ZombiU has shouldered an immense amount of pressure leading up to the Nintendo Wii U’s release, and on after. Being heralded as a system-selling, hardcore offering that would make the Wii U a must-buy for adult gamers everywhere is a lofty expectation. It touts an innovative control scheme that utilizes the Gamepad’s touch screen for inventory and looting purposes, and it truly looked scary in the weeks leading up to its release. Well, the good news is that it really, really is scary. The sign of a solid video game is one that keeps you on the edge of your seat. ZombiU certainly does that – so much so that you’ll need to take a break every now and then.
The premise of the game is not complicated. You are cast as a (for now) uninfected man or woman who wakes up in London to find the entire city gone as we know it. It now is a home for zombies – zombies everywhere. The city is trashed. Only a couple of minutes in, you’re introduced to a man who will serve as your guide throughout the game. He communicates with you via radio, giving you instructions, alerting you to routes and strategies, and providing you with tips (along with the occasional sarcastic remark about how worthless you are when you die). The neat feature here is that his voice comes to you through the speaker on the Gamepad – not through the TV. It makes it feel like you are actually being spoken to through a radio, which adds to the ambience.
Speaking of the ambiance, this game provides you with one of the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) environments I’ve experienced in a while. Never before have I played a video game that caused me so much nervousness… so much tension in my muscles. There is not one second in this game when you can afford to relax. Much of the time, you are in a dark area where the only light comes from your flashlight, so turning around in and of itself can be a heart attack waiting to happen. Considering the complete over-crowding of the zombie genre, this is truly an accomplishment. There are enough zombies to keep you scared, but few enough to give you a jolt when you come across one (or a bunch).
The experience would be scary enough if, like most video game experiences, you had a load-out of high-powered weapons to dispatch the zombies with. While there are guns here, that’s certainly not the case. Early in the game, you’re lucky to get your hands on a pistol with more than a couple rounds of ammunition. There are shotguns and other weapons, but they are harder to find and ammo is less than plentiful. While this is very frustrating, it does make you jump for joy when you find even a couple of rounds of ammo. Your trusty weapon that you’ll get right away, and never leaves you, is your cricket bat (of course, you’re in Europe).
You’ll take hundreds and hundreds of swings with your cricket bat in your time with the game, so mastering this weapon is critical. To wind up for a swing, you’ll hold down the left trigger, and you’ll press the right trigger to take the swing. Timing here is everything. Swing too early, and you won’t do much damage, allowing the zombie to advance more quickly. Swing too late, and while you’ll make contact, the zombie will have already gotten a swipe at you, causing damage. Learning to take the swing while the zombie is just the right distance away is crucial for survival, and takes more than a few minutes to get used to.
The feeling that these encounters give you is, again, unlike any other fighting experience I have seen in a video game. You don’t feel like a bad ass, gun-wielding killing machine, and you certainly don’t feel even close to being in control. The only sentiment you’ll feel is that you’re desperately trying to survive. There is not much use of music in the game, which adds to the sense of the bleakness of the world around you. Every bump you hear will have you frantically turning in circles with your flashlight, feeling like you might become zombie food at any second. It’s a feeling you have to experience yourself by playing the game.
This sheer weight of this experience, to be perfectly honest, kept me from playing the game for any extended period of time in one sitting. The world you’ll be trying to navigate is dark, depressing, scary, tense, and overbearing. I’m not a stickler about violence or anything, but this particular game is not for kids, and it’s not because of zombies getting their heads bashed in. It’s because of the weight of the dark experience.
When you die in ZombiU, you don’t simply regenerate at a save point. That character is dead for good – or rather, that character is undead. After death, the game drops you into the shoes of another human who wakes up to the cruel world for the first time in the game. You lose all of your supplies – weapons, ammo, everything. The catch is that the character you were previously controlling is now, of course, a zombie, and is out there wandering around somewhere near where he or she was killed. Most importantly, he or she still has those supplies. If you’re able to find and kill that zombie with your new character, you can recover all of those items. Sometimes it’s relatively easy to find your previous character, and sometimes you try and give up. It’s a system that gives enormous gravity to every death. If you manage to spend two hours with a character, building up supplies, guns, and ammo, you’ll feel a true sense of loss when you’re killed.
The Gamepad integration does do a bit to remind you that you’re playing a video game – which in this case is not a bad thing. You’ll use the Gamepad’s touch screen to “nail” boards over doorways to create barricades, to solve puzzles, to pick locks and find items, and so on. The most novel use is the scanner that you are given early on. To use the scanner, you’ll activate it and then look at the Gamepad’s screen, using the motion sensing capabilities to move it around as you would a real-world scanner. This will allow you to find objects in the game that you wouldn’t otherwise. The scanner also allows you to “ping” the area around you for moving things (zombies, of course), which will then appear as red dots on your radar screen (the Gamepad). The touch screen implementation, overall, is done very well – even if it is a bit gimmicky at times. Apart from the Gamepad, the controls are standard fair for this type of game. They feel tight and responsive, and there are no complaints here.
As you move through the game and near the final stages, the experience begins to evolve from the dark tunnel, tense, horror experience into a more open-style shooter. You’ll come into more ammunition, more plentiful weaponry, and the zombie challenge becomes one of volume as opposed to surprise. It’s clear that the intent here is to bring the story to a climax, but it also feels a bit like it abandons what makes the game so intense for the majority of the campaign.
This is a very difficult game to assign a score. In the areas of visuals, features, mechanics, story, and such, it doesn’t really do anything special. However, the tone of the game, and the sheer weight and dread that the player feels when trying to survive in this version of London is ZombiU’s crowning achievement. No other game I’ve ever played has managed to get me so worked up, and this is something that every Wii U owner should experience. If you’re an early adopter of the system, you have to at least try this game.
Reviewed By: Dan Nielson
This review is based on a copy of ZombiU for the Wii U provided by Ubisoft.