With the Wii U’s launch lineup somewhat light on new IP, ZombiU has been one of the most talked about games in the run-up to release (although it’s worth noting that it’s not technically new IP, as Zombi from 1986 was the first game published by Ubisoft… it was a little different, as we’re sure you’d expect from a 26 year old title). A true survival horror, it offers a fresh new twist on the zombie genre, while also giving players an insight into what they can expect from the new system as time progresses. To date, the game’s reception has been mixed, with some loving it and others hating it, something that’s going to be the case with gamers too, no doubt, but those who are willing to immerse themselves in the game world are in for a real treat.
We’ll start with the visuals – ZombiU is not a great looking title, even for a launch game on a new system. From looking at screenshots or video coverage, it looks distinctly average, however once you start playing, you’ll quickly realise that the grainy, murky graphics actually serve to heighten the tension and gritty attempt at survival that lies ahead. Those looking for high end visuals showing off the power of the Wii U may well be disappointed, but anyone who appreciates the value and power of darkness and grit will find that it the sense of foreboding loneliness and overall powerlessness in the face of the spreading infection will quickly forget about poor quality textures and instead embrace the overall aesthetic and mood created by Ubisoft Montpellier.
It’s this mood and sense of hopelessness that serves to make ZombiU something truly special. The game’s playable intro not only serves to introduce you to the most basic controls, but it also acts as a way to immediately show you what you’re up against. Alone and confused in the zombie overrun London, the player is offered a beacon of hope by a single voice offering a chance at salvation – but before you can get to the safe house, the hub from which the early part of the game plays out, you’re going to need to find a way through an overrun Tube station. It’s glorious!
Make no bones about it, ZombiU is a bleak game. From the bible passages threatening black death sweeping the earth to the gruesome ways you dispatch your undead foes, the majority of the storyline feels like a hopeless attempt at survival, but as you inch closer and closer to your next mission, there’s a sense that you might just be able to pull it off… only to find yourself ambushed by a bloodthirsty horde that brings you down, hopes and all, with nary a chance of redemption.
From that first bitter disappointment emerges the real power of ZombiU, however. This isn’t one of those games where you can expect to respawn, nor is it a title that offers you “lives” in the usual sense. Instead, when your survivor falls pretty to the shuffling menaces walking the streets, you’ll lose them forever and take control of an all-new survivor. This mechanic, simple and all as it sounds, is one of the freshest things we’ve seen from a game in quite a while.
Usually when you die, and you’re likely to die quite a bit, your first action as the newest survivor will be to track down your former self, now zombified, smash their head in and steal back your inventory. This can be a particularly galling affair if you had managed to last long enough to accrue a bountiful supply of weapons, health packs, flares and other assorted tools, but it’s something that’s essential to your progress. Making your survival even tougher though, is the fact that you only get one shot at saving your stuff. If you manage to die again before successfully looting your old survivor’s backpack, you’ll lose everything, and that, dear readers, is not a good thing.
Thankfully, this loss isn’t necessarily permanent, because those of you with a good memory will be able to revisit the areas where you originally found your goodies in order to pick up their respawned selves. The catch being that they’re not going to be in exactly the same place, so you’ll find that exploration is massively important to your ultimate goals here. There are no sure things, and that’s the way we like it!
ZombiU is far from an easy game, and we think that may be why we love it so much. You’re not going to be able to pick it up and play it for 15-20 minutes here and there, rather you’ll need to get completely immersed in the experience in order to get the most out of it. Planning and caution are both essential if you want to live long enough to progress. Running carelessly from area to area will result in quick deaths (pathetically, even taking care we managed to lose a survivor in less than a minute on more than one occasion), and dark and all as it is in this decrepit alternate London City, your trusty flashlight serves only to attract unwanted attention, so you need to be very smart about when you use it and when you don’t.
