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.
Perhaps the best aspect of how the pad is used is how all looting or inventory management occurs in real time, with your avatar bent over your pack on the main screen. There’s no pausing – zombies can and will attack you while you’re fiddling with your stuff, which ramps up the tension nicely. You develop a careful ear playing ZombiU. Often, I was only saved from a zombie grabbing my neck by hearing a groan or a shuffle and jumping up to whack it in the face.
It’s not just the zombies that will cause you headaches. The respawn system offers ample opportunity for glitches that bring down the overall experience. You can often go back to where you had just died without finding your last avatar as a zombie. When your old backpack was full of medpacks and special items, it’s a bummer to make do with just the standard kit. Mission objectives aren’t always triggered when exploring the zone, leaving you to wander the labyrinthine levels thinking you had missed something. Both issues are solved by exiting the zone and returning, but that process loses some of the investment ZombiU has earned.
Locations and zones are often reused with missions requiring you to return to places you’ve cleared to open up new areas with the required item like C4 explosives to clear rubble or a simple keycard. There’s nothing wrong with recycling per se, but the levels are generally so linear to start with it that you’d rather see more of the city than go back to Brick Lane Market again and again.
ZombiU‘s multiplayer is local only, with one player using the Game Pad as the “King of Zombies” and another using the Nintendo’s Pro controller (or Wii Remote and Nunchuk) as a survivor. The King of Zombies using the touchscreen to drop various types of zombies on the map to ambush the survivor or to capture flag points. The survivor in the meantime uses the TV to shoot the undead while also capturing flags. It’s a neat diversion and serves to prove how a combination RTS-FPS style of gameplay is possible on the Wii U, but the lack of an online option will reduce its playability.
The tension you feel in just trying to stay alive is ZombiU‘s best feature, but it’s also really hard to sustain. After you smash the hundredth zombie in the face, the terror subsides to a constant state of hyper-attentiveness that starts to drag after a while. That’s a failing of horror games in general, but perhaps more variety to the infected would have helped. You get sick of bludgeoning the same cop in riot gear and the occasional acid-spitting or smoking zombie don’t require vastly different tactics to overcome.
Still, there’s terrible fun to be had clubbing zombies as you work your way through the 10 or so hours of the campaign, and the truly masochistic of you will love the Survivor mode that only gives you one life without respawning to see how far you can get – but like any good horror film, ZombiU is best played with a friend. Turn off the lights, turn up the sound, and get ready to have a night of exquisite dread.
Bottom Line: A survival horror game that delivers tense exploration with more than a few drawbacks, ZombiU succeeds in making the Wii U’s gamepad feel like an essential part of the experience and proving well-designed mature games can flourish regardless of what console it’s played on.
Recommendation: If you’ve missed feeling the terror in survival horror games, you should buy a Wii U and a copy of ZombiU.[rating=3.5]