When it was confirmed a while ago that the sequel to 2012's Wii U exclusive ZombiU had been canned, most thought that the series was a goner. That would be a shame, given that the survival-horror title brought with it more innovation than people give it credit for. It wasn't just a straight-up gorefest that required you to scan rooms with the Wii U GamePad, despite that being the way that it's been remembered. No, it was more than that.
The light remastering touch that Ubisoft has used with the Xbox One rerelease of ZOMBI is an interesting one. You get the same experience as you did with ZombiU, with enhanced textures and a couple of new melee weapons. The requirement for scanning objects with the Game Pad has been replaced with an on-screen rendition of the Prepper Pad, accessed by holding LB. This actually makes for a more comfortable experience given the amount of times you'll need to scan areas and objects, as it means that you aren't constantly having to raise and lower your arms as you play.
The game itself is as interesting as it ever was. Awaking in a lonesome safe house located in London's Shadwell tube station, you start off with very limited supplies. The voice of "The Prepper" rings out over the radio to guide you through the game and to provide advice and story beats, but you're otherwise on your own in a city that's been abandoned by all but the undead. That's not to say that zombies are wandering around absolutely everywhere and that you're tasked with gunning down thousands of them. On the contrary, they're dotted very sparsely around the place. That's handy, given that at no point during play will you feel like you've got enough ammo to be ploughing through wave after wave of enemies.
Undoubtedly, that was always one of the high points and it remains here. You can't just blast your way out of trouble, because you simply don't have the ammunition to do so. Other games have been released since that claim to add tension in this way, but there's always been another gun waiting just around the next corner, or a stash of weapons that will be just enough to get through the next section of play. That isn't so in ZOMBI. If the next area has five foes all crowding around a gate that you need to get through and you've turned up with a landmine and a handgun with four bullets in it, then you'll have to work out how to get rid of them with what you've got since at most, you'll find a couple of bullets hidden around the area. This boosts the tension through the roof, since if you don't plan your approach to certain areas or if you lose concentration, you'll undoubtedly pay the price. Sure, you can fight off a couple of enemies with your melee weapon but if a third member of the horde decides to join the fight, you'll likely be overrun within seconds.
When that happens, you're returned to the tube station to start again with a new character. Your mission progress is saved and the world largely remains as it was, but any resources that you've collected remain with that previous character. If you had collected a first aid kit, two grenades and a double-barrelled shotgun before you died, the only way to get them back is to use the new character to track down the now-infected old one and put them out of their misery, before looting their remains. This is interesting for sure but as the game becomes tougher, you'll find that a lot of your time is spent simply navigating your way from the original safe house back to the next mission area. You can unlock shortcuts via the sewer system but if you miss unlocking one of these, you'll end up traipsing around a relatively empty London (since you've likely already taken out most of the undead on your first way through) for a fair old while.
That isn't the only wrinkle from the original release that has been left entirely unironed. In a game that tasks you to keep your character alive for as long as is possible, promoting survival above all else, you'll be disappointed by the number of cheap deaths that you suffer. In one of the first missions in Brick Lane Markets, our character became stuck on a doorframe and we could do nothing but reload our save or wait for the approaching zombie to take us out. Admittedly, this was the only time that this particular issue came to light, but at least three quarters of our fallen characters ended up joining the infected due to design or engine issues. One of the enemy types that you see along the way (albeit rarely) has the ability to run at you and if you shoot or hit them, they explode. Given that you don't get any sort of protection against explosions, it's usually enough to kill you even if you have a full health bar. Of course, you can get around this by treading carefully, but when the Prepper Pad doesn't warn you of a threat (which it sometimes doesn't because the enemy isn't at the exact same height above sea level as you, since they're stood on some steps) you're not really left with any options. Plus, even if you do scout the area first and formulate a plan of attack, it can all be for naught. At one point, we spied three zombies wandering around on an upper level of a building. We threw a grenade up through a hole in the ceiling and took a few steps back. The resulting explosion took out one of the exploding type enemies and our character – who we'd kept alive for nearly an hour and a half – was also killed by the blast, despite there being a floor in the way that should have provided ample protection.
However, the main thing that will kill you is the game's inability to pick up your melee weapon inputs correctly. If you knock an enemy down, you'll often be asked to press RT one more time to finish them off. At least half of the time, you'll press the button and watch as your character performs the standard "push away" move, giving the enemy time to get up and attack again. Then, when you're facing off against more than one enemy, the message telling you to finish off a downed foe appears and you move to take a swing at the second one who is making a grab for you. Now, ZOMBI decides that you wanted to perform the killing blow on the first enemy and the resulting animation leaves you entirely exposed to that second threat, who takes the opportunity and kills you. Either that, or you'll hide behind a wall when you're on low health, open your backpack to grab an energy drink, and promptly die because the game has decided that for the next ten seconds a zombie's hands can somehow reach through brick.
Somewhat bizarrely in the face of this though, the tension and stress of the game's situation seems to break through. There will be times when you've played a character for an hour, get killed unfairly and then find yourself thinking twice about whether or not you can be bothered to start off with a new character. But if you do take the plunge again, you'll be back on your tenterhooks within just a couple of minutes as the tension that the game kicked off with is still there in spades. This time, you won't be so stupid. This time, you won't rush into things. You'll take your time and check everything before you dive in. Oh wait…that zombie that you can't see can spit acid at you from 100 metres away and you're dead again. Oh well.
If you manage to get past those glitches though, the feeling of tension will remain right up until you get to one of the most poorly-constructed missions that we've seen in any game for a long time and become unable to progress. Without giving too much away, you reach a point where you have to find seven specific objects. You're told to use the CCTV camera system to find them, so you head back to the safe house and log on. All the system tells you is which locations have one of these objects hidden somewhere in it, which is about as helpful as us telling you that we want you to find a specific piece of paper that is located somewhere in New Jersey and then wondering why you're taking so long about it. Oh, and you might have to look at a wall through a window in a specific way so that the Prepper Pad can decode some markings in order to get a code to unlock a door. Only you'll try that and think that it isn't the answer, since the Pad will only translate the markings if you're stood on one specific pixel facing the exact number of degrees east that you need to be facing.
In a game where you have to survive, the chances that you will have randomly wandered into finding any of these seven locations along your way is pretty small, since you'll be trying to get from A to B without running into any groups of zombies. Fortunately, you'll be able to use a guide from the Wii U version of the game to progress (which we had to do and no, we're not ashamed) since the mission is the same on both versions. It puts a massive crimp in ZOMBI's style though and ruins the game's flow, which due to the stop-start nature of the death and respawn system was already pretty choppy.
The fact that ZOMBI hasn't been given a massive visual overhaul (it looks nicer than it did, but not by huge amounts) is neither here nor there. The fact that there aren't any new game modes or features to write home about doesn't matter either. With a game featuring a main idea as strong as this one, as well as some perfectly-balanced tension-filled gameplay taking place in some gloriously realised locations, all we wanted was for some of the more major issues – such as the game-ending glitches - that knocked the shine right off the apple to be worked on. Sadly, none of them have been.
ZOMBI requires you to respect your character and their mortality more than almost any other game available today. Then it has the audacity to refuse to pay your character that same respect. Outside of the game-ending glitches and the poorly designed collection mission that we've mentioned, the experience is tension-filled and easily right up there with the best survival horror titles available today. The problem is that there's a very good chance that you'll give up after your umpteenth unfair death way before reaching the closing credits.