Last updated on December 16th, 2016
This is a port of 2012 Nintendo title ZombiU, and I have to say the title change is appropriate as I did not see any students at all during the game, and the only educational establishment present is a kindergarten. Although ZombiKindie would have been quite snappy, and truthfully the contrast between humanity at its most innocent with the horror of a zombie apocalypse is very unsettling. Wandering about the halls of, say, City University London would be less affecting, as with their dishevelled appearance, shambling gait, and guttural utterances, who could tell the difference between the undergraduate and the undead?
Developed by: Straight Right
Published by: Ubisoft
Release date: August 18th, 2015
Platforms: PC (Reviewed on PC)
Launch Price: 19.99 USD
One of many highly encouraging scenes you will be presented with
London is indeed the setting, and this works quite well for two reasons. First, the visuals. It seems strange to be noting this on a Nintendo port, as Nintendo games still seem stuck circa 2005 graphically and even a good port can’t correct a poor starting point. And true, any time you get a shot of your avatar’s face, the inferior legacy is apparent. However, while gazing out of that character’s eyes, there is tremendous sense of place in the game’s varied locations in the UK’s capital, which at times are almost oil-painting like.
Yeah, you should probably get used to this sort of thing as well.
The modern metropolis is usually a boring place of concrete, glass and steel, which is possibly why Dead Island and Dying Light went tropical, and Capcom is beloved of randomly inserting pseudo-medieval villages into its games. London works well because it is a distinctive city, with credible dark and narrow alleyways linking broader streets with vistas of major landmarks. On the credibility note, I also noted that Australian developer Straight Right actually hired voice actors with British accents, rather than the hideous ear-torture the US usually produces, probably because the Australians can actually tell the difference between the British accent and their own.
The most disgraceful eating-burger-from-carton fail since David Hasselhoff
Rather than just a piece of lazy videogame tourism, though, the setting is also derived from and integral to the story. Yes, there is a story, and well done it is too. Attempting to avoid spoilers as normal, I’ll just say that there is an interesting link to the zombie apocalypse and the setting of the game, involving government conspiracy, secret societies, and unravelling historical mysteries. It’s Da Vinci Code-lite meets the undead. There’s also good working in of the origin of the word ‘blighter’ and England’s historical nickname, Old Blighty.
These aren’t zombies. These are survivors doing interpretative dance
As the player, you’re thrust into the middle of the storm, surrounded by undead. A voice contacts you over radio, guiding you into the Tube station behind you, and tells you to run. Sound advice, but he also guides you to the Safe House, which will serve as the player’s hub for the game. The voice is that of “the Prepper,” who has been expecting this new Blight, and preparing. Hence the name. He remains unseen, guiding you instead via radio, CCTV and the ‘prepper pad,’ a multi-use device with further functionality which unlocks as the game progresses. First of all, if you can find a CCTV junction box in an area, scanning it with the pad allows the Prepper to add the area map to the device. Once you have the map, holding down the triangle button sends out a pulse, like a radar ping, which will show up nearby hostiles. The pad can also be used to scan containers and the infected themselves, to pre-identify if useful loot resides within and so plan the necessity of going anywhere near them.
In a strange twist of fate, London flats ended up looking much better after the zombie apocalypse
Going near them equals danger, naturally, and here is where there is an interesting design mechanic: if your survivor is killed, you’re not booted back to your last save point. You wake up as a new survivor, to be guided by the seemingly omnipresent Prepper. Your previous survivor is gone, if killed by infected then now one of them, if killed in other ways, then their corpse lying where they fell. Your first objective is to get to them and loot their backpack to get back all your weapons and items. I never felt this made me detached from events. Frankly, consistent and named player-characters in other games can be lifeless and uninspiring, so consistency is not necessary. On the contrary, I felt more of a duty of care. My second survivor was a hardy lady, who got through many a scrape, and only died when I was climbing a ladder in Buckingham Palace, an infected reached down from above, and I jumped, causing her to fall off the ladder and die on impact below. It was quite sad and I felt responsible.
You can tell this is fiction, as there are UK identity cards. When you’re introduced to each survivor, you are told their profession. One of mine was a pimp. I’d love to see that on official documentation.
