ZombiU Wii U Review
Sometimes it is necessary to look back before taking a step forward. This is a mantra that Ubisoft has taken to with regards to ZombiU. Although this is a seemingly new IP exclusively for the new Nintendo console, it is in fact a hark back to one of Ubisoft’s first games, Zombi, a game very loosely based on the same premise of the Dawn of the Dead film. It is also a look back to how survival horror games used to be only two generations ago, when the original Resident Evil was released. It’s an experience that unapologetically wears its genre on its sleeves and teaches the previous purveyors of survival horror a thing or three, even if it is not quite so perfect.
Some could argue that survival horror has taken a backseat in games recently, and many would be right. The focus on the casual game experience rather than the core has meant that the pacing of a survival horror game is not something developers want to take on as they try to capitalise on the bombasticism of the likes of the Call of Duty crowd (I am looking at you Capcom!). Sadly this has been to the detriment of the genre (barring the original Dead Space) – well it was up until recently, with the likes of The Walking Dead marking something of a resurgence in the creation of suspense against the backdrop of horror.
ZombiU pits you as a survivor of some undead apocalypse that seems to have engulfed and subsequently ravaged London. Led onward via the communication of a mysterious Yorkshire dialect-speaking character known only as The Prepper. (Note: A ‘prepper’ is a person who plans and stockpiles goods in case of an apocalyptic event.) He narrates your way through the opening game tutorial and is also your main quest-giver throughout the course of the game. A game light on exposition but one that as a result engages the player and poses a great many questions, the horror of ZombiU is focused not on what is immediately apparent, but rather what lurks in the shadows and the plans (?) of those you work with and come across.
Visually ZombiU won’t win any awards for ground-breaking, visual tech advances, but it is a game that benefits from the art style and aesthetic present. In its simplicity ZombiU is indeed a looker, and as both a suspenseful survival horror game and first-wave launch game on a new Nintendo (and its first HD) console, it is an experience that will stick with you long after you have battled your way through it’s varying hordes of undead. Bleak is the flavour of the day, gloom is the elephant in the room; though that’s not a bad thing. Work has clearly been done to create a setting faithful to the architecture and look of London. It’s apt that a cityscape seemingly devoid of human life is one whose soul emanates throughout – and this is just from the aesthetic. London is a wonderfully characteristic place and the developers have managed to maintain this, even if the locale isn’t faithfully recreated and instead created with the aim of wide-open corridors which lead into the game world’s hub structure. It’s very similar in layout to something like Metroid Prime in this regard.
The Zombis feature your traditional gurning, shambling corpses seen many a time in pretty much every game and film centred around the undead, with the addition of some newer styles, such as the lightening Zombi; acid-spitting Zombi; an exploding variant; and even the addition of the Danny Boyle-inspired, 28 Days Later, sprinting and screaming undead horde. All that being said, the Zombis without a doubt are the most wonderful thing about the game. They can be manipulated towards their demise in various ways, depending on how well you manage to direct them. There was one particular moment in the game where I used a flare to attract the undead to gather around a barrel by a police car, before dispatching them with one well-aimed bullet that caused the fuel to leak out around them and then set on fire. In quite the catharsis, their heads also burst like melons, with lashings of blood flavour of the day (and the ever-gloomy nights).
One of the elements of the earlier survival horror games – specifically the first Resident Evil games – that worked so well in its favour at the time was the clunky game mechanics. The feeling that even if you possessed immense fire-power you were still vulnerable is ever-present here, and it is all the better for it. Previously this was down to console/controller limitations. Nowadays with the advent of the twin-stick shooter and super-quick reactions, being a responsive, super-soldier would really dilute the experience and I am glad (thankful even) that the developers stayed true and maintained with measure the feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. You’re a citizen of a city – a city worker, a postman, a civilian. You’re no Alice (Milla Jovovich) or Chris Redfield and by default able to pummel an undead’s skull into dust and acrobatically dive through windows and around corners. You get caught in the scenery, you swing your cricket bat in a flailing fashion and you panic as you check your inventory, which is neatly presented and only located on the GamePad screen.
The GamePad is a huge element of the ZombiU experience, featuring not only the local area map, but also the sonar-like radar. Whenever you need to check your inventory, loot items from a body or even pick up items from a container, your character kneels down and your focus switches to the GamePad screen. You swipe the items between the container or dead body to your Bug-Out Bag, knowing that you are at risk from an attack from all angles, constantly darting your eyes from screen to screen as you frantically organise your items into a cohesive way before being attacked once again. This is a wonderful example of how to use the GamePad, and going forward I hope many developers see fit to use as a proper experiential addition and not just as an afterthought.
Closing a door does not evict the feeling of fear. If you happened to be chased by the undead as you went through a door, you better try and barricade the door with planks (which can be located throughout the game), lying in wait with your grip tightening on your cricket bat as you are poised with your fingers on the ZR Button, ready to release and swing as the door inevitably bursts open. The undead will rush you many times, and you will die, but you can’t simply load from the last save point and continue onwards. When you die in ZombiU, that’s it. The character you were playing as is forever gone, however much you liked that person. You will over time become detached from the character you were playing as, mourning the items and most importantly the weaponry that you had acquired before succumbing to the inevitable death as a Zombi grabbed and subsequently took a bite out of you. In turn, you may well question exactly how you would react should such an apocalyptic event occur in your lifetime. Would people be expendable and items less so? The survival element is not merely that in a physical sense, but also how civilisation would survive in such an instance.
