Review: Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone

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If The Walking Dead, Dead Island and Left 4 Dead have taught us anything at all, it’s that you can’t possibly survive a massive zombie attack all by yourself. Konami understood that when it released the insanely difficult Zombie Apocalypse as a downloadable twin-stick shooter back in 2009. Even with four players wielding chainsaws, big guns and C4 teddy-bear zombie bait, surviving the entire 55-day campaign intact was more challenging than trying to win your fantasy football league by starting Tim Tebow at quarterback. In that context, it sucked that while the survivors you liberated whimpered their way up the ladder to the helicopter, you were stuck on the ground, trying to maneuver zombies into the crushing machine at the local junkyard. Hardly fair.

As the title makes abundantly clear, Konami’s new downloadable sequel, Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone, is all about the togetherness—and this time, in the hands of a new development team, your compatriots have a little character to distinguish themselves. So what if none of the four characters you can play are particularly original and/or interesting? They’re not supposed to be, and at least they’re a step toward evening the undead odds.

As you wade through the streets and buildings of an infested Canadian town—another change from the original, which trapped you in environmental arenas instead –you can unleash the Robotron-esque carnage with three friends or tackle it solo while the game’s AI handles the rest of the party. And you’ll need all the help you can get. For starters, the game’s top-down camera view and lack of lighting play out like an additional and very annoying enemy. The standard-issue zombies are gray—just like the ground–and each one casts a shadow as it moves/charges toward you, and leaves a spattered bloodstain when it dies. Within moments, the screen is so cluttered with visual miasma that it’s all but impossible to see what’s coming and what you’re shooting. It’s one thing to briefly remove your visual cues—plenty of great horror games have used this trick to great and scary effect—but to have it as a constant obstacle is patently unfair. You do get a nice warning when you’re being throttled by a zombie—the circle around your character turns a bright yellow, and it’s time to hammer the “A” button or face imminent death.

We’re all aware that the zombie-game genre is more overcrowded than a free LMFAO concert in a high-school gym. That’s where Konami’s decision to create a set of characters designed as deliberately pale rip-offs from other, better games actually ends up saving the day: You’ve got your slacker/leet-speaker, who giddily rants about pwning zombie noobs while routinely annoying his teammates with ennui-laced digs. There’s an elderly minister, a loner female who’s unexpectedly proficient with weapons and an Aussie rapper with his rage switch constantly flipped to “on.” The last two are direct from Dead Island casting, but the ways in which they bicker and annoy each other are often hilarious. However, the routine catch phrases they spout (“health feels pretty good.”) feel stale by level two.

Even though they don’t blaze any new trails, the ways in which the four characters use their abilities in concert is inspired and clever—assuming you can take advantage of it. The slacker’s machine gun bursts pair well with the minister’s explosive shotgun blasts and healing abilities, while the female weapons specialist’s turret comes in handy when the brain-munching crowds get hectic. If you’re playing alone, the AI does a decent job of holding formation, unleashing power-ups and picking up cash. Just don’t expect strategic brilliance when the boss monsters start stomping. Your AI pals are more likely to clump and get taken down by a single blast of gassy, green mist. Drag.

Killing enemies in the original Zombie Apocalypse wasn’t just a matter of going all trigger-happy. Environmental kills were a big part of the fun, and luring the ghouls into traps added a welcome dose of strategy to the constant gunplay. There’s a little less of that in Never Die Alone, and it’s harder to trigger, but no less satisfying to mash a crowd of zombies with a big ol’ donut sign.

Never Die Alone is almost bite-sized in its brevity. Assuming you don’t need to re-grind the early levels in order to upgrade enough to keep moving forward—and you may–you’ll blast and blaze through these mean streets in less than five hours. Slightly more than your average trick-or-treat session—and significantly bloodier.

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Pros:
+ Amusing characters parody Left 4 Dead and Dead Island clichés
+ Character abilities mesh nicely in co-op mode
+ Killing brain-munchers with an oversized donut sign? Inspired.

Cons:
- Dark levels obscure the action, leading to cheap deaths
- No mid-level saves—again
- AI characters turn stupid during boss battles

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade; also available on PS3 via PSN
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Backbone
Release Date: 10/26/2011
Genre: Twin-Stick Shooter / Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.