The GamePad's gone, but Ubisoft's undead are just as feisty and thrilling as ever.
A mad scientist is pumping music through the decaying state rooms of Buckingham Palace: William Byrd, whose distinctly English compositions effortlessly conjure a Renaissance world of precision and calm, a realm of serene order. But there's something else being carried on the air, too. Simple chords - lumpen, plodding, arrhythmic. Somewhere nearby, a zombie is playing the piano.
ZombiU was a dark and ragged delight when it appeared as part of the Wii U's launch line-up: a zombie survival game that made the genre feel fresh again. Ubisoft Montpellier sought to take corpse-runs and weighty, punishing first-person combat and apply it to London during the apocalypse, a city of tobacco browns and ashtray greys, viewed through an oily Thames-slick lens. All of this was narrated by the Prepper, a no-nonsense ex-soldier whose safe-house at Shadwell Tube gave you respite from the shambling undead and whose grim, paranoid, mocking observations regarding everything from the monarchy to the state's attitude to migrants provided the perfect end-of-the-world director's commentary. Clever stuff: as the Prepper despatched you on a series of tasks that took you deep into the over-run city, the map unlocked at an ideal pace and the splinters of cramped geography started to fit together in your mind. The zombies were slow and puny in ones and twos, but could overwhelm in packs and were surprisingly quick to capitalise on mistakes. Die, and you respawned as a new Londoner, with a new CV (general manager, barrister, consultant). A new Londoner whose first mission was generally to track down the last new Londoner so as to cave their head in and steal back their supplies.
All of this was enlivened by the kind of wit that lets a zombie loose in the queen's music room, and by platform-specific tricks that made ZombiU deeply endearing. The second screen was seemingly everything here, since the development team was eager to leave you disempowered and vulnerable as much as possible. Minimap? Stuck on the GamePad, mate, so you'd have to look away from the screen whenever you wanted to get your bearings. Inventory? Same place, and you'd be out of luck if you expected a pause while you were hunting around for a new weapon or a medpack. Scanning the surroundings and hacking used the GamePad, too, except here you had to hold it up in front of the TV and peer about with it, hoping you'd discover what you were after before the horde got to you. ZombiU properly made that pad sing.
And now, of course, that pad is gone. With a port to PS4, Xbox One and PC, Ubisoft has wisely spent most of its time and effort encouraging you to forget that it was ever there. The minimap's permanently on-screen now, its regular radar ping adding to the dripping-tap tension even if its presence means that one of the game's meanest tricks has been removed. Elsewhere the compromises are skilfully minimised. The scanner, now accessed via a button, still roots you to the spot while you survey the landscape, and the inventory - another button - still fills the screen without pausing the action. Zombi still has it in for you, then, even if the field of view is wider, and the torch comes with a new high-beam mode. (The torch is a great example of the checks and balances, actually: extra light eats through the batteries that much faster, and attracts zombies that much quicker. Run out of juice, and you're in for a truly agonising wait, often in pitch black surroundings, while it recharges.)
It all works, in other words. Zombi's still a delight to play, jumpy and idiosyncratic and enlivened by truly brilliant set-pieces. This is a zombie game that isn't afraid to dump you into Buckingham Palace one moment, and a crap house party the next, complete with rave lights playing over dance floor corpses while the shyer, more socially awkward undead lumber about in the kitchen. This is a zombie game where I was stalked through underground catacombs by a traffic warden.The lost art of video game manuals The greatest loss of the digital age.
Zombi's London is simply brilliant, too: an Iain Sinclair necropolis rattling with the ghosts of John Dee and his ravens, and broken down into blind corridors, access tunnels, rusting ladders and rotting wharves. All of this has, at best, been very gently polished in the transition to more powerful consoles, mind. The blood effects are a little better perhaps, the grime filters far less intrusive, the edges of the geometry maybe a touch sharper. That said, Zombi's blurry textures and sprightly selection of different frame rates don't really matter as much as they would elsewhere. This is a game about ideas rather than graphical prowess. This is a game with a B-movie price tag alongside its B-movie looks. If anything, the ugliness is part of the aesthetic. It just adds to the claustrophobia. (I sort of miss the grime filter.)
Elsewhere there are a couple of new melee weapons joining the cricket bat - a definite plus for a game in which the guns are generally too noisy and attention-seeking to bother with. I particularly like the shovel, partly because it's got a longer reach that makes it ideal for crowd control, and partly because it's always fun to hit people with a shovel, but there's also a new nail bat to mess around with if you're into impact over range. These are minor additions, sure, but it's nice to have them, particularly since local multiplayer, which relied very heavily on the GamePad, has been removed.
What's surprising, really, is that the whole game doesn't feel more compromised. ZombiU was so enthusiastic in its embracing of Nintendo's oddball console that it was easy to project its successes onto the platform. Stripped of the bespoke hardware, however, Ubisoft Montreal's game still shines. This is still smart, economical and deliriously spiteful. This is still my favourite apocalypse.