I never knew a shovel could be this powerful. Seriously, my twin uzis lay forgotten on the ground. Their pitiful bullets simply could not compete with the unstoppable savagery of my spade. I named her Gwendalyn and she eats zombies for breakfast.
The undead in question are swarming around me as I play through Playside Studios’ brand new VR experience, ZR: Zombie Riot. ZR is wave-based shooter that launched alongside the Oculus Touch control system earlier this week. The game pits you against swarms of ravenous corpses while arming you with a constantly shifting array of firearms to keep the biters at bay. However, despite all the effort put into the guns its the melee weapons that pack the real punch. Each baseball bat, crowbar or pitchfork you find in the game is a weapon of destruction more powerful than any grenade. This is a fun thrill at first, but it also serves as a good representation of the problems with Zombie Riot. And there are, unfortunately, quite a few.
The biggest issue in this game is its pacing. As the player you begin your apocalyptic journey by snagging a buzzing radio in an abandoned garage as you’re guided from waypoint to waypoint by a mysterious stranger on the other end. In order to progress to the next point you need to slay several waves of zombies at each location. The lack of any sort of locomotion system is not uncommon for a wave-based shooter, but if a game wants to root you to one spot for its duration then that spot better be entertaining enough to back that decision up. For Zombie Riot, this is unfortunately not the case.
You are always armed with two pistols — each with unlimited ammo — and most levels give you a special gun, such as an assault rifle or uzi, that can be used for that wave only. These weapons also come with unlimited clips and reloading is accomplished through a simple press of a face button on either Touch controller. Reloading in VR can be a highly satisfying experience when done well and can also help to build immersion or tension. Playside’s choice to reduce this action down to a single, motion-free, input seems like a disappointing shortcut and these types of half measures are not restricted to your weapons.
The enemies themselves are highly underwhelming in Zombie Riot as well. Despite the bright, colorful, and inviting visual aesthetic, they presented very little actual variety. At each combat point zombies will begin to stumble towards you at either a lumbering walk or a slightly faster jog. There is only a small handful of enemy types to go around and the models that are there have severely limited animations. Enemies show no reaction to being pumped full of lead until they are damaged enough to be defeated. Getting a headshot does result in a satisfying lopping off of their head, though.
This turns most waves into bullet-sponge parades that force you to point, click, and watch your shots find their marks while the seconds tick by or you land a fortunate headshot. If a zombie ever did make it to me, it would often lunge at a space I was not occupying. This still damaged me but it also looked very odd and broke the immersion of the combat significantly.
Difficulty scaling feels oddly disjointed in ZR as well. Most waves can be beaten without any considerable effort. You never really feel in danger especially if you’re on a level with one of the games many overpowered weapons. All melee weapons as well as most shotguns and some of the rifles all take down enemies with absurd ease. This combined with the never-ending ammunition makes many waves in ZR rather un-engaging in their simplicity.
When Zombie Riot isn’t simple it’s just frustratingly. I arrived at one point in which I was tasked with protecting a gas canister from incoming undead from the rafters of a barn. No matter how well I shot, for the longest time it seemed like I could could not kill the enemies quickly enough to keep them from destroying my objective. In other protect-the-target missions the health of the quarry I was attempting to protect would randomly drop from almost full, to zero in what seemed like a single hit. Difficulty spikes like these are either distressing game design flaws, or glitches. I wasn’t able to reproduce this issue on trying again, so it was likely the latter.
In addition to the randomly depleting health bars I also experienced issues with the guns themselves with regards to them not appearing within range of my hands, or sporadically bouncing and knocking other things off of tables that I then could not reach. Luckily this seems to have been patched since I noticed it, so it shouldn’t impact end users, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
The sound in Zombie Riot is somewhat poor overall. It is spatial in direction but not in proximity. This means that in any given wave you can hear where a zombie is coming from in direction, but it always sounds like it is only a few feet away. This defeats the purpose of using sound to help shooters identify their targets and can actually become a bit disorienting when multiple enemies are approaching that all sound equally close.
The background music also does little to add to the drama of the combat and on more than one occasion it simply cut out for me all together. The voice over from my mysterious guide also seemed to get triggered either out of order and he repeated himself unnecessarily or out of context on more than one occasion as well. I also noted occasional popping, which sounded like someone forgot the pop filter on their microphone.
On the positive side, Playside has done an incredible job in giving their weapons a satisfying feel to them in the game itself. There are a few guns that allow for two handed firing and this feels surprisingly immersive with Touch. They’ve also gone out of their way to create a good variety of weapons, although the crafting system they alluded to before has unfortunately been removed for now. Playside informs us they will be adding it in through an eventual update, but something that was so highly-touted and would have added needed depth feels like a glaring omission.
I really wanted to like ZR: Zombie Riot but, unfortunately, the simplistic gameplay, frustrating difficulty spikes, and occasional glitches knock this one down the quality ladder. However, Playside did demonstrate real skill when it comes to VR gunplay and hopefully they’ll be back again with something that builds upon those strengths. The presentation is strong and it could be a good buy for staunch zombie fans or gamers that can’t handle the intensity of something like The Brookhaven Experiment.
ZR: Zombioe Riot is now available on the Oculus Home Store for Oculus Rift with Touch at a price point of $19.99. Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.