Of the six Ubisoft launch titles for the Nintendo Wii U, ZombiU is by far the most unique and not because of its strange development history, beginning as a sci-fi shooter dubbed Killer Freaks From Outer Space. ZombiU is not only exclusive to the system and its tablet-esque GamePad, but it’s also a game unusual to the Wii brand in that it’s specifically geared towards the ‘hardcore’ gamer.
Is ZombiU a survivor against a horde of zombie-themed entertainment during the busiest video games release window of the year? Read on for our review.
ZombiU takes place in overrun London, England, as players step into the boots of a survivor with little background information on them outside of a name and a profession. The only voice players will hear – outside of the grunts and screams of the player character during combat – is that of a British man “The Prepper” who saw the zombocalypse coming and set up a safe house for survivors to use as a base of operations. The Prepper is the quest giver of the game and the source of story information about The Black Prophecy, fictionally foretold by real-life astronomer John Dee as the second major plague to strike the Earth. The first being the Black Plague of 1665 and the second coming in November 2012, hence the zombies.
Players play the game from a first-person perspective, using the GamePad (explained as an in-game piece of equipment) to manage inventory, view the map and scan the environment. Much of the game will be spent exploring dark, creepy areas on a journey to uncover the mystery of the outbreak, and players will learn to continuously tap the radar button instinctively, looking down to spot the locations of red dots upon hearing the scary beeps. Those red dots could be birds, rats… or something else.
ZombiU doesn’t attempt to replicate what gamers have seen from the latest installments of Resident Evil, Silent Hill or other survival horror/zombie titles. There are no helicopters, explosions or running and gunning. Instead, the zombies, the darkness, the sound and ambiance are all legitimately horrifying and the game lives up to its description about surviving.
Players can scan the environment, holding up the Wii U GamePad and moving it around the room. This function is used to scan if bodies and storage areas contain items to scavenge, or to mark doors and other dropped goods to mark them on the map. It’s an inventive and well-suited display of the Wii U’s capabilities with the GamePad.
During much of the game’s campaign, players will find themselves scavenging items, storing valuable goods back at the safe house, and conserving ammunition. There are item upgrades that can be collected and crafted onto weapons for permanent improvements, and there are also foodstuffs but players may find them not worth the inventory space due to the negligible amount of health they restore and how easily it is for zombies to kill the player.
Upon death by zombie, the character the player controls is dead. There’s no respawning or reloading a save. And dying in a story about zombies can only mean one thing. The player is immediately put in control of another survivor awakening at base camp, following the same orders from The Prepper over the intercom. To get back the potentially valuable items lost on death, players need to venture out to find where they died and (re)kill their now-undead self. It’s a smart mechanic and one that will be enjoyed frequently as losing survivors will become a normal part of playing ZombiU.
The player death system is not only creates a legitimate fear of being overwhelmed by zombies, but it’s also a strong motivator to get back out there immediately, heading towards the current objective and retreading the same ground since those lost items may include important weapons or ammunition worth recovering.
The game’s combat mechanics and inventory systems are disorienting at first, but after the learning curve and once mastering the screens and scanning functions, players will soon appreciate the unique experience ZombiU attempts to offer. And that’s really the selling point of the title which otherwise contains a story that takes second stage to the thrills and tough gameplay.
One of the disadvantages of GamePad-required gameplay is that it slows simple processes down. Dragging and dropping inventory often results in unintended informational popups about the item when trying to move or equip it, and moving multiple items from one location to another is mind-numbingly painful. Similar issues arise when attempting to switch weapons on the fly during a skirmish. While scanning environments, the GamePad sometimes doesn’t recognize touch even if holding down the correct area of the GamePad screen and it will require repeated attempts.
Combining inventory issues with the combat design and ZombiU isn’t a game for everyone. Guns are inaccurate and oddly difficult to use, and the primary melee weapon requires a large amount of hits to finish off an undead foe. Taking on multiple zombies is a formula for failure – by design – and so keeping mental note of the closest doors and exits is of extreme importance.
While the combat and death system is punishing in and of itself, there are moments where players find themselves overwhelmed from different directions seemingly at random, even from enclosed areas previously cleared out. It’s the Doom 3 effect and if feels unfair, especially since it often results in the player losing that character and starting over again.
Graphics are adequate and there’s a smart use of lighting and mist effects to set the mood, but the water and blood effects coupled with the odd character designs and animations when zombies traverse environments put the ZombiU’s visuals behind other triple-A games of the current generation consoles. The same can be said for the game’s local multiplayer and online features.
Multiplayer can simply be described as a wasted opportunity, limited to two local players, with the zombie team controlled by the player with the GamePad who has an overhead map to place different types of undead units, and the second player playing the lone survivor with a Pro Controller or a Wiimote and Nunchuk. The goal is to capture the flags and it doesn’t have lasting appeal. The online features are reminiscent of Demon’s Souls where other players enjoying their own ZombiU campaigns can place messages on walls using spray paint and pre-defined symbols, and online friends who’ve lost a survivor can show up in your game and be looted.
Some players may find ZombiU too challenging or frustrating, others will love how harsh it makes the zombie survival experience, perhaps even how ‘authentic’ it should be for everyday people to fight off the undead. In either case no one can deny that Wii U may have the most hardcore of hardcore launch titles. Despite being burdened by control issues, ZombiU is an exemplary showcase of the Wii U’s potential and one of the most horrifying and thrilling zombie games in years for lovers of the genre and those who can appreciate the unrelenting challenge behind games like Dark Souls.
ZombiU is available exclusively for the Wii U.
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