Excellent use of audio and lighting to create a truly chilling and unnerving atmosphere; visceral melee combat; permanent death encourages smart and cautious play; presentation is top-notch; a genuine ability to scare the hell out of you as well as keep you in a constant state of vigilance and tension; some GamePad functionality adds to the experience; a game that is greater than the sum of its parts
Occasional clunky combat mechanics; throw-away story; subpar graphics; GamePad features feel ham-fisted at times; some wonky physics; linear game design discourages exploration; multiplayer feels like a missed opportunity
Visceral; that’s what ZombiU is– a hard-hitting survival-horror game that tries to reinvent the wheel by offering gamers a more methodical take on the zombie apocalypse than they might be used to. Ubisfoft Montpellier baptizes the Wii U with a bloody first person shooter and succeeds at delivering a compelling, albeit flawed, experience. It may not be the system’s killer app, but it also doesn’t disappoint so long as you can look past its shortcomings.
ZombiU takes place in a near-future London, and as such, sends players all across England’s great capital fighting for their very life in the wake of a virus that has wreaked havoc upon the city’s denizens. You star as a nameless survivor who’s been thrust into the madness with only one true objective: stay alive at all costs. The lack of a real protagonist creates a certain level of emotional detachment to the player’s character, which may be a good thing considering death in ZombiU is swift and permanent– but more on that shortly.
Of course, one would think that the game’s story, given its subject matter, would be rather captivating, if somewhat straightforward, given the setting, but that’s not the case at all. In fact, ZombiU‘s story is rather bizarre. At best, it’s nonsensical and at worst it’s really bad. It’s no The Walking Dead, that’s for sure, which features some of the most gut-wrenching moments in the history of gaming, but ZombiU’s story and characters feel very much like the game’s main enemy: lifeless, without purpose, and, well, a bit dead.
Speaking of dead, let me take a moment to discuss ZombiU’s most absorbing feature: permanent death. Throughout the game, you’ll be clawing and scraping your way through hordes of zombies in an effort to stay alive. This whole idea of surviving is cranked up to the max thanks to the fact that every time you die, that character is gone for good (sort of). To make things even worse, they die with all the items you may have acquired along the way, and you’ll suddenly wind up back in your safe house with a new survivor who possesses none of the items you had picked up as that former character. Your next mission is to then double back to your location of death, fight, and hopefully kill the character you just were, thereby re-securing all your equipment, and pick up where you left off. The one thing you won’t get back, however, are any character enhancements you made along the way with that specific person.
One bite and you’ll be the one shuffling about with a slack jaw next.
Throughout the game, you have the ability to upgrade your weapons; you can upgrade fire power, magazine capacity, reload times, etc. Those are all character-specific, and no amount of bashing their head in with your new survivor can get that back. So, while equipment can be salvaged, stat attributes can’t, making death a thing that actually matters and can have a substantive impact on your progression. As you may be able to deduce, this system creates a true sense of fear and tension often not found in other games– in fact the only other game that made me this nervous about dying was Demons’/Dark Souls— and it ensures that you proceed in the most intelligent way possible. This is the side of ZombiU that is truly excellent and unrelenting. This simple inclusion of perma-death makes the whole game– and your time with it– feel all the more meaningful.
Staying alive is not easy, though. This is a survival horror game, after all, not an action game, and as such you’ll be rationing supplies throughout the entire experience. You won’t have endless clips of ammo, and ammo won’t be all that readily available to find either. Usually you’ll come across it randomly, but the intervals between each treasure haul are painfully long. Consequently, you’ll spend a lot of time with your trusty cricket bat, meaning that much of ZombiU’s combat is up close and personal. It’ll take expert timing to ensure your bat swings make contact with their intended target, though, but it’s a touch of genius, especially in moments when you’re surrounded and you’re flailing the thing around in a fit of unadulterated anxiety and panic.
In truth, you may not go toe-to-toe with your fellow zombie as often as you’d think, as ZombiU is a relatively slow game. Zombies won’t be popping out every eight feet, and when they do emerge, it’s often in smaller numbers. It’s not like Left 4 Dead where you’ll be up against 20 zombies at once, but that’s because the zombies here actually feel like a threat, and not the slow moving targets we’re so used to seeing elsewhere. One zombie by itself can be terrifying in ZombiU, but on the rare occasions when you’re pitted against four or five, it turns into a mess of bodily secretion and cries of fear as you frantically try and figure out how you’re going to dispose of them all with four bullets and a cricket bat.
