Remember when zombies used to be scary? Before pop culture recast them as pitiable nuisances or goofy cartoon cannon fodder, the walking dead were a horrific, implacable menace that would rip you open the second they (inevitably) got within striking distance. 2012’s ZombiU reawakened our fear of reanimated corpses, forcing us to skulk through shadows and fight desperate close-up battles against tough undead cannibals. On August 18, the game is dropping the “U” from its name and shambling back into the spotlight with a number of updates as it debuts on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
Casting players as (a series of) survivors fighting to stay alive in a zombie-infested London, Zombi puts an emphasis on self-preservation, pushing players to distract or avoid zombies rather than confronting them directly. If you choose to stand and fight, you’ll have to rely on whatever scarce ammo you can find for your zombie-attracting firearms, or – more often than not – try to club zombies to death with a cricket bat. Dying replaces your character with a new one who then has to fight your zombified previous incarnation in order to retrieve whatever you were carrying before you died. Failure means losing your loot. It’s a tense experience, something the developers took to heart while bringing Zombi to other platforms.
“We knew from the beginning that maintaining the tension and feel of the original was one of the main challenges, as the way ZombiU was presented on Wii U cannot be reproduced,” says Hélène Henry, Zombi’s producer. While the minimap (which formerly required players to glance down at the Wii U gamepad) has been moved onto the main screen, “We maintain a minimal HUD as much as possible,” Henry says. “It disappears when not required, giving the game a very lonely feeling. If you have surround sound, the awesome sound mix from the original still stands and greatly helps immersion. As much as possible, we’ve tried to keep those key elements.”
“Also, there has been a slight increase in the field of view,” Henry adds, “and players can increase and decrease it a little if they want to, but not so much that it takes away that claustrophobic feeling. Some work was also undertaken on the control mapping and response to improve the look and feel of the first-person movement.”
While the cricket bat was your only melee weapon in ZombiU, Zombi adds two more implements of death for you to ferret out. The shovel offers longer range and the ability to hit more than one zombie at a time, while the nail bat gives you more damage and a higher critical-hit chance (while also being able to hit more than one enemy at a time). Even the flashlight is changing, letting players switch to a wider, further-reaching beam at the expense of battery life and a greater risk of attracting zombies. It’ll also have to be kept off for 30 seconds to recharge, forcing players to be even more careful than before about how they use it.
While Zombi will perform better on newer consoles, there’s one key hurdle the developers had to clear: ZombiU was made specifically with the Wii U’s second screen in mind. In fact, a lot of the fear in ZombiU comes from having to look away from the screen to manage your inventory, knowing full well that zombies might be closing in on you while you’re distracted – something other platforms can’t quite replicate. However, Henry says, maintaining that tension is a top concern.
“We kept the central idea that you’re always vulnerable,” Henry says. “Rummaging in the backpack still doesn’t pause the game. We’ve added a dedicated button to access the backpack, which lets players see their full inventory and assign shortcut keys.”
While doing so, she adds, players won’t be able to see approaching zombies unless they’re coming from the sides of the screen.
Only one second-screen-dependent feature will not return: ZombiU’s single-system multiplayer, which allowed one player to use the Wii U gamepad to place zombie hordes in the path of an opposing survivor. Rather than attempt to retool it without the touchscreen, Henry says, “we decided to focus on the solo mode, as we believe this is where the ZombiU experience really lay.”
“Without hesitation,” Henry says, the most important thing to preserve in Zombi is “the general sense of claustrophobia, and not knowing what is coming next – at least for new players. It’s mostly small technical improvements on what was already there – the faster load times, and the small changes to controls. In fact, a lot of time was spent getting the controls mapped as intuitively as possible, to keep the original atmosphere.”
How long can you survive? Find out on August 18, when Zombi arrives on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.