ZombiU will be viewed through a very particular lens, one designed to scrutinize the Wii U's worth as a "hardcore" gaming system. One of the few original launch titles built to appeal to the lifelong gamer, many are going to judge its worth as a demonstration of the GamePad's functions and how they can make familiar experiences more engaging.
While that is a perfectly valid way to approach ZombiU, it is something of a tragedy that it shall be the near universal standard by which it is judged. For you see, the game does something far more important than that, something it won't get credit for, due to the lens everybody will be peering through.
ZombiU brings real survival horror back to home consoles, and that's what we should really be talking about.
ZombiU (Wii U)
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release: November 18, 2012
Four centuries past, an astronomer by the name of John Dee predicted that a blight would sweep across the United Kingdom in 2012, and sweep it did. London finds itself in the grip of a viral outbreak, as citizens turn into mindless, cannibalistic killers. One man, calling himself the Prepper, has spent years safeguarding against the prophecy and reaches out to survivors across the city, welcoming them to his safe house. Meanwhile, the Ravens of Dee, a secret organization dedicated to fighting the prophecy, searches for a cure.
ZombiU's plot is hardly groundbreaking, but then it doesn't intend to be. It's a straightforward zombie game with a typical zombie story, and it simply does what it needs to set players up with an undead-infested city of nightmarish proportions. Survival is the key word here, more so than in pretty much any other horror title to have seen a console release this generation. ZombiU is a about constantly being on the edge, facing overwhelming odds, and escaping death by a hair's breadth.
Like so many classic survival horror titles, ZombiU's combat system is designed to put players at a disadvantage, giving them just enough to survive without ever letting them dominate. It's hard to remember these days, but there once was a time when zombies were genuinely intimidating foes as opposed to walking bags of gore that could be popped with gleeful abandon. ZombiU remembers, and if it does one thing spectacularly, it's that it puts the viral shamblers back where they belong -- on top of the food chain and breathing down your neck.
A single zombie is no joke. The player's mainstay weapon, a cricket bat, needs at least four solid whacks to a skull before the zombie is down long enough to be executed. The player's swings are slow, with attacks needing to be readied first before striking, otherwise the survivor will harmlessly shove the enemy back (though this is crucial for keeping space between the opposition and the would-be victim). Delivering the final blow does not render a player invincible -- any other zombie within range will take advantage of distracted prey. Taking on multiple creatures, even just two, is possible but best avoided, as such encounters are invariably desperate struggles of backpeddling, shoving, and sneaking off well-judged blows at just the right moment.
The monsters are stupid but aggressive when provoked, and their guttural screams, jerky movements, and willingness to get right up in your face make them easily more hideous and scary than your run-of-the-mill geeks. Breaking barricades and opening the inventory is done in real time, meaning foes could lurk in from behind while the GamePad's screen is being viewed. In short, ZombiU is a consistently oppressive experience, one that deliberately limits the player in exchange for something quite terrifying -- and as a survival horror fan who laments the sidelining of the genre, I couldn't be happier with just how well it succeeds.
Supplies are limited, so while there are a number of ranged weapons to find and upgrade, ammunition can't be wasted. Guns fire slowly and are best used when there's both distance and a lot of enemies that need putting down before they reach you. A really nice balance has been struck between weapons that feel satisfyingly powerful and resources that can't be thrown away recklessly, constantly ensuring the player is kept in check. As bodies and lockers are looted, one can find Molotovs, grenades, and mines, all of which are invaluable in the right circumstance and a terrible waste in the wrong one.
Although the player can freely travel to newly discovered locations via a series of sewer shortcuts, ZombiU is nonetheless a fairly linear experience that tosses in a solid bit of backtracking to pad itself out. Each mission typically starts from Prepper's safe house, where the survivor will be charged with obtaining an item or discovering something important. From there, it's up to the player to pick one's way carefully through the devastated London streets, surveying each environment, working out the best way through a route, and making sure to engage zombies on a one-to-one basis as much as possible.
Should the player die -- and there are plenty of opportunities to do so -- ZombiU employs a cool spin on the Demon's/Dark Souls respawn system. The player's Bug-Out Bag, containing all mission items and supplies, will be left wherever the player died while a new survivor wakes up in Prepper's safe house to continue the story. As a fresh-faced, randomly generated Londoner, the player then has to fight back to the scene of the last one's demise and, in most cases, take out their newly zombified remains. The body, which is flagged with the survivor's name alongside a score total, can then be looted for lost items.
Although death is a slap on the wrist to the player, the knowledge that it will actually lead to the character's death has a noteworthy psychological effect, not to mention the fact that the next survivor will have to do them in. The tension this brings to the game is palpable, and the sight of a dead body, lying in mute monument to your failure, manages to be depressing in a way that standard "game over" screens just aren't.
Another cue taken from the Souls games is found in online functionality. Players can use spray paint to leave messages viewable by other users online, and slain survivors may invade friends' campaigns to terrorize them and grant potential extra loot bonuses. At the time of writing, the Nintendo Network has not been active long enough for me to run into any of these items, but I love the idea as I did in Demon's Souls.