Thankfully, Ubisoft Montpellier has sought to combat this handicap through the use of the Wii U’s GamePad controller, which you can utilize as a scanner. By activating it with a prolonged press of the left shoulder button, you can scan the surrounding areas, flagging any potential threats, goodies and emergency exits. This mechanic ever so slightly swings the pendulum back in the careful player’s favour, but even then it comes with its own perils, because you must scan in real time which leaves you open to attack and ambush.
It’s this careful-careful approach to everything in the game that will cause the most disagreement among gamers. Those used to the run-and-gun nature of traditional first person titles may find this a seriously tough slog. There’s a certain methodical approach that’s needed in order to progress in ZombiU that’s usually centred around securing an entrance into a new area, scouting it thoroughly, figuring out which path provides the least zombie related peril and then stealthily making your way to your destination without alerting the nearby undead.
In many cases, however, you’re going to need to get your hands bloody regardless of how careful you have been. All you need is one zombie in a group to spot you and you’re in for a serious shitstorm. Running away is always something you need to be prepared for, but if combat is essential your survival depends on the state of your inventory at the time. Accessed in real time by pulling down on the backpack tag displayed on the GamePad’s touch screen, your inventory holds everything you’ve picked up to date.
Your go-to weapon for the bulk of the early parts of the game will be your trusty cricket bat. It’s relatively strong, quiet and unlikely to attract too much unwanted attention, but you’ll need to land three or four clean hits and a finisher (doled out by holding ZR) before finally dispatching the focus of your ire. You could opt for a gun should you find yourself hopelessly outnumbered, but the sound of gunfire is not something you particularly want ringing out too often – you want to keep your enemies manageable in volume.
The bulk of ZombiU is about balance. You need to assess the best approach for each situation and then fully commit to your plans. Changing your mind isn’t an option after you’ve fired the first shot, or set off an alarm, so knowing in advance what’s likely to happen is always a good idea. Should things start to go badly wrong, you’ve got the ability to lob a flare into the distance and hope that any approaching zombies find it more interesting than they do your survivor.
Getting down to specifics, ZombiU’s control system isn’t quite as tight as we would have liked it to be. There’s an inherent looseness that does, from time to time, cause issues. There’s a period of getting used to the way your weapons work, too, that can cause issues initially, but due to the nature of the game, all this serves to do is ratchet up the fear factor. Gunplay, and indeed melee play, is often hit and miss, but then you need to remember that your survivors are often little more than accountants, teachers and shop assistants. They can’t be expected to know the ins and outs of firing assault rifles with any great degree of accuracy. Speaking of the survivors, you’ll also note that some are stronger than others, faster than others or with more stamina than others – it’s all part of the randomization of the game that makes the experience so fresh and unique. But wait, there’s more!
ZombiU, epic and all as its single player modes are, also offers something a little bit different by way of multiplayer gameplay. While it doesn’t offer online play, it’s a neat little experiment that works quite well between you and a friend. One, using the GamePad, takes control of the Zombie King placing zombies throughout the map in a bid to prevent the survivor from capturing specific points on the map, while the other, using the Wii Remote/Nunchuk combo, must guide the survivor to, well, survival. It’s surprisingly fun, but unfortunately a touch limited once the novelty has worn off. If Ubisoft can implement a patch in the future that adds a little more to the mode, such as perhaps another two or three players able to join in as survivors online, then they might be onto something really special. As things stand right now though, it’s mostly just a nice occasional distraction from the atmosphere of the single player game for when you’ve got a friend round.
While the perspective on offer may be that of a traditional first person shooter, ZombiU is anything but. Guns may be a little more commonplace than you might have expected, but ammo certainly is not, and even if you are fully stocked up, every shot you fire in anger will only serve to highlight your location and bring more unwanted attention your way. Those expecting a traditional gameplay experience won’t necessarily find it here, nor will they find anything particularly groundbreaking technically. What players will find though is a damn clever game, structured in such a way as to foster panic, unease and fear at every turn. As a survival horror, we can’t think of anything that has managed to hit the spot quite like ZombiU, whether playing the regular campaign or survival mode in which you only get a single spawn (now that, dear friends, is hardcore).