Whether it is in films, books or games, true horror requires that the text confuses and baffles its audience. When was the last time you saw a horror movie that didn’t mess around with camera angles or shadows to obscure the scary stuff? It’s a staple of the genre, one that us gaming pansies with our ridiculous sense of entitlement have killed off over the past seven or so years. Resident Evil and Silent Hill were scary games, often because of their stodgy controls and eccentric camera systems, but we complained that these elements detracted from the gaming experience, to the point where these series are now hollow and sanitised husks of their former glory. With the power of the Wii U and its dual screen gaming, ZombiU is able to return this confusion and subsequent terror to the survival horror, all whilst maintaining the fluid movement and camera controls that the modern gamer requires as standard.
Set in modern London, you take on the role of a survivor who is aided by the mysterious Prepper, an unknown individual who guides you towards survival and an understanding of the source of the zombie outbreak. The plot follows your search for the cause and cure of the zombie plague, and it links into the crazy writings of real life Elizabethan theorist and royal advisor John Dee. It’s fascinating how Ubisoft have linked a rather generic horror trope like the zombie apocalypse story into the life and times of such an obscure and forgotten 16th century thinker. That said, the actual story is quite poorly told and is often marginalised in favour of the survival aspect; but boy is the survival aspect prominent.
Whereas other contemporary zombie titles have you mowing down the hordes at a million miles an hour, ZombiU is quite content to make even a one on one encounter with an undead a thing of nightmares. Initially armed with little more than a cricket bat and a pistol, even the weakest of zombies will take multiple strikes to take down, and headshots are the only truly effective method of felling your foes with firearms. Ammo is also scarce and, combined with the fact that being grabbed into a zombie bite is an instant kill, it makes ZombiU the survival horror equivalent of Dark Souls in terms of difficulty. The game crawls a long at a slow pace on account of its challenge and, whilst this may put off some players, ZombiU is able to build up an incredible atmosphere with this methodical style of gameplay.
ZombiU is certainly a scary game, but the fear is in how the atmosphere is created, rather than through the typically short-lived shock moments seen in other contemporary survival horrors. The lighting is a major part of this, aided by the inclusion of a limited flashlight that you have to turn off to charge on occasion. The lighting looks technically impressive and, though the rest of the visuals don’t seem like a huge departure from current generation quality, the frame rate seems smoother than when these kinds of visuals are forced onto an Xbox 360 or PS3. The sound, or lack thereof is also a big factor of creating a truly isolated and sombre tone. The music, when it does kick in, is disappointingly derivative of 28 Days Later, but it is countered by some excellent sound effects. The zombies sound as inhuman as they look, and the short voice clips of your exasperated survivor freaking out as they combat the undead is a nice touch that aids the game’s already impressive sense of immersion.
Nice production values aside, there is more to the way in which ZombiU provides a good scare. The main game takes place on your TV, with the Gamepad controlling your movement and combat in the typical first person mould. Things get interesting with the Gamepad’s screen though, a tool used as a map primarily. A tap in the corner of the map will send out a sonar ping that detects movement, an indispensable tool in keeping track of zombies in your vicinity. The trade off is that you have to look down at the Gamepad screen to see what the sonar turns up, an action that momentarily distracts you from what’s happening on the TV. It leads to some pretty tense encounters as you swap your eyes between the two screens; a sense of bewilderment aided by the fact that you must manage your inventory and loot for items using the screen as well. You’ll spend a lot of time managing items too, as inventory space is limited. It’s not restrictive to the point of frustration, but it means you must regularly make strategic calls on what loot is necessary and what is expendable.
When inventory space runs low, you have a safe house where you can store spare items. Various fast travel points link you around the game world, allowing you to come back to the safe house throughout the game. Depositing items in the safe box isn’t just about freeing pack space though, as the respawn system in ZombiU is rather unique. Rather than resetting to a checkpoint when you die, instead your character is gone for ever and you are recast as the next survivor who the Prepper encounters and helps out. It’s a very clever system and, though you’re only given a tiny bit of information about each character you control, it’s enough to make you feel genuinely guilty when you let them fall to the hordes. If you feel brave enough, you can travel back to where your previous character died to reclaim the supplies they had with them, though it involves you having to kill your previous character in their fully zombified form. It further adds to the sense of character ownership, and the mechanic is extended by you randomly encountering the fallen survivors controlled by other users on ZombiU who are connected to the internet. It’s a cool little feature that shows just how much thought has gone into Ubisoft’s first Wii U outing, but you can turn it off by playing the game in hardcore mode. Hardcore mode doesn’t change much in the game, but it means death is permanent and sends you back to the beginning of the game again, so look here if you truly want a challenge!
The story mode is long, detailed and will keep your attention throughout. One of the key staying points of the campaign is just how good some of the levels are. Some of the most famous areas of London are recreated with a sensitivity and attention to detail that is both engaging and compelling, and the amount of secret nooks and crannies makes exploration truly feel like a rewarding pursuit. A mild problem occurs when you need to backtrack. Some moments of the story force you to tediously revisit areas, and it’s never especially different or exciting. Some new areas can be unlocked with equipment you receive throughout the game, but it doesn’t entirely excuse this kind of archaic game pacing.
Just in case you’re still hankering for more after the story concludes, ZombiU has a rather interesting multiplayer mode. It sees one person controlling the zombie hordes with the Gamepad touch screen, while the other takes control of a survivor on the TV with a Wii remote and nunchuck combo or the new Wii U pro controller. Two modes are present at the moment, one involving you surviving waves of zombies spawned by the zombie king with the two players swapping after each round to try and get the most amount of zombie kills, the other a capture the zone style mode. Both game modes are surprisingly balanced and, especially for the zombie king, can offer a surprising amount of tactical depth. With only five maps and two modes though, it isn’t going to be the next big thing in online gaming, and the lack of three and four player modes also feels like a missed opportunity. There’s also a problem with the theme of the multiplayer. Whilst the campaign offers a sombre and terrifying experience, the carnival style voice overs of the two player mode feel foolish and out of place by comparison. That said, it’s a creative and enjoyable multiplayer suite that demonstrates how Nintendo’s new focus on asymmetrical multiplayer could well be the future of local multiplayer gaming.
This time back in 2006, I was angry at the Wii for failing to provide a truly compelling single player experience at launch (discounting Zelda: Twilight Princess, which we all know was originally a Gamecube title). Flash forward six years, and I doubt I could be happier with how ZombiU has reinvigorated my love for Nintendo. Not only is ZombiU an awesome launch title, it is also the sign that Nintendo are willing to cater for those wanting and adult and single player experience. The fact that it is probably the most atmospheric and tense survival horror title in years is just icing on the cake. Good work Nintendo for allowing Ubisoft to commandeer such an integral spot of your launch lineup, as any risk involved has certainly paid off.
This game was reviewed on the Wii U.