Moving on to the gameplay, the mechanics of ZombiU are unapologetically clunky and therefore it’s a requisite that your actions are methodically conducted – either that or you can prepare to die over and over again (and lose all you acquired in the process). By being such, it is a game that will ostracise many with its approach – it will either endear or it will pass you by. This is a first-person experience more akin to a double-slow, downed version of something like Condemned, than it is comparable to the gung-ho action of Resident Evil 6 or Call of Duty; more an exercise in exploration than skillful undead dispatching. The game will kick your ass repeatedly, unless you take your time, taking stock of your situation, your items and what exactly is the layout of your surroundings relative to that of the stalking dead. For some of you, such methodic play will be a boon and a breath of fresh air in an increasingly staid first-person genre, with the addendum of survival horror.
ZombiU is a game that forces you to question how little you can do to simply get by. You don’t need to be an action hero, you simply need to survive. For most of the game you will be using a cricket bat to dispatch Zombis, and you will soon realise that it is probably the best method for doing so with minimum fuss. Much of the game shall be spent luring the undead around a corner and away from a pack and dispatching them one by one. Using weapons such as guns do not make such a situation easy – they make it easier in a sense, but factors such as kick-back and reloading take up valuable time that you do not often have in the heat of battle. Thankfully, weapons can be upgraded and become more manageable and functional as a result; but they are never the answer to clearing an area of threats, acting more so as a last-resort to quickly finish an encounter. But be very careful – weaponry and ammo is both valuable and scarce. Using those 6 bullets on that one Zombi in the corridor may well come back to haunt you when you are cornered by three, with only three bullets left.
Going forward I would like to see smoother fine-tuning of the controls and visual feedback. Sometimes despite how well you aim or how long you hold the trigger (ZR), you don’t always get the visual response you feel you may well deserve. Your current survivor, beyond the upgrading of weapons stats, doesn’t seem to become more experienced, stronger or weaker from all the exertions asked of them. Seeing some kind of growth with your character would be an appreciable factor, but then in this kind of game it could also be detraction, taking away from the vulnerable survivor element. I’d like to see something more than an emotionless, staid avatar.
Acoustically ZombiU excels when it is doing less. How can that be so? Well it all comes down to when I spoke of the character of the locales you come into contact with…or rather, traverse. The crackling of fires, the whistling of wind, the sound of silence is far more affecting than any bombastic soundtrack can ever be, especially in a game of its ilk. ZombiU is also excellent when played through headphones, as it won’t disturb the other occupants of your household but also as another way of enveloping you and shrouding you with suspense, immersion and fear – always fear of the unknown.
For a game so focused on the solo experience, ZombiU also offers something in the way of multiplayer for two people only, one being the King of Zombies and the other being the Survivor. Featuring two games modes, Assault (Survival) and King of the Hill (essentially Capture the Flag), both are based around a type of Horde mode whereby waves (numerically limited initially) of Zombies try and defeat the other player. As the King of the Zombies, you exclusively use the GamePad screen. Here you get an overview of the map layout, strategically placing Zombies throughout the map based on their job type. There are Zombies that fulfil basic objectives such as flag grabbing, hunting the other player and also the Zombie types from the single player. The other player (using either the Pro Controller, or the Wii Remote and Nunchuk) uses the TV screen and plays the game in the traditional sense, dispatching the Zombie horde whilst also attempting to capture the flags. It is an intense and enjoyable experience in either role and a nice spin on the two classic game modes.
It’s a surprise when anything is released without an online multiplayer component in this day and age. For what it is right now, I am glad such a mode was not tacked on merely for the sake of it, but in this game’s instance it could have worked, even in a minimal sense. That is not to say the game is completely devoid of any community integration. Taking a cue from the likes of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, ZombiU brings players from Miiverse (friends list) into your game in their undead guise, right where they died replete with a Bug-Out Bag full of the items they possessed when they died. I almost felt guilty as I swung my cricket bat in the direction of fellow darkzero staffer, DomsterCool (Dominic Sheard), and subsequently made off with all of his goods. I felt terrible for caving his skull in and relieving him of his goods… OK, no I didn’t. (Sorry, Dom!) It’s a nice little touch, and you can’t help but tap the Home Button and send a screenshot to your friends on Miiverse, shortly before dispatching their undead cadaver.
ZombiU is a gaming experience that arrives at a perfect time. Right now we are at the apex, the pinnacle of interest in the undead. The likes of The Walking Dead, Zombieland and Dead Island (to name a few) have been reinvigorating the stagnating Zombie genre in both videogame and movie areas, to varying levels of success. Never has interest in the undead been so high, so the announcement of this and subsequent release especially on the oft-viewed family-focused Nintendo Wii U console was met with surprise and skepticism. Sure the game is not perfect. Its clunky control mechanism, sometimes fiddly inventory management, and the complete lack of online game modes may detract from the experience in some peoples’ eyes. But its in the ability (and to the credit) of Ubisoft to go with a new approach that this game succeeds. It instils a sense of fear, suspense and manages to put this into a wonderfully enjoyable experience on a Nintendo console that some would say hasn’t taken a risk on horror since the GameCube‘s Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.
For what it presents, the game works on so many levels. It is a landmark experience and one that deserves repeated playthroughs, if only to try and make it to the end unscathed. Not perfect by any means, but then is anything ever really perfect? I’d argue not. We are all perfect in our imperfections; by this outlook, so is ZombiU.