I’m that guy you know who used to like movie-based video games. Good, bad, questionable cash-in on a license…I bought them all. And finished them all.
But then the industry got over it. The studios that used to make a living on licensed movie titles shifted over to their own original games, or got jobs doing conversion work to less powerful consoles like the Switch, or sometimes faded out of existence entirely.
In the last year or so, something baffling and market-defying happened: movie games started coming back. Not just as fun small mobile diversions either. Real “true” movie games of all budgets and scopes are once again somehow coming out on discs for major platforms.
I wrote a round-up article about this last November, and the title I was most doubtful about was Zombieland: Double Tap- Road Trip, one of the few games I can think of that has both a colon and a hyphen in its title. As of the moment this articles goes live, the game is on sale on a variety of platforms for the Lunar New Year, and it’s also one of the current free games in Microsoft’s ongoing Xbox Live Free Play Days promotion.
I downloaded the Xbox version and played the whole thing in a couple of hours. Now, I won’t ever get those hours back.
Zombieland: Double Tap- Road Trip, which I will now just call Zombieland DTRT, is a top-down perspective dual joystick arcade shooter developed by High Voltage Software for the PC, Xbox, PS4, and Switch. It supports up to four players. It has ten levels, a few side missions, and an endless mode. It features several different playable characters from the film franchise.
And it’s normally $40.
From the start, that price is simply outlandish. I don’t know how the folks at publisher Game Mill reached the ship date and decided, “yes, this is a good value.” The game has an achievement for beating it in less than 5 hours and 45 minutes and I easily earned that without really trying. And it has numerous issues I’ll elaborate on below that make it hard to compare this against the higher end of the market.
As a $20-or-less downloadable game, this would have looked a lot less egregious as a product. But at $40, it’s up against a whole pile of quality games you could choose instead, including discounted hits from last holiday season.
Zombieland DTRT features an original story set just before the second movie. The core cast of four characters from the first movie decides to drive across the country for the thinnest of reasons, and along the way Fake Woody Harrelson decides he wants to be the new President of the United States.
I call him “Fake Woody Harrelson” because, although this game seems to have the likeness rights for all the actors in the second film, the developers have done a sub-par job using them. Crudely sketched-over stills of the actors’s faces appear in little boxes next to the dialogue pop-ups that stand in for cutscenes, and their in-game models look….lumpy and weird.
Further, none of the actors perform their voices and they didn’t use any audio from the movies either since this is an original story. Every character is voiced by voice actors who sound bored. Frequently the actors will improv a better line that what’s written in the subtitles, and no one bothered to update the text after the fact so you’ll be able to see those changes.
During their jaunt across the land, the four characters run into a typical set of video game challenges. Most of the stages have you run from one end to the other in order to open a locked door or fight a boss. Two of the ten levels are escort missions where you protect an old lady. I normally hate escort missions, but those two stages were my favorites because they had an actual sense of pacing and didn’t outstay their welcome.
One stage in the middle is a nightmarish maze set inside a large grocery store, introduced in media res so that the characters can be just as annoyed and confused as you are that they now have to navigate a maze. No real explanation is ever given as to why the characters get stuck there, and it’s played off as funny, but it isn’t.
Rather than have some kind of main antagonist or final boss fight, the last challenge of the game has our heroes making a stand against a random zombie horde for four minutes in front of the White House. And then the story ends and they did it. Congratulations.
Some funny dialogue along the way, enhanced by the actors doing whatever they can, doesn’t make this story stand out. It’s clear they weren’t allowed to deviate from the movie plots, and they also weren’t allowed to do anything too fun or original. The boss zombies are pretty random. They’re inspired in part by zombies from the second film, but if you had played the game at launch this might have ruined some of the movie’s best surprises. They include a clown that throws things, an Elvis impersonator, a Terminator-inspired zombie, and a girl who vomits.
Oh also, all of the health items in the game are genuine licensed Hostess Twinkies. And there’s an achievement for collecting 100 of them to celebrate 100 years of Hostess. I first read this as a clever tie-in to the movie, but by the end of the game you’ve seen so many of them that it just feels like the whole thing was an ad paid for by the Twinkie people.
Dual joystick shooters are hard to mess up, with templates for fun designs going all the way back to Robotron 1984. In spite of the litany of good examples of this genre to draw inspiration from, Zombieland DTRT still fumbles.
The core movement and aiming are fine. Every character starts off with a basic pistol, and you can pick up many different weapons along the way. These weapons have limited ammo and offer varying degrees of utility. Melee weapons seem curiously overpowered, and some of the guns seem more like pea shooters.
Picking up these weapons is cumbersome. You have to press a button to open a container, then press that button again to pick up the weapon inside. There’s no way to carry more than one weapon at a time, and it’s hard to always use a favorite because you’re at the mercy of where the designers have placed the pickups.
Aside from the interact button that also picks up things, you also have a reload button, a shoot button, and a grenade button. On consoles, these are all placed on the bumpers and triggers so you never have to take your thumbs off the joysticks, which is smart.
