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ZombiU Review

Greg Tito | 20 Nov 2012 21:00
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Here's a bit of a warning: Have your blood pressure medicine handy because your pulse will race playing ZombiU. The frantic attacks you make against the infected will make you grunt and wail just like your avatar does with every whack of the cricket bat. As you catch your breath, you'll use the jiggery-pokery of the Wii U's gamepad to plan your next zombie encounter. ZombiU is a true survival horror game, and it's worth picking up a Wii U just to remind yourself what it's like to feel vulnerable and alone in a landscape filled with zombies.

ZombiU is played in first-person, and it feels natural using the dual thumbsticks on the Wii U gamepad to maneuver and look around. There's nothing new about the control scheme, but the way ZombiU handles death and respawning ramps up the apprehension you feel trying to stay alive. To start the campaign, you are guided into a safe house prepared by a survivor who aptly calls himself the Prepper. You have a random English name like Annabelle Johnson, a random appearance and occupation such as police officer or, in Annabelle's case, a stay-at-home mom. The details seem innocuous, but you find yourself becoming attached to the biography you can imagine from such a tiny starting point.

Until you die, of course. As you venture through the streets of London, you'll very likely perish at the hands of a zombie. When you do, you don't respawn as Annabelle Johnson, but as a new random Londoner. You have the same basic kit of a cricket bat and a handgun, but any items Annabelle had in her pack is still with her. To get those back, you have to travel to the point you last perished where, now infected, Annabelle stumbles around looking for fresh meat. You club in her head, take her pack, and move on. The attachment you feel to the survivors you control is proportionate to how far through the campaign you get with them. The survivor score each spawn earns is the numerical representation of the survivor's success and you'll find yourself comparing often, trying to get a higher score and last longer.

ZombiU's shred of a story is discovered slowly. John Dee, the English Renaissance scholar who didn't differentiate between studying science and mysticism, supposedly predicted an outbreak of the undead in the year 2012. Individuals like the Prepper and a group called the Ravens of Dee took his warnings to heart, but the general populace of London became infected quickly. Throughout the campaign you'll hunt after the lost writings of Dee, and help the Royal doctor work on a cure, but you must piece together the narrative through audiologs triggered by documents and letters scattered through the environment. If ambient storytelling wags your tail, you'll be satisfied with uncovering ZombiU's offerings, but you can concentrate on getting through the campaign staying alive without worrying too much about the deeper story behind Dee's black prophecy.

As a survivor, you are pathetically, wonderfully, vulnerable. Zombies are slow, but tough - you often need five whacks with the bat to (permanently) kill them . It takes just as many shots for one to go down, unless you nail them in the head. The guns you find along the way fire slowly and ammo is so scarce that you find yourself depending more on the cricket bat and only using the ranged weapons sparingly . You'll pick up explosives like Molotov cocktails and land mines, or distracting items like flares and sacks of meat; knowing when to use each is absolutely vital to your survival but it feels wasted unless you can use them take out a whole mess of zombies. In this way, just moving from one room to the next is an accomplishment as you decide which weapon in your meager arsenal is the best to use.

Ubisoft figured out how to use the Wii U Gamepad in a mature game like ZombiU. Your inventory, quickslots and minimap are all relegated to the small touchscreen, leaving your TV free of a user interface. The touchpad's responsiveness could be better, but it's a simple task to switch guns or consume a medkit even when a zombie's snarling in your face. You often have to tap the pad to take care of mundane tasks like ripping down barricades or picking locks. It may be needless gimmickry, but it's not too obtrusive. Using the gamepad as a scanner is really useful and not as annoying as it could be. Waving the gamepad around lets you scout for supplies or lurking infected, but once you get over the novelty of moving the pad around in the air, you'll be glad to use the thumbstick for the same effect. Because using the scanner is necessary to prevent ambushes, it's a good thing it feels integrated into the experience.

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