Throughout the years, we’ve seen zombies invade a large number of places. Tropical islands, large cities, shopping malls and military bunkers come to mind as highlights from the horror fiction vaults. However, I have a hard time thinking of a game or film that has featured a zombie outbreak on Canadian soil. Sure, lots of movies and games have been created or shot here in the True North. In Hollywood’s case, a lot of their horror movies are shot here for budget reasons, though American cities tend to be billed as the featured location. That issue has been corrected with the release of Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone on Xbox LIVE Arcade. Its dual-stick bullet-ridden gameplay takes place in a fictional Canadian town.
Set on an plot of land known as Halifaux Island (which is obviously based on Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia), Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone is a three hundred and sixty degree shooter which requires great teamwork. At the very least, players must have the ability to deftly control four characters by their lonesome. Its ragtag group of survivors is an eclectic mix, containing a reverend, a female weapons engineer, and a dual pistol-toting British rapper. The most outspoken of the bunch is Jeremy from the gaming culture television show, Pure Pwnage. You may be familiar with the quirky Canadian televised fiction, which centres around a group of die-hard gamers who live to interact with pixel-crafted creations. Jarett Cale voices his established character, who continues to suffer from a lack of situational awareness; always thinking that life is a video game with unlimited retries.
Each of the four members of this thrown together unit is unique when it comes to their weapons and abilities. Jeremy has a sub-machine gun, zombie bait placed inside of an explosive teddy bear and the ability to dole out four times his normal amount of damage once his aptly-named pwnage meter is filled. The issue is that this digital avatar is hands-down the best character in the game, meaning that online games end up becoming a race to see who can pick him first. All three of the others have their benefits, but their abilities, weapons and explosive secondaries pale in comparison. Second best would be Father Bill, the shotgun-toting priest with the ability to heal his pals. Trust me when I say that you’ll need his help very often. This game is hard.
The title’s other two playable characters, Def Money and Alma, are lacking in the primary firepower department. The grumpy rapper has a couple of pistols which are decent, but lack strength until they’re upgraded quite a bit. His cricket bat special attack is humorous but it lacks the effectiveness which the other characters’ specials employ. His best asset is a boombox which can be dropped to stop the undead brain eaters in their tracks. Why? They feel the beat and need to dance. For some reason, reanimated corpses really like to shake it along to 1980s cheese like Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? by the Culture Club. It’s very effective in providing a breather when the going gets tough.
Alma is the brains of the operation. A mechanical engineer and a one woman weapon manufacturer, she was employed at an armory at an early age. Her self-crafted custom rifle is a slow, one-shot affair, with a laser sight attached. It can be helpful in dispatching far away enemies, though it tends to be next to useless in close-range firefights against ten or more enemies. The reason why you’ll care about this rugged heroine is her ability to create a mini-gun turret placement when her pwnage meter is full. Her secondary weapons are propane tanks which can be thrown into the fray, to help create an explosive body part cocktail.
For this sequel, Konami worked alongside the development team at Backbone Entertainment, which took the series’ reigns from Nihilistic Software. While playing through Never Die Alone, it’s easy to notice that each characters’ skills were a huge focus during drawing board meetings. That idea was put into digital form somewhat effectively, though the aforementioned balancing issue is a nuisance. Jeremy is always the first one picked, with Father Bill being the second. It’s rare to find gamers who want to focus on the other two. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if their upgrades and pwnage meter-filling didn’t depend on player-controlled accomplishments. If you let the artificial intelligence control each most of the time, then they’ll be stuck at low levels throughout the game.
In order to succeed in the game’s ten stage, two and a half hour long campaign, players must learn to take full advantage of the human survivors. Otherwise, a quick and efficient death will await, with a game over screen following shortly afterwards. Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone is quite a challenging experience, and happens to be a game that doesn’t hold its punches. While playing through it in single player, it’s a necessity that you become adept at cycling through the foursome in order to get kills, level up and gain pwnage meter goo. Those who prefer to take things online need to hope for an intelligent group of team members who are skilled at this type of game. They will also need to know the best times to use their special skills, in order to get through tough sequences containing thirty enemies of varying (and sometimes exploding) types.
Secondary objective lists are unique to each stage. These bullet-point sentences usually ask for a certain completion time, a set amount of kills in a certain amount of time or exceptional use of environmental hazards (more about those later). However, their primary goal is always to survive, regardless of the type of environment you find yourself stuck inside of. I was impressed that the development team added in a solid mix of arena-based survival challenges, which complement the main, get from point A to point B, ones well. Even so, the game can get a bit repetitive because it lacks a wow factor and a great deal of creative excitement other than a few great special moves.
Undead murdering hazards played a large role in the original Zombie Apocalypse and they’re back in this sequel. There are some comical and neat ones such as a gigantic, swinging donut and a mechanical bull. It’s fun to melee attack your foes repeatedly until they get sliced up, pummeled or turned into mush. The experience could have benefited from more of these hints of designed chaos, but they’re unfortunately only found in the arena survival stages. Instead, the core traversal levels feature survivors who must be saved before their brains become a gourmet. Slapping one gets its frenzied attention, allowing for players to lead the way towards a safe point. It’s a basic mechanic, but it adds variety and tension as you try to save the poor women before the close-by horde draws close.
Once the campaign’s story is played through, two new modes become available for action. Actually, it’s more like one mode with a variable. Both are survival attempts, asking players to see how long they can survive wave upon wave of continually tougher zombie hordes. They take environments from the core mode and turn them into arenas. First on the list is basic survival, which places the task of thirty day survival onto its heroes’ proverbial plates. Second billing is given to blackout mode, which provides darkened stages with limited lighting. As you can well imagine, they’re both very similar, providing an alright amount of fun with repetitive elements.
Visually, the title is a bit of a letdown. Its darkened palette and minimal use of colour does the job, but isn’t at all memorable. Halifaux Island is presented as a drab-looking area with muddy textures and an over-use of darkened shadows. Technical issues were most prevalent online, where lagging enemy animations consistently marred the experience. Our utilized characters and their attack efforts didn’t present any issues in that department, which led me to believe it was to do with net code. In the solo campaign, these issues weren’t nearly as noticeable, as the game did a pretty good job of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at me without much of an issue. Sometimes, enemy numbers can make it difficult to see your character, which presents a bit of a confusion-inducing problem.
Before you take a boat ride to a digitized version of Eastern Canada, it’s important that you understand one thing: Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone is meant to be a parody of undead fiction. Don’t go in expecting a serious or scary game, because cheesy quips and over-the-top action are what you’ll find instead. The game’s script does the job, providing some childish humor in the form of one-liners from a stereotypical voice cast. All four of the survivors like to bicker, which keeps things somewhat fresh. Its utilized sound effects are pretty good, though they tend to be a bit muddy themselves.
Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone is a competent and solid joystick-driven arcade game. However, it must be said that this title doesn’t revolutionize its genre or provide an exceptional gaming experience that is impossible to pass up. Fans of this type of game should enjoy themselves though, as the action is fast and the weapons are zany. Unfortunately, some technical issues, an occasionally cheap difficulty level and design questions left me less impressed than I originally thought I’d be. Despite these issues, it was still a relatively fun game to play through over the course of a few hours or so. Pick this one up if you’re looking for a comical and relatively fun way to shoot things with three friends.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of the game which we received for review purposes.
Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone is a competent and above-average 4-player game. It provides a humorous detour from scary zombie titles, by presenting a humorous storyline with colourful characters that will keep you coming back for more.