From the outset, ZombiU will fool people into thinking the game does nothing new. It features zombies, an overused gaming trope, within a first-person shooter, an overused genre. The fact is, ZombiU is actually the resurgence of a dying genre. Survival horror as we know it has sadly dwindled to the extreme within the modern gaming market, with previously dominant horror franchises now turning into poor action fantasies.
Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title not only does survival horror right, it excels at it supremely. It abides by the rules of classic horror games, while also utilising the GamePad to bring new tricks to the table. There is no co-op partner to save your back, no buckets of ammunition to keep enemies at bay, and no forgiveness when you are attacked. In an age where developers are simply too scared to let their players feel anything but overpowered, ZombiU will not go easy on you. You’ll feel helpless, alone, and constantly wondering if you’ll make it. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll bloody love it.
The game wastes no time, throwing you into the over-infested London tubes. With nothing to defend yourself, you must run and evade the undead to reach the safe house. Here, you will be greeted by the voice of the Prepper, who seems to be a survival expert in the apocalyptic situation. He will aid you with advice, and supply you with a cricket bat and pistol. You have no idea if you can trust this mysterious man, but you have no choice. Prepper’s strict rules on staying safe and focusing on your own survival means you will often have to ignore him in order to aid others in missions. It’s at this point, too, that you’ll realise the game’s sublime voice acting.
You may be armed at this point, but far from safe. Once you venture out across London, a single zombie is a threat. Each swipe takes a significant amount of damage, but if a zombie grabs and bites you, you are instantly infected and therefore dead. Whenever a zombie reached its arms out towards me, I became filled with dread every time. Don’t even bother facing a group of the undead unless you’re prepared.
If you do become bitten, that survivor is now gone, and you must start afresh with one of the Prepper’s different recruits. In order to reclaim your supplies, you must hunt down your previous protagonist, who has now become one of the brain-munching beasts. Seeing and killing your prior survivor gives a strong sense of guilt, but you will also retrieve your BOB.
The BOB stands for Bug-Out Bag, wherein all of your supplies are kept. There are six quick-select slots on the GamePad screen, which you can touch to quickly pull out a weapon or heal yourself. Choose wisely when assigning items to these slots though, because anything else you need will be stored in the BOB. If you want to open your bag, you must do so in real time. Scrambling for ammo, a medkit or grenade in the heat of a battle is incredibly tense, as the game will not pause and any nearby zombies will continue to approach you.
The GamePad is by far your best friend in surviving the apocalypse. The touch controls feel responsive, and sliding and moving your supplies around adds satisfaction to what would otherwise be, on another console, a standard procedure of menu navigation. The most ingenious use of the controller, however, is your radar and scanning systems.
Your radar will detect nearby movement, thus alerting you of incoming predators. While that may sound like the game is now too easy, the brilliance of the radar is that you cannot completely depend on it. Because it detects movement and not specifically the creatures themselves, you may be caught out by the nearby, motionless zombie on the ground. Sometimes, you’ll detect what appears to to be an incoming horde. As they move closer, you may fear for your life… until it turns out to be a pack of rats or crows.
Scanning every area you come across is an extremely beneficial habit to have throughout ZombiU. Holding the L button, you will use the GamePad screen to look around the room with a UV light, searching by using either the gyroscope or thumbstick. Your scanner can mark anything; zombies, animals, items, weapons, messages and even doors. Scanning a door can be helpful, as it will be marked on your map as open, locked, keypad-locked or barricaded from then on. Markers also appear on the TV screen too, which is convenient when hunting for a nearby item.
To even have a map on your GamePad, however, you must find and scan the CCTV junction boxes in each area. Doing so also means that, in your safe room hub, you can locate weapons and items in each area using the CCTV control panel.
You’ll find yourself traversing across a range of different environments in London, each one amazing in their presentation and claustrophobic vibe. Streets and sewers are terrifying when overrun, and even otherwise luxurious areas such as Buckingham Palace become a ruined, bloody and dangerous interior.
In a game that provides a hardcore, solo experience, the multiplayer mode is surprisingly and vastly enjoyable. The GamePad player is given the entire map of a stage, in order to touch and place zombies to hunt down the other players. Accumulated points are spent on a variety of zombies, including guards, hunters, explosive and armoured foes, whom can also be upgraded over time. The other player use the Wii Remote and Nunchuk/Pro Controller to survive as long they can on the TV screen, in capture the flag and survival modes.
While ZombiU is fantastic at what it does, it’s not without its flaws. While London is expertly recreated, the game isn’t graphically superb. Models and environments could look a little better with the Wii U’s HD processing, although this isn’t too much of a pressing matter when horror games don’t require beautiful visuals to be scary. The game is also rather glitchy, and I did in fact face a game-breaking glitch within the first hour of play. Aside from occasional clipping and odd physic spasms, I didn’t face any more glitches that hindered gameplay, but I did find myself having to start over.
Melee combat with the cricket also feels a little too slow at times. One can definitely appreciate that it takes more than an unrealistic swipe to the head to kill a zombie, and this definitely means that you can’t really face multiple enemies without using some of your hard-earned bullets or explosives. Still, when dealing with a single zombie, it takes way too much time to kill them with the bat.
Whereas these problems would be enough to detract from the experience and knock down the score of any other game, it is so easy to overlook them after everything that ZombiU does right. The sense of challenge and helplessness will cater greatly to fans of Dark Souls and classic Resident Evil, and provide a welcome nostalgia to horror fans pining for something scary. The game enthralled me throughout my 18 hours of play, making me feel afraid and yet engaged, always wanting to play more. You may have noticed that all of our Wii U reviews so far have received 4.0s – all great games, with just something holding them back from brilliance. If you’ve been searching for the ultimate Wii U launch title though, this is it.