The zombiepocalypse has long been fertile ground for video game developers. The popularity of The Walking Dead TV series, which was spawned from the comic series and also led to last year's video game of the same name (and which took out our 2012 Game of the Year), has thrust the undead into the spotlight once again. Ubisoft is keeping the undead-bashing good times rolling with ZombiU, a first-person survival horror launch title for the Wii U.
ZombiU begins with you awakening from a dazed slumber to discover that the fair city of London is overrun by the undead. You must find somewhere safe to hide and gather your bearings. Just when all seems lost and you are faced by dozens of flesh eating zombies, you hear a voice over the public address system and are given instructions to nip down a nearby train station tunnel.
From here the game proper begins and you are guided by an unseen assistant as you first make your stronghold safe and then begin clearing the surrounding shops and tunnels of shambling killers.
ZombiU is a thrilling game. The sense of terror and stress as you battle seemingly overwhelming odds on a minute by minute basis, is exhilarating. The game also cleverly exploits the new features of the Wii U controller's touch screen. Indeed, the controller's unique design is pivotal to the gameplay. As play unfolds, your in game character finds a similar looking device. You then use this as an all purpose scanner in a virtual sense “in the game,” which is a neat idea.
Wii U controller
ZombiU uses the Wii U controller at least as well as any game currently out there, and the device helps add to the tension during gameplay too. The moments when you are looking at the screen on your controller while trying to solve a problem, can often be punctuated by an unwelcome assault, as a zombie lurches out of the darkness towards your character. This is exciting stuff and you will find that the game is even more of a heart starter if you dare play it with the lights low and the volume high.
The interface is for the most part solid too, even if the way you can aim your Wii U controller at the screen to scan areas for useful clues is at times awkward and inaccurate. The WiiiU controller’s motion tracker works reasonably well, but its sensitivity could have been more precise, particularly when scanning objects that are closer. The sniper rifle is actually easier to use, but for the scanning of the immediate area, it is better to just use the joystick and aim the old school way.
One major annoyance when using the Wii U controller as a scanner is that you cannot invert the vertical axis aim control, even if you have done just that for normal gameplay. This is inconsistent and frustrating. The inventory system works well, though, as does the mapping system, complete with instant access shortcuts to previously visited areas.
Keeping players in the dark
The game also rations your light, in that you have a torch battery that is limited by a timer count down. You can only have the light on for a certain time before the battery is depleted and you are left in darkness. Thankfully, this battery seems to exist outside of the current laws of physics, as it automatically recharges once switched off, giving you a permanent light source. That said, the way you can only use it for finite periods of time adds to the tension.
You will soon realize that shooting isn't always the best solution to your predicament, as there are times when you simply don't have enough ammunition to easily dispatch all of the zombies – and ammunition is also noisy, which attracts unwanted attention.
Instead you get to smash the undead's brains out with a cricket bat (you are in England after all). The "wonderful willow" comes in for a lot of use and learning how to regularly hit the zombies for six is a skill you will have to master, as timing is everything. Sometimes you will have to use the bat to "bunt" and fend off attackers, so you can create some space and then smash them one at a time as they continue their relentless assault.
To some this may feel repetitive, but you are always belting zombies in new areas and with a fresh quest in mind. There are also plenty of different looking zombies and some, like the "dark" zombies or soldiers are tougher opponents, so there is variety there.
The game even repopulates previously cleared areas just to keep you on your toes. In true "survival horror" tradition, you will almost never feel settled. This is aided by the soundtrack, which is full of eerie moans and classic horror movie shocks. The sound of your character's breathing is also used well, coming short and fast when the action is on.
While the visuals aren't quite as stunning as the Wii U's power would suggest they could be but the dank, disgusting and unpleasant locations still impress. The game does suffer from minor glitches on rare occasions, the most annoying of which saw our character getting stuck in a wall – we had to reboot the game and begin anew from the last save point.
Death, reincarnation and permadeath
One interesting design feature is the way your "death" is handled in game. As you play your way through, you will routinely get mobbed and will inevitably succumb to the zombie hordes. ZombiU deals with this situation very cleverly. The game avoids the cliche of just having you magically respawn, instead your current character really does "die" and you pick up play as a completely new character, with a fresh name, occupation, appearance and identity – but with all the knowledge of your old character. The extra twist is that you must now kill the previous player character, who has sadly succumbed and has now joined the zombie hordes.
One problem we encountered with this fresh approach to death is that you can't always find the full inventory of items you know they were carrying. The game does respawn essential mission specific items, but you do just seem to lose some other stuff. And if you die again before you kill your previous player character, then all is lost as there can only be one zombie you (or zombieU) at a time.
By keeping track of how long you’ve managed to stay alive in your various incarnations, the game also provides an incentive to better your previous efforts – or beat you friends with results uploaded to online leaderboards. Beating the main game also unlocks a permadeath Survival Mode, which gives you just one life to complete the game.
There are also a number of multiplayer modes that offer a markedly different experience to the single player campaign. Melee combat has been removed and the pace has been noticeably stepped up with faster reload times that reflects the multiplayer modes' gun-centric approach.
Playing as the human survivor or zombies is also handled in an interesting way, with the zombie controller playing in a "top down" view and spawning abominations left, right and center. To make for a fairer fight, zombies can't be placed right on top of the human player, who has a red ring of safety surrounding them and battles these hordes using the normal first person view. The zombie controller can't simply drown the human player in a sea of zombies either, as they have to be "bought" using replenishing resources, which adds a welcome strategic element to the game.
Ubisoft call this approach an "asymmeteric multiplayer" game because the two players are competing against each other, while playing what are two very different games. The human survivor is playing the game as a traditional shooter while the "zombie king" is spawning zombies and essentially playing a strategy game with the aim being the annihilation of the survivor.
Players use this mechanic in a capture the flag Assault mode, a Killing box mode that awards a score based on the number of kills, and a Survival mode, in which the human player must survive for as long as possible.
The multiplayer and single player campaign are so different that someone who might have found the campaign's reliance on melee combat repetitive and the controls too slow, will thoroughly enjoy the muliplayer options. However, it should be noted that ZombiU's multiplayer is limited to local play, with no online option available.
On the Wii U, ZombiU is one hell of an engrossing survival horror game. Not only is it very different from the other current Wii U titles, it uses the new console's technology well and it is a heck of a lot of fun, too. The remarkably mixed reviews for ZombiU are proof that the game isn't for everyone – particularly if "running and gunning" is more your style – so this is a game you might want to try before you buy.
Gizmag Rating 8/10
Images courtesy of Ubisoft
Just enter your friends and your email address into the form below
For multiple addresses, separate each with a comma