To say the Wii U was an odd console may be the greatest understatement I’ve ever written here. We’ll probably never have another system like it, which is a damn shame because it has some of the best local multiplayer games in years — ZombiU chief among them. Yeah, I know, everyone talks about how the campaign makes you use the GamePad for all sorts of clever gimmicks, but the real hallmark of Ubisoft’s odd little zombie FPS is its two-player competitive multiplayer.
ZombiU’s multiplayer is actually how the game got its start back when it was about tiny aliens rather than the undead. It’s a surprisingly simple concept. One player fights as a human survivor in first-person on screen with either the Wiimote and Nunchuk or a Wii U Pro Controller. At the same time, a second player controls the monstrous horde with the Wii U’s tablet GamePad as the Zombie King. This leads to what’s easily one of the best reimaginings of classic horde and control zone modes that you can play with pretty much anyone.
That’s the brilliance of ZombiU’s multiplayer. Where the survivor player on the TV needs to be at least a little familiar with how first-person shooters work, the Zombie King on the Wii U’s touchscreen GamePad just has to tap and drag to spawn and control their zombie hordes. Each map is clearly displayed on the GamePad, with a joyous, deranged announcer communicating what players need to focus on.
Objectives themselves are fairly simple. There is a control zone mode where each player is trying to contest several zones to capture the most out of up to five zones first, and there is a more traditional horde mode where the human survivor tries to stay alive as long as possible. There used to be a third mode in ZombiU, but it’s locked behind Uplay now, which no longer exists on Wii U because reasons.
As matches progress, the Zombie King gains access to more advanced variants of zombies like riot zombies, explosive zombies, spitters, joggers, and so on, as well as the ability to more rapidly replenish the horde with faster spawn times. The survivor also gains randomly spawned bonuses like automatic turrets and new weapons, ensuring both sides can stay competitive. The maps are all brilliantly executed, featuring unique weapons and environments spanning from the rooftops of London, to a demented circus, to a royal fallout shelter.
What seals everything together is how excellent it feels to play. The survivor controls marvelously, wielding some kickass firearms that will literally tear zombies apart. At the same time, leading the horde is intuitive thanks to their solid AI pathing and remarkable responsiveness for being the undead. You can see clearly where you can and can’t spawn zombies, you’re always reminded what each zombie does before spawning them, and every time you do there’s this satisfying beep that’s music to your ears.
Not to be outdone, there are granular nuances to each side of the affair to boot. The survivor can respawn when fighting for control points and has multiple loadouts to choose from for multiple playstyles. Different zombie types can cost more, so the Zombie King has to always weigh the risk and reward of a larger generic horde or a few imposing threats to keep the survivor on their toes. It leads to an immensely replayable experience that’s still instantly accessible thanks to its asymmetric design.
When ZombiU returned as Zombi for other systems, obviously this multiplayer could have worked via online peer-to-peer matchmaking or maybe a tablet app. The latter certainly worked for Watch Dogs, which dedicated an entire multiplayer mode to an app. Sadly, it’s completely absent in Zombi, leaving the Wii U version as the most complete experience. It’s a real shame.
So if you still have a Wii U lying around, grab a carefully disinfected copy of ZombiU and go to town with it. Make up your own special rules to mix things up, like pistols only or you can only spawn zombies outside of capture zones. Ubisoft even has the option to swap roles in the game’s menus while keeping track of each player on a scoreboard if you really want to see who’s the true king or queen of the undead. If we’re all locked in anyway, now’s a perfect time for some competitive zombie slaying.