Reloading takes a long time and leaves you too frequently vulnerable. There’s no dodge or evade of any kind, so if you get stuck in a corner and suddenly run out of ammo, you’re probably going to die. Level design could overcome this limitation with multiple pathways or arenas that are wide open to allow for some strategic movement, but instead the game’s levels are full of tight corridors and angular objects. Every time I died, it was because I got snagged on geometry while trying to get away from a zombie.
Dying takes you back to the very beginning of the stage you’re on, with no checkpoints or extra lives.
At the end of every stage, you’ll earn skill points based on your score that you can use to level up things like your health, damage, and speed, making the game slightly more tolerable to play. Once you finish the short campaign, you’ll unlock one character from the movie sequel, and a New Game Plus mode that’s harder but offers higher point values.
The game rarely reaches the manic chaos level that usually makes dual stick shooters fun to play, and when it does the controls aren’t quite up to making that enjoyable. The only fight I found really fun in the whole game was the very last one against the giant arbitrary four minute horde.
If you’re playing on Xbox, the game makes good use of the impulse triggers to provide nice feedback for all the weapons. It honestly surprised me how nice the trigger rumble is, considering how hastily-produced nearly every single presentation aspect of this game feels.
Maybe this game earns its $40 price with excellent graphics then? In a word, no.
The art style is fine. It’s colorful, and reasonably evocative of the source material, though that’s a big problem when it’s trying to render real actors whose appearances are well-known. It’s going for a balance of realism and stylized illustrations, but every movie actor looks like their own cartoon cousin.
The environment textures are the standout visual feature, with lots of detail to the ground you’ll be constantly staring at.
Character models, particularly for zombies, are rough and lacking in polygons. They look like they were originally developed to run fast on mobile platforms. Each “boss” zombie gets a little introduction panel with big 3D titles and a zoom-in, and during that moment the zombies appear to have more polygons than they do during regular gameplay. So higher quality models were made and then not used, perhaps for performance reasons.
It’s hard to understand why they’d have too many aggressive performance optimizations going on when you see the rest of the effects in the game. The explosions look good, but everything else looks decidedly last-gen. Not in that usual internet hyperbole way where I’m comparing it to PS3-era visuals just to mock it, but in an actual real-world sense.
I’d bet money that this would run perfectly on much older hardware.
The Nintendo Switch has many current games that look better from a technical perspective, to say nothing of the other platforms. Shadows are almost non-existent, sometimes not rendering at all. Usually, you’ll get a real shadow for your character and one single zombie, with simple circular blobs used for everyone else. Lighting otherwise looks nice, where they had time to implement it. Environmental destruction and interaction is kept to a bare minimum, with no real use of physics and the sense that the background is fully static.
In spite of the simple visuals, it still has minor frame rate issues in its last level, even on my Xbox One X. Perhaps that’s why it mostly avoids large groups of enemies?
Aside from the often bland voice acting and music that’s pushed to the background and largely forgettable, the sound design is okay. Sound balance is crisp and cues are well-positioned throughout the surround field if you’re playing with a capable system.
Weapons have decently punchy sound effects, though they sometimes cut out during sustained fire. The quality of the weapon sounds makes the gameplay tolerable for longer than it otherwise would be.
If you want to play a weird, hastily-produced dual joystick shooter that came out in 2019, you’re much better off playing Contra: Rogue Corps.
That game also looks lumpy and has major design issues, but it’s more complete in its design, and it has over 20 hours of content and a fun core loop of loot collection. It also has a dodge that allows the shooting sections to be more hectic and exciting.
That’s right, I just recommended Contra: Rogue Corps over this. A game that made almost every “worst games of 2019” list.
On the other hand, if you want a great recent dual joystick shooter made by a small studio, please check out Riddled Corpses EX. It’s a wonderful game and commits almost none of the mistakes that Zombieland features in spades.
As a freebie I got through an Xbox Live promotion, I’m still struggling to justify having played this. It’s currently 90 percent off on Steam, bringing the price to four bucks. That’s…probably fine, but only for hardcore fans of the franchise or people who want to shoot zombies for two hours as Fake Emma Stone.
This game, sadly, is a perfect example of why movie games died. It’s overpriced. It doesn’t make good use of its license or the movie talent. It doesn’t tell a fun story. And it largely stumbles in the gameplay department in spite of being built on a tried-and-tested genre backbone.
I’m sure High Voltage Software had no money and no time to make this. And in the explosions, the impulse rumble, and the sound design, you can see inklings that they might have made a good game out of this with more time.
But ultimately, they put out a 3 hour game with lacking gameplay design that costs $40. It might have been saved by the movie cast, or with better visuals, or with more content overall, but I doubt it’ll ever get a sequel that’ll fix any of these problems.
I’m shocked that they’re featuring it as a temporary Xbox freebie, as you can easily beat it in one day then never think about it again instead of buying it.