Aside from its kind of lousy name, ZombiU is a cleverly crafted and legitimately scary game that Wii U owners should absolutely consider. A resurgence of the Black Death is once again ravaging Britain and transforming everyone into aggressive, undead creeps. Your goal is largely singular: to survive the outbreak long enough to figure out what caused it. Its neat uses of historical fiction are left mostly untouched, but ZombiU’s rough, tough, and intense survival gameplay delivers the goods all on its own. A few technical hiccups persist throughout, and the unrelenting difficulty won’t be for everybody. But if you’ve ever been interested in a survival horror game that truly captures the survival element of the equation, ZombiU is your game.
The basic setup has been likened to From Software’s devilish opus Dark Souls, and those comparisons are apt in quite a few ways. Like that game, death in ZombiU is a fairly severe punishment that keeps you in line and demands you use your smarts and patience if you hope to make it all the way to the end. You begin the game in a sturdy safe house and, after a brief introduction, are given a cricket bat, pistol, and a few med kits. Everything else is up to you. You’re given some leads on the outbreak that take you through London’s sewer system to apartment buildings to Buckingham Palace and beyond, and each step forward must be taken cautiously. Even a single zombie can be a problem if you’re not careful, and ammunition and other supplies ought to be treated as precious commodities. The preferred option is to draw in as few zombies as possible and take them out with melee attacks. Your movements have a slow, considered movement to them, and mastering the time it takes for you to wind up and strike is crucial. Trust me, don’t want to be near these zombies for very long; their attacks do a good bit of damage, and if you linger long enough for one to grab you, you are instantly and unceremoniously killed.
Dying starts you back at the safe house with an entirely new survivor and a bare minimum of gear. Any extra, more powerful guns and extraneous supplies are gone, but not lost. If you want to fetch your old gear, you’ll need to return to where you were slain and brain your old, now-zombified survivor and loot their corpse, a moment that never failed to put a smile on my face. And yet, the stakes are never higher than they are on the way to your supplies – die again on the way to get them, and it’s all gone for good. That’s a very bad thing, because scavenged supplies are your best bet for surviving anything more than a one-on-one encounter. Flares are probably the most handy, luring any nearby zombies regardless of if they were attacking you or not. Rifles and shotguns are also godsends, and I would often skulk through the game with my double-barrelled shotgun in hand, ready for whatever crazy situation the game threw at me next. Well, usually ready.
The game is largely linear, which can occasionally be a bit disappointing, but that linearity also means that it’s often a relatively simple process to retrace your steps and recover your gear. Most zombies do not respawn, either, which prevents things from getting too grating. Each area also has a single manhole shortcut back to the main safe house, effectively tying all the areas together in a way that lets you return to less dangerous spots and gather more supplies if you need to. Don’t mistake that as generosity, though. I don’t think any zombie game has nailed the feeling of desperate survival as well as this one does, and the slower-paced combat gives each blow such a powerful feel that you can really imagine yourself giving it everything you’ve got to fight for your life. An untimely demise is not only always in the back of your mind, it’s also always a possibility. Taking another cue from Dark Souls, you can spray paint iconography like zombie heads and pointing arrows to help players in their own separate playthroughs…or royally screw them over by leading them into a tricky ambush. Your choice!
The game doesn’t stop for story exposition very often, but when it does, the going gets a little bit dry. The game plays with historical fiction in some interesting and fun ways, but the story is so limited that it ends up feeling like wasted effort. I would have liked a bit of character development as well. You’ll play as both men and women, young and old in your first playthrough, and a little insight into who these people are and what they’re fighting for could have been interesting. Instead, the game gives you a survivor’s name and occupation in a quick flash of text and leaves it at that. On one hand, it’s refreshing that story elements don’t interrupt the hopeless mood the game invokes, but its hard not to see the nearly vacant fiction as a missed opportunity.
