ZombiU is a survival horror video game developed by Ubisoft Montpellier exclusively for the Nintendo Wii U gaming console. It is also one of the biggest third party games for the launch lineup. Will this blood thirsty title grab your arm, or will you choose to run away from the fear of a mediocre title?
The story is simple yet effective and to the point. London has been completely overrun by hordes of the undead, or rather, zombies. At the beginning, it is unclear why or if the rest of the world is encountering the same reality. You begin wandering the streets aimlessly until a mysterious voice comes through. He identifies himself as “The Prepper” and offers shelter in his personal safe house. The Prepper does not elaborate on who exactly he is, but he does promise you a way to defend yourself and a place to call home. This seems to be the only real chance at survival and the main character(s) have little choice but to try and listen to the Prepper in the hopes of safety. There are a few crucial setbacks that detract story though. Mainly, ZombiU fails to reach a deep connection with the gamer due to the multiple unknown protagonists you must play as. Aside from this shortcoming, the story is never enthralling, but rather relies on the intensity of the gameplay to help you forget that the plot is somewhat lackluster and unimaginative.
The protagonist is purposely a vague character in the game, because you play as a random survivor. If you die, you will become another random survivor when you come back from death. Personally, this was somewhat of a downer because you never develop any sense of connection with the character. Depending on the amount of times you die will depend on how many different individuals you’ll play as. ZombiU does create a name and profession to each survivor. However, it seems forced and meaningless, mostly because there is no back story for any of these characters.
Dying has its own consequences in ZombiU. Firstly, you will respawn as a new survivor in The Prepper’s safe house. However, you will lose all of your equipment, as well as any skill progression earned from firing guns. The game does offer you just one opportunity to return to where you were killed though. There are a few stat upgrades that do in-fact carry from survivor to survivor. Weapon upgrades are permanent and you can modify them at workbenches found in the safe house and around the London. Early on, I piled all my upgrades into the base level pistol, since every new survivor is granted one and handgun ammo is one of the more common items. Now though, you’re previous self has become a zombie and you must kill it. Once you have killed your previous self, you can loot their equipment which contained your previous items. If you die a second time, that body, along with any equipment earned, vanishes forever (similar to “Demon’s Souls”). Emptying a room of zombies with nothing more than a wooden paddle (or cricket bat) and a pistol scarce on bullets can take almost an hour sometimes, and it’s extremely easy to be careless and die.
You will return to Prepper’s safe house often to accept new missions. More importantly, you will return there to drop off spare equipment, upgraded weapons, save your progress, and generally take a breather after the intense battles you have encountered. Interestingly enough, Prepper’s safe house is not zombie proof. This truly makes the gameplay tense one hundred percent of the time, giving the gamer a sense of “true” survival horror around every corner. Saving and upgrading can take place in other safe houses as well, and you will unlock manholes that serve as fast travel points around London.
An exciting feature that I found intuitive and unique in ZombiU is that players on your friends list and random people connected to the internet will populate your world after dying in their game. You’re not actually playing with these people at the same time, but if they die in their Buckingham Palace, their infected body is now part of your Buckingham Palace. And of course, the same is true for them if you die. Usually, random zombies do not carry much on them. However, survivors are likely to have much more of what you need. They mostly will have ammo, med packs, and firearms. The game keeps a record of these deaths on the GamePad itself. Terrifically, if you find yourself low on equipment, it’s easy enough to identify where a friend recently died and go searching for their corpse using the GamePad. Gamers can also leave messages for others throughout the world.
ZombiU is not a fast paced game by any means, and playing it this way is a sure recipe for your death. It also doesn’t have the tightest shooting mechanics but felt appropriately consistent with the novice nature of the survivors themselves. Once you learn how the system works, the mechanics will become second nature. There are two items in the game that you will always have, and that is your flashlight and cricket bat. Bullets and med packs will be used, and flares will die out, but your flashlight and cricket bat will always stay. The flashlight drains the more it’s used, but simply switching it off will bring the battery back quickly. Some will complain at the lack of variety in melee weapons, but like many development decisions in ZombiU, it’s done for a purpose. You can’t just swing the cricket bat crazily until a zombie approaches. Each swing must be deliberate and perfectly timed. Sometimes, enemies will have shields or helmets that make them stronger until you knock it off them. To that end, only having access to the cricket bat ensures you’ll become intimately familiar with the timing of an individual swing. You’ll also learn how long it takes before you can pull off another one, and work to establish a rhythm of swinging, then moving, then swinging to employ proper crowd control. Over the dozen or so hours you spend with ZombiU, its reliability becomes a comfort. Conserving equipment is vital to long term survival in ZombiU, and that means ample use of the cricket bat whenever possible.
The interaction between the GamePad and TV is a terrific match throughout the game. In fact, ZombiU’s use of the Nintendo’s GamePad is so well implemented, that it is essentially crucial and fundamental to the gameplay. The GamePad is mostly used for inventory management, and at the start of the game, you have precious few slots to manage until you find larger backpacks. There are a total of six quick-use items, and the rest are stored in your backpack. Every aspect of the gameplay screams “survival horror” and opening your backpack keeps that idea in-line. Opening the backpack does not pause the game, leaving you extremely vulnerable in real-time and unable to attack enemies. Dead Space and Demon’s Souls veterans will know these feelings of vulnerability all too well. If you’re procrastinating in your backpack for too long, it could mean death. It’s absolutely essential to play with the volume on both the GamePad and TV at a fairly high volume. Trust me, in order to ensure your chances at survival, you’ll need to pay strong attention to your surroundings, both visually and audio wise.