Their life is in your hands, as is your controller. And here is where things are not quite so tight. The pad’s scan is on L1. There is a very useful 180 degree spin on R1. Other than that, controls are in fairly standard territory: L2 is aim, R2 is fire, and the D-pad is used to cycle through weapons using up and down, and left and right are programmable quick slots. However, the controls are rather clunky in both design and execution. Guns make noise. This makes sense. Ammo is scarce. This also makes sense (I suspended my disbelief in the direction that the ammo is from soldiers deployed on the streets due to the outbreak, as the UK does not have the prevalence of firearms the US does). Therefore, your primary infected-dispatching methodology is the cricket bat. Zombies will take a number of hits before either falling to the ground for a finisher, or having their heads give in to the assault and pop like a watermelon. This does mean that fighting one means smacking it in the head, waiting for it to recover from the recoil, come into range, and smack it again. If there’s more than one of them, it turns into a strange sequence, consisting of back-it-up, charge-forward-and-smack type of an affair.
I was going to make a joke about the Queen surviving because she’s an alien lizard, but the Prepper beat me to it in-game
That said, despite the controls, it all works for the most part. You don’t want to be fighting hordes of infected, and a cautious, patient sounding-out of an area using the prepper-pad zombie-radar feels rather right for an expedition into an undead-infested city. Later on, other zombie types are introduced, such as an acid-spitting scientist type and an electrified zombie. They are harder, up the pressure, but the general tactics still work.
That is, right up until the end-game, where I must regretfully conclude the inadequate controls and some strange design choices significantly degrade the entire experience. First of all, there’s an arena sequence, which I don’t think is a spoiler as there’s a clearly labelled trophy about this. It’s difficult to survive due to the controls. Sure, you just respawn and try again, and as your backpack has been taken away you don’t lose your items, but it does frustrate when you’ve kept a character alive a long time. While the game is from 2012, I think the ‘arena challenge’ was dated even then.
Turns out evil snowmen are behind the whole thing. True story.
Still, even that is manageable. It unfortunately gets worse. I cannot think of one reasonable explanation as to why numerous members of the London populace would have decided pre-outbreak to strap explosive canisters to their backs and venture forth, but apparently that’s what happened. Hitting them with the bat causes them to explode, and you to die. The game has trained you extensively to conserve ammo and not zoom about shooting like an idiot. If you spot one of these on open ground, you can quick-slot to a firearm and take them out safely. Within the confined spaces of the sewers, bunkers and other underground locations, they can be on you in a flash, and the animation switch to the firearm usually means they are close enough when they explode to kill you.
The average English home interior.
This is frustrating. However, if you can get back to your fallen survivor with your new character, the explodey zombie is already gone, and you can get your stuff back. Except late in the game, I had been sent on a particularly critical mission into a specific area (avoiding spoilers), and so had taken my best rollout: powerful pistol, upgraded shotgun, upgraded machine-gun. When my mission was successful, all the short-cuts I had opened throughout the entire game to date were shut off without any explanation whatsoever. This is lazy design and jars significantly. I was forced to walk back through the entire game – and an explodey zombie rushed me in a tight sewer tunnel. Dead. My new character spawned at the Safe House with only a cricket bat and the default handgun with limited ammo. As this was now end-game, the number of zombies between me and my fallen predecessor in the forced-walk had gone up by several factors. So had their difficulty; one zombie needed three strikes to knock off its riot armour helmet, and a further nine hits before it would fall to the finishing blow. And I was surrounded by these. So my new character also got killed. And I discovered to my horror that the mechanic whereby the fallen survivor joins the ranks of the undead only applies to one survivor. So the backpack with all my best kit in it evaporated.
London Bridge really has fallen down. Then how do I explain this? Because that’s Tower Bridge. Bloody tourists
Dark Souls this is not. In Souls games you can lose all your souls or blood echoes, but you can always build them back up again. I found myself in end-game with all my weapons gone. And herein was the final insult: the game has a good ending, a bad ending, and a very bad ending. I had expended all the effort necessary to get the good ending, and instead got the very bad ending because I died on the way to the final sequence, which is a one-chance affair. I died because I only had a cricket bat, I only had a cricket bat because of an explodey zombie in a forced-walk, and as I made my way to the final area, the poor controls for hitting downed zombies meant I hit a harmless, already-dead infected, instead of the one that was getting up to attack me. I couldn’t stop the animation sequence. I just had to wait to die.
Before the apocalypse, one of Britain’s favourite passtimes was a good old game of Nosey-Triangley
I checked my save file, hoping I could start before the end-sequence, with my choices and successes in place so I could get the ending I had worked for. Nope: in order to try to get the good ending, I would have to play the entire game again from the start. Frankly, I felt robbed, and that’s not a good motivation to ask for another 6 to 8 hours of my time.
It’s a shame, because up until the last hour, I was loving this game. But as an object of affection, Zombi is the girlfriend who suddenly breaks up with you by being vicious and unfair, and you never want to see her again. My personal experience of this game is a 6, but I’m giving it a 7, as in another universe where the arbitrary things didn’t happen, that’s probably reflective of the game at its best. Just be warned.
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