For the most part, ZombiU is controlled with a familiar first-person control scheme. The left stick moves, the right stick looks, and the triggers handle attacks. As one might expect, Ubisoft exploits the GamePad in a number of ways to keep things interesting, and the results are hit-or-miss. Surprisingly, the oft-used mechanic of holding the Pad like a scanner to survey the area is not as intrusive or annoying as I dreaded, helped by the fact that, rather than use the gyroscope to look around, the player can just use the right stick. Scanning a room highlights key items, doors, and infected, which are surveyed on the touchscreen and flagged on the television. Using the GamePad in this way became second nature after a while, and I was happily scoping out every new environment I discovered.
When not scanning, the GamePad's screen acts as a radar to detect movement of both infected and animals such as crows and rats. This is a good way to get a bead on potential enemy locations, though the inclusion of animals can also ramp up a few pleasant scares, as you prepare to face a horde only to discover it's simply a mass of vermin.
Using the touchscreen to pry open manholes, break barricades, and pick locks, however, feels like a cheap bit of filler and merely excuses meant to further justify the GamePad's features. It doesn't help that the touchscreen is not the most responsive of input methods when it comes to rapidly tapping objects, and I'm never a fan of a game that breaks the action to force you to change the way you're holding the controller in order to perform some banal non-gameplay. Fortunately, these moments are infrequent and over quickly, but they remain ultimately pointless.
Item management is all done on the Pad too and suffers from similar response and precision issues. Moving items around with a finger is a pain that can be mitigated by the stylus, but having to stop and switch to an entirely new input method every time you want to use something is not a real solution. At least the on-hand items, of which six can be carried, are accessed using well-placed touch icons near the analog sticks, making them quite simple to grab.
As well as the main campaign, brave players can take on a one-life survival mode, where death literally does equal death. There are no reloads, no continues, and no respawning survivors. As you might expect, this is built to ramp up the terror considerably, and it will be enjoyed by most players not as a game to be beaten but simply one to see how far they can get before falling.
Local multiplayer rounds out the content, providing a competitive mode called King of the Zombies. In this game, one player acts as the eponymous King Boris, taking control of zombie hordes to wipe out survivors and claim territory. Other players utilize the Pro Controller (or Wii Remote/Nunchuck combo) to become Survivors and drain the zombie army while fulfilling set objectives. In short, this mode is brilliant fun. For the survivors, they get a taste of faster-paced and more gun-friendly zombie combat not found in the main game, while the Zombie King essentially gets to play a real-time strategy game against human-controlled units.
As the King, players get to intermittently level up, gaining access to more powerful zombie units such as exploding, spitting, and sprinting ones. The survivors get granted bonus gifts of extra guns and ammo to keep them on their toes. All told, I have to say I have the most fun playing as the undead overlord, spawning creatures on an overhead map to try and catch the enemy off guard. That's not to say playing a survivor isn't fun, but it doesn't quite match the satisfaction of launching a small army of explode-on-contact flesh-eaters and hearing the opposition's lamentations.
There are two modes to choose from -- a straight-up survival mode, where players have to kill as many zombies before the King wipes them out, and a capture-the-flag, where both sides try and take over territory using their quick wit (humans) and specialized zombie "grunts" (the King). The flag-capturing game is easily more compelling and recommended playing for anybody with zombie-loving friends.
There is a lot about ZombiU that pleases me, and if I were able to, I'd be singing its praises to all comers. Sadly, the game is held back by a number of issues that stop it being quite the classic it could have been.
First of all, while vanilla zombies are indeed scarier and tougher than usual, they are not exactly varied. Character models are reused considerably, and while there are a few variations, such as ones that spit acid or come decked in riot gear, the vast majority of the horde are quite identical and grow repetitive to tackle. Riot cops in particular takes a tremendous amount of smacks to finish off, and it goes from nerve-wracking to exhausting by the time the ten-hour campaign is done. This isn't helped by a poor map system that can lead to the player getting lost and the generally tiresome slog from point A to point B that typifies return trips to previously discovered locales. It took me 11 hours to complete the campaign, but I think I spent at least two of them getting lost.
ZombiU is a glitchy game as well. I've had it crash on me twice, I've encountered zombies that could attack through closed doors or just fall through solid objects, and I had one case where my previous survivor didn't spawn and I was worried I'd lost all my gear. It respawned after I left the area via a shortcut and reloaded it, but doing so was a hassle. This is all typified by regular and slow loading times, plus graphics that, if we're being nice, wouldn't look too out of place on a Wii, let alone the Wii U. I'm no graphical nut, and I like my horror ugly, but I'm a little disappointed by a game that looks this poor while being so buggy and slow to load.
The game is riddled with problems, and its focus on harrowing, slow-paced survival is going to put off a ton of people. In fact, there's a very good chance that many of you reading this will hate it and question how I could ever begin enjoying the thing. ZombiU is not for such a person, and I can't blame anybody who dislikes their time with it. There is, however, a certain breed of player who is going to love it to bits and will find the returns well worth the struggles required. I count myself among them, and I have a feeling that many aficionados of real survival horror will join me.
ZombiU is awkward, ugly, crawling in its pace, and often nonsensical with its narrative ... and I remember when horror games weren't ashamed of any of that, even actively exploiting it to create alienating, frightening atmospheres that stuck in a players' memories and made them too spooked to want to take another step forward. ZombiU did that to me. It made me afraid to walk into rooms, it made me think twice before tackling two opponents at once, and it frequently reminded me I was weak, piteous, but maybe just careful and lucky enough to get through.
And for as much as it screws up, ZombiU somehow does it well.