Some of the most tense moments come when you have to draw your eyes away from the TV screen to concentrate on your GamePad.
To call ZombiU’s atmosphere creepy with a capital “C” would not be doing it any justice; the ambient noises, subtle environmental sounds, and fantastically intentional use of sound and various other audio that fosters a terrific sense of dread and urgency. When you get close to encountering an enemy, percussive drums begin playing, followed by an unsettling violin playing this uncomfortably haunting tune. It’s a masterful blend of atmosphere and audio that crafts a rich experience that’s unparalleled. What makes this all the more pungent is the game’s heavy and phenomenal reliance on your flashlight, which only provides a small area of illumination and will indeed run out of steam before it needs recharging. Being armed with only a single light that you know will eventually deplete and leave you alone in the dark is a terrifying experience, and yet one that you must encounter if you wish to push forth. It’s this kind of unnerving tension that leaves you craving more of ZombiU even with all of its shortcomings. You want to come back to it because odds are you haven’t played a game like it in many, many years.
To my surprise, the game’s environments are also varied, though noticeably drab. Given the post-apocalyptic nature of the game, your eyes will take in a lot of grey hues that present a double-edged sword of immersive terror and uninteresting aesthetics. The graphics themselves don’t do much to fend off this mundane window dressing either. The reality is ZombiU is a pretty ugly game. As a “next-gen” game, this is remarkably last-gen… and early last-gen at that. While playing, I was constantly reminded of Condemned for Xbox 360, which was also a launch title. While I can certainly cut launch titles some slack, as developers are still figuring out the ins and outs of the system, this game is obviously hard on the eyes. There’s some nice particle and lighting effects sprinkled throughout, but you can’t deny the polygonal character models, textures that bear no detail, as well as stiff as hell animations that are compounded by some occasional wonky physics. On the bright side, there game’s frame rate is mostly stable, but that’s expected given the low caliber of graphical prowess.
ZombiU won’t win any awards for providing players different ways to approach each level either, as this is one linear game. There’s the occasional branching path, but it’s so rare that I can’t even think of any off the top of my head. If you get bored with the linearity, or you blow through the game’s campaign mode, there’s always multiplayer and leaderboards to tackle. Sadly, the multiplayer is a real letdown as there is no cooperative mode, or even a horde mode where two buddies can team up and fight to the bitter end together. A game like this would benefit greatly from a solid co-op component. As it stands, though, the multiplayer feels like an enormous missed opportunity.
Multiplayer is a variation on ‘capture the flag’ with the GamePad player controlling the zombies and the Wii Remote player trying to outwit them. It’s hugely fun while it lasts, but it’s rather short-lived.
I couldn’t end this review without mentioning the use of Wii U’s coveted GamePad. This feature is a bit of a mixed bag concerning ZombiU. Ubisoft has gone to great lengths to implement some very unique features by way of the GamePad. All of your inventory, mapping, and vitals are shown on the touchscreen. This part is a delight and makes the Pad itself feel like a true extension of the game’s survival mentality– it almost feels like your GamePad is your bug-out bag that’s presented to you in-game. Everything is managed and accessible right there, in the palm of your hand. Where things go off-course is through the contrived, amateurish mini-games that are used to do menial tasks, such as pick locks and break down a door barricade (the latter of which is just mindless tapping). Many of these feel overly gimmicky and don’t provide any substantive depth to the overall experience.
In the end, ZombiU is a game that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts because it delivers the experience it sets out to achieve. Make no mistake– this is a launch title, and as such, brings with it some snares. If you can overlook some of those aspects, however, there’s a fun zombie-killing romp to be had. The atmosphere, intelligent use of audio, cerebral melee combat, perma-death, and an honest to goodness ability to scare the hell out of you and make you sit on the edge of your couch, white-knuckled in hopes of making it through just one more room alive is absolutely wonderful. A game that can elicit that kind of emotional response is an undoubted success on some level. With some refinement, ZombiU could be a great series. By the by, it’s rough around the edges, but once you spend a little bit of time with it, this is a game that feels special and unique.