Myself and my GamePad versus every zombie in London.
Surviving a zombie apocalypse has always seemed so easy. Games and movies usually depict such a scenario as an opportunity to run around shooting firearms like a Wild West cowboy. But is that really what it would be like?
ZombiU focuses on the hardships of survival in a post-outbreak world—a limited inventory, desolate loneliness, and zombies that aren’t just target practice. But it also makes you happy to be alive as you delve closer to freedom from the clenches of zombie-ridden suburbia.
In ZombiU there’s a clear emphasis on tension. The Wii U GamePad serves as your survival kit where you manage items, change weapons, and reference the map for direction. Playing the game as a run-and-gun title is quickly met with death, and you either learn to adapt to the game’s focus on being slow and methodical or end up frustrated. Using the GamePad to scan your surroundings and mark the infected, in addition to checking corners for any flesh-eaters expecting you, goes a long way toward staying alive.
Your venture through the streets and buildings of London is objective-oriented, but how you choose to handle the game’s varied situations is open to your judgment. While luring zombies into narrow hallways to execute them one at a time can be effective, tossing a flare away from your route can save you some time. Occasionally you can take advantage of the environment with high drops, explosive barrels, and fiery debris leaving you with decisions to make and plans to execute.
The trusty cricket bat is your primary choice for quelling most foes, and using it requires getting close and personal. Bashing zombies over the head reveals their brain matter, and blood spews onto nearby walls as you fend for your life. While timing and precision is required to use the bat effectively, it becomes repetitive due to its prevalence. There are no ways to differentiate your melee attack, and avoiding all zombie encounters is almost impossible.
There are many situations where you’ll lose control and face several starving zombies, and those moments call for more firepower. Thankfully, there are additional weapons to employ such as the double-barreled shotgun and crossbow. Surprisingly, the shooting mechanics are spot-on, and blasting the head off of a group of zombies standing—or crawling—in your way is extremely satisfying. Or if you’re feeling even more destructive, you can throw a well-placed Molotov cocktail and melt that zombie flesh away. The only detractor is that ammunition is very scarce, and as a result you’re left using the cricket bat most of the time.
The fight for survival in London’s dark city streets is very challenging, and if you fall to the horde, then you’re sent back to the safe house and assume control of a new character. To make matters worse, when you die you lose your entire inventory and all weapon upgrades, but there is a way to get some of that back. The corpse of your dead character is raised into a zombie, and if you manage to kill it, you can acquire your valuable items and weapons from its remains.
Learning about your surroundings is a must, and sometimes other players can lend a hand. Taking a cue from Demon's Souls, through the use of spray paint, players can leave messages for another in the form of icons. Sometimes they’ll guide you to safety, and other times they’ll warn you about a nearby foe. It’s a subtle but interesting take on online interaction that serves to help you during your grueling journey through the campaign.
The way London is presented lends itself to the rigors of survival. The dark palette is dreary, and the flashlight does little to reveal the aphotic corridors. Audio is minimalistic with growls of zombies and chirping crows that will make you feel uninvited. Affecting music kicks in when zombies draw near, making the scramble to change weapons and adjust inventory intense—the panic of your character is audible.
By itself, the environment does a great job of instilling fear, but the radio communication-driven narrative attenuates the experience. Speaking with the remaining living feels shallow, and your main contact treats different characters exactly the same, going as far as to cite events you completed with past characters.
The game isn’t completely reliant on its campaign, though. There’s a local multiplayer mode that allows you and a friend to battle it out. One player assumes the control of the survivor, who’s equipped adequately, while the other is able to spawn zombies from an overhead view. It’s a fun way to enjoy the game with a friend, and the shooting mechanics really shine. In addition, there are leaderboards for both singleplayer and multiplayer, so your survival skills can be shown off to the world.
ZombiU is a game that rewards the smart, patient survivalist who is able to overcome the many menacing challenges of a dark setting filled with treacherous zombies. Moments of adversity are frequent and the Wii U’s GamePad is able to heighten the experience with interactions that leave you in distress. At times the emphasis on melee combat with a repetitious cricket bat mars the quality of the journey, but once you pull through and begin to build confidence, the joy of surviving is blissful. Ubisoft Montpellier has succeeded in showing not only that a zombie game doesn’t have to be action-centric, but also that the Wii U can deliver in ways that were previously impossible.