Trials HD but with zombies. It’s a hook that snagged us in the first Zombie Derby game. But through some repetitious grind, the hook loosened and eventually tumbled off. Our interest fell off before the zombies did.
Revving its motors and looking more determined than before, Zombie Derby 2 has pulled into our garage. We found our hopes getting up again: perhaps there is a new Trials HD game to be made (Ubisoft clearly aren’t making it), and zombies feel like they are a natural fit.
We booted up Zombie Derby 2 with bloodlust in our eyes. We knew that we weren’t going to find depth or nuance in Zombie Derby 2. This is juvenile, overblown violence and we felt in the mood.
You start on the left of a 2.5D track, and immediately start splattering zombies on your windshield. Small zombies slow your car imperceptibly – you can almost ignore that they exist – while bigger zombies can jolt your car to a stop if you don’t speed up beforehand. Regardless, you get points and coins for how many of them that you slaughter, with bonuses for killing lots in a row, obliterating them at speed, or landing on many at once.
There are obstacles too, with crates and barrels continuing the slowing-down theme, as well as jumps, ramps, mines and mini zombie-bosses who invite you to ram them, the absolute units that they are.
It’s not just about running them all over. You have counter-measures, bought and upgraded via a garage between levels. A machine gun with limited ammo can be tapped to kill bosses, or clear out an explosive barrel that would have slowed you down punitively. Nitros, again bought and upgraded, give you the acceleration needed to clear a ramp or steep gradient. And a snow plough will send enemies rag-dolling away, giving us Carmageddon flashbacks.
None of the obstacles push Zombie Derby 2 into Trials HD territory, though, which is a small shame. There are loop-the-loops, which push you to speed up beforehand, and it’s possible to dip or lift your nose during a jump to land better, retaining some speed. But otherwise, these are plain old levels with the odd dip and jump. You can get more thrills from pushing a trolly around a Tesco car park.
Acrobatics isn’t the point, you see. The point is conserving your resources – your fuel in particular – so that you can get further through the level than you did before. There’s the faint outline of a roguelike in the approach. On your first entry to a level, you will die (on a mine, running out of fuel, deep in a chasm), but you will have made enough money to buy some upgrades that get you further and then further still.
There’s a problem there: conserving resources isn’t all that fun. You want to be surging off ramps, pirouetting through zombies in a spray of giblets. Instead, you’re managing resource bars. You end up throttling the enjoyment, because it will pay off with more enjoyment later (once you buy that killer wheel upgrade, you see). It isn’t making us flick our tongue out and do the demon horns.
It’s not as if it pays off much either. Upgrade your car, truck or combine harvester and you will eventually reach its cap. As soon as you get something positive out of your vehicle, you are moving on, and we rarely – if ever – reached a point in the game where we felt we could let loose. We were always building for the future, conserving what we had.
The grind is here too, as it was with Zombie Derby: Pixel Survival, but just delivered in a different way. In the first game, there was a ladder to climb, and you’d climb that ladder in fits and starts, as you would upgrade and buy cars in the hope that – finally – you had enough torque to beat a particularly sticky level.
Here, the ladder is more a web. There are ‘golden path’ levels which are your main objective, and each one hides a new car to unlock and upgrade. But there are also numerous optional levels, spinning off from the main path. These have fun objectives – popping pumpkins or delivering presents – and completing them nets you a fuel upgrade for a car.
It’s a neat little structure, since you can technically dabble in them as much as you like. The differing objectives offer just enough difference in gameplay, too. But someone has turned up in the middle of the night and applied a clamp. You can only play these levels with a particular car, and that car will be one you’ve long since left behind. You’re upgrading a redundant vehicle, and we can only imagine it’s for completionists who want to three-star older levels. It completely dampens the enthusiasm for playing them.
If you could viably use those older cars in later levels, then all would be forgiven. But Zombie Derby 2 applies the ol’ rules of diminishing returns. Play with a previous car and you’ll arbitrarily get about a third of the cash. Simply put, the game loop doesn’t work: it wants you to be levelling legacy cars while punishing you for actually using them.
What you’re left with is a grind that is – debatably – worse than the first game. It’s a shorter ladder of fewer levels to grind, but with a greater sense of failure as you die over and over within them. Very generally, Zombie Derby 2 feels like you’ve brought a car into the garage for its MOT, only to find that the old issues have been replaced by new ones.
But, just as was the case with Zombie Derby, there’s a beating heart at the centre of it all. Thumping into enemies and watching the guts fly has a primal energy to it. There’s a rhythm to be had – one that’s not difficult to achieve – of speeding up before ramps, shooting the big zombies, and letting go of the accelerator on down-slopes to protect your fuel. It becomes second nature.
Zombie Derby 2 looks to address the grind of the first game, but only ends up changing the flavour of it. It ends up being a three-point turn that takes it back to where it started. But still, there’s a couple of hours of joy to be had in flying off ramps and landing on a zombie’s noggin, should that be your thing.