for when they're (hopefully) dead.
Flares are super useful in Zombi, since the creatures are attracted to them.
Hey, isn't that a conveniently placed barrel? And aren't video game barrels conveniently prone to explosions? I wonder...
Two zombies might not seem like a big deal, but it doesn't take long for them to overwhelm you after a single error. Or maybe another one sneaks up from behind, triggering a chain of events that brings death knocking. There are plenty of cases where it's not even smart to waste a bullet; instead, toss out a flare, distract as many of them as possible and lose them by running away.
Are you really a coward if you're still alive to tell the tale?
What made — and makes — Zombi special is how every aspect of the game works together to induce stress. The more stressed out you are, the more likely it is you'll make a mistake. It may not even happen due to zombies, either. My most memorable (aka rage inducing) death came after several hours of play. To be frank, I was killing it; my lady was decked out with a sniper rifle, shotgun, and other super cool shit. While "carefully" navigating a sewer, I miscalculated turning around, and fell off a ledge. Not only had I died, but all my stuff was gone, too.
...I'm still angry about it. And yet, I immediately started a new character and kept going. (It helps that you can store items in a box in your safe room, which I recommend doing ASAP.)
Even though I have so many other games to play right now, all I want to do is play a zombie game from 2012 all over again. If that's not the mark of a good game, I don't know what is.