That didn’t stop me from wanting to start the whole process all over again, though. Once I reached the end, I was convinced I could do better on my second run. I started up the game’s Survivor mode, which grants you a single life with which to complete the entire game, lest you start the entire adventure anew. I made it about a third of the way through the game again before, well, things didn’t go so hot for me. But the developers are placing spray painted messages near the safe house, highlighting players that have survived the gauntlet and taunting the rest. Even if the Survivor mode isn’t for you, simply playing the normal game and trying to minimize your body count is something those who take a shine to ZombiU are definitely going to be interested in.
ZombiU has a decent presentation that, while certainly not mind-blowing, dutifully creates a sense a dread. This a game that’s not afraid to get dark – areas are often murky, desolate places that are pretty well pitch black without your flashlight switched on. The initially tense mood grows more suffocating when you play for long stretches, and I rarely felt safe navigating the dim streets and murky undergrounds of London. The lighting looks good, and the game uses some neat, grimy filters to spice up the visuals a little.
The violent action punctuates the atmosphere well, and some delightfully gross gore effects really drive home the heavy feel of the combat in ways that never get old. Heads are exploding all the time in this game, and each brutal swing of your bat lets loose a chunk of skull and brains that deteriorate the undead in a satisfying way that really brings the slow, deliberate combat together.
There are definitely some drawbacks that reveal ZombiU’s launch title roots. Load times don’t pop up often, but they’re pretty lengthy. Some textures – especially the bed you see time and again when you save the game – look grody. I also ran into a weird bug very early on where a door I was trying to enter stayed closed, and a loading message stayed on screen for what must have been a minute. As soon as I took a few steps away from the door, it opened and everything went back to normal. Weird, but far from game-breaking. Finally, you’ll see the occasional zombie arm or face clipping through closed doors. It’s a little distracting, but the otherwise convincing visual groundwork makes it relatively easy to look past.
Some gaps in the technical presentation are occasionally a bummer, but there’s nothing here that can overshadow ZombiU’s intelligently designed core. The gameplay loop of scavenging supplies and checking every corner of the environment to ensure your continuing survival nearly always feels tense, and when you do have to throw down against the horde, the weighty combat and high stakes lead to lots of heart-pounding scenarios.
My only real complaint of the gameplay itself is that a few unpolished supplies can be frustrating. I lost a longtime survivor because a mine I was placing seemed to explode out of nowhere, with no enemies in the area. A few hours later, a zombie’s grab animation seemed to cut right through my melee bump where it otherwise worked without issue, robbing me of another survivor. In a game that demands so much and reprimands so harshly, these occasional inconsistencies can be very annoying. They were rare enough for me to not be much of an issue, though I could imagine such glitches being the cause of a blood-curdling scream or two in Survivor mode.
The implementation of the Gamepad’s features are very well done and manage to support the action and tension in some cool ways. Managing your supplies and map is all done on the touchscreen, and accessing your backpack cuts the camera to a cinematic angle while your on-screen character roots through the gear. It’s a cool effect…especially when you look up to see a zombie eking out of the dark toward you. Holding the controller upright lets you scan the environment with a CSI-style blue light, tagging enemies and lootable containers to mark them on your TV. You can also mark unlocked doors on the map, a lifesaver if you find yourself in need of a swift exfiltration from the horde. As you might imagine, having any sort of real-time data on what’s around you is a big help, and it wasn’t long before scanning each area became a top priority for me. The rare touchscreen tap-a-thon to rip a barricade apart aside, ZombiU is an excellent example of how the Wii U’s fancy new controller can be put to functional and exciting use. I hope other developers are paying attention.
ZombiU is definitely not a game for everyone, mostly due to its unforgiving design and flat fiction. But few horror games really make you feel like you’re in a desperate struggle for survival, and few action games command all of your attention and precision to play. ZombiU manages both those things simultaneously, and the result feels fresh and interesting in all the right ways. Ubisoft Montpellier has crafted a great little game in time for launch, and if they’re given the opportunity to refine the design and technical foundation in a sequel, I feel like the result could be something truly mind-blowing.