When not moving items around, the center of the gamepad screen is a display for a crucial radar system that’s upgraded throughout the game. When a button is pressed on the screen, it scans the area and blinks red if zombies are moving nearby. This radar can be an enemy too and I’ll explain. Pressing the sonar button will not only light up for zombies but crows and rats too, making a room appear to have ten zombies, when there could possibly be only one. When your sparse on supplies, this could make the difference of completely avoiding the path altogether. Pressing another button however, prompts the survivor to hold up the device in the world and it becomes a scanner on the GamePad’s screen. Those of you who have played Resident Evil Revelations will be familiar with how this next device is implemented. The scanner can identify if zombies are carrying items, differentiate between a crow and a zombie, and save you the headache of scavenging through every part of the world for equipment. It’d easy to imagine how the radar could have just become a mini-map in the corner of the TV screen, but there is something to the idea of actually diverting your eyes from the TV to gain additional information from the radar. Trying to do this in the middle of a fight with several zombies is terrifying but important, especially if you’re trying to survive with only the cricket bat. The radar becomes an addiction to look at, and how often you look at it will determine what type of survival horror expert you become.
There is a multiplayer in ZombiU as well, but it’s more interesting than it is enjoyable. The main mode finds the GamePad user becoming a zombie coordinator, sending zombies into the world to finish off the survivors. The survivors are controlled by the other players who are using either the Pro controller or Wiimote-Nunchuk combo. In single-player, the hit or miss shooting controls and clunky melee combat work just fine, but just doesn’t carry over too well in multiplayer. It’s also one-on-one and local, with no online mode to be found here. This is all about getting back to basics and playing with a friend alongside you. Additionally, there is a third mode in the game which is called “Survivor” mode. This mode is essentially the same exact system as the regular single-player campaign, except for one crucial stipulation…you will have only one life. There will be no restarts or continues. The gamer will try and advance as far as they can without dying once. Even if they progress to an hour or two (or possibly more) into the game and suddenly become overtaken by zombies, that’s it. Those three hours of gameplay have been completely erased. Having played this mode for 90 minutes straight, I can attest that this is a true survival horror in every sense of the word. Gamers from my generation and older will recognize this as something of true intensity and determination that only a handful will try and possibly accomplish.
Let me start by saying the obvious and that is ZombiU is not a visual masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. I am highly confident that judging from the Wii U’s specs, Ubisoft tapped maybe twenty-five percent of what this system can actually do visually. As I progressed through the game, I noticed textures that were very bland for a 2012 console, and there were certain environments that were uninspiring to look at. Aside from that, the majority of the game’s atmosphere is unsettling and fantastic. There is impressive detail in most of the environments, whether you’re exploring the city streets of London or navigating your way through a dank sewer. The enemies, though not varied, are detailed down to every drop of blood on their faces.
Locales are expertly designed and rendered, featuring famous locals like Buckingham Palace, and more common ones like subway tunnels or flats. Everything is highly detailed in these areas, with tears in wallpaper, junk scattered around and all kinds of stains on the floors and walls. It’s a very dark game, literally, with nothing but a flashlight to guide you through many of the areas. As there’s nobody else around and zombies pop out of nowhere, going through torn up environments proves very unnerving. The environments themselves creates a very unique sense of dread that hasn’t been felt in a game for many years.
Where Zombi U may be hit or miss visually at points, it consistently remains an audio powerhouse production that is worthy of nods from games such as Bioshock and Dead Space. The voice acting of The Prepper, as well as other characters you will meet along the way, are spot on. Each performance is of cinematic quality and contributes significantly to the narrative. Music only kicks in during more intense scenes that further add to the game’s already deep immersion. Most importantly is the crisp audio that booms through the GamePad.
Ubisoft utilized every bit of the GamePad, and acoustically, they knocked it out of the park. There are times where the Prepper is speaking through the GamePad and it sounds as if he is literally beside you. Moments like this take me back to 2007, when I stepped into the shoes of another protagonist in a game called Bioshock (you may have heard of it). Hearing the character of Atlas speaking to you throughout the entire campaign, I couldn’t help thinking that having a GamePad would only enhance that adventure further. Basically, that same sense of mystery and hope comes into play in ZombiU.
Overall Score: 15/20 = 7.5 out of 10
ZombiU is not going to be for everyone. It is difficult at times, and dark…and it’s exactly the kind of title that a new console needs at launch. It is also the kind of game that makes new console launches exciting and fresh. ZombiU isnt a cheap hollywood game, but rather a testament to core gamers. This shows that third parties can make great, unique experinces on Nintendo’s new machine. It is a perfect example of what is possible with Nintendo’s GamePad controller. While the somewhat weak story and mixed visuals take a bit away, the overall gameplay and audio experience is simply unique, superb and a must-play.
+ Genuinely frightening without cheap jump scares
+ Brilliant use of the GamePad
+ Interesting asymmetrical multiplayer
– Needing to backtrack after losing a survivor
– Long load times, sometimes mid-level
– Lackluster story
– Multiple protagonists eliminates any connection with the player