After their disappointing Wii launch title Red Steel, Ubisoft once again attempts to deliver an original IP to exploit the capabilities of Nintendo’s latest console. Staying true to the roots of the survival horror genre, ZombiU incorporates the unique properties of the Wii U GamePad in the setting of a zombie apocalypse. However, their vision of a zombie-infested London quickly decays into a loathing experience thanks to the the game’s repetitive nature.
The plot of ZombiU focuses on the struggle and survival of a zombie apocalypse and less on the personal motives of fleshed-out characters. Played through a first-person perspective, you begin as a lone survivor awoken in a post-apocalyptic London only to discover that a mysterious plague has ravaged the city, turning those infected into mindless, flesh eating undead. Your survivor(s) is given a name and an occupation, but that’s all you will know about their past. Stumbling upon a safe room, you befriend “The Prepper,” a mysterious military man who communicates with you through the speaker within your GamePad. He will lead you through London, providing you with tips and helping you get from point A to point B. The overall story is a bit lacking and more of an excuse to progress your need for survival through the game world. What is more intriguing, is that the story becomes more inapt because of the way your death is handled.
ZombiU clearly borrows certain mechanics from previously released games, especially From Software’s Souls series. Upon death you’re forced into the body of a new survivor, tasked with picking up where the other left off. It’s an interesting twist that significantly ramps up the tension since death causes you to lose all your items and skills. Return to the place of your untimely death and you can recover your lost inventory by defeating your former undead self. Die a second time, however, and that body, along with any hard-earned equipment, disappears forever. You can even run into zombified versions of your friends if you’re online, as well as read spray painted messages left behind. Taking control of new survivors is a clever idea but one that prevents you from really getting attached to the lead character of the game, especially since the story continues in a scripted manner no matter who you are controlling.
Given that the Wii was graphically inferior compared to the 360 and PS3, the Wii U is capable of putting out the crisp HD graphics we’ve grown accustom to. Unfortunately, the in-game textures look muddled and the edges of objects are jagged, which is somewhat forgivable since this is a launch title. The world isn’t massive, but it’s exquisitely realized. Your journey will have you traverse suburban homes, Buckingham Palace, an army outpost and many more as you struggle to lead your survivor to safety. Each level is encased in darkness with some scattered areas of natural lighting and particle effects, but overall the level design is rather dull. Meanwhile, the zombies range from your standard undead to armor clad undead and a venomous spitting zombie similar to L4D’s Boomer. There’s plenty of gore, but even that can come across as humorous, like when a hit to the lower torso makes a corpse’s head pop off. The visual bugs are also plentiful. You will witness disappearing heads, bad physics, clipping, and countless other distractions. The voice acting is decent, although it consists mostly of “The Prepper” talking to you while your mute survivors emit grunts and cries.
Your ten-hour playthrough won’t be spent running and gunning, but foraging for supplies and desperately fighting back the undead horde. Each section of the city is linked, so you can walk anywhere – or use a fast travel tunnel if you’ve unlocked it. By default, you have a cricket bat to crack upside zombies. While it’s definitely fulfilling at first, bashing the undead gets extremely monotonous, as it can take six or seven swings until they are incapacitated. Tools such as flares and land mines break up the monotony, but their contribution is fleeting. There are a number of guns like pistols, shotguns, rifles, and crossbows, but each involves a pretty strict investment of resources. Ammo is extremely rare, and you’ll lament each one you’re forced to use — especially if you miss. Don’t forget, your survivors are common citizens, so the combat system is designed to put you at a disadvantage, giving you enough to survive without ever letting you dominate. Fortunately, running is almost always an option. If you can get ahead of a group of zombies, you can barricade doors with boards and nails.
The vast majority of your missions boil down to simple fetch quests. The few puzzles you encounter follow the same pattern: scan the walls for numbers to input on key pads. The game’s controls are what makes this a truly unique experience found only on the Wii U. During normal play the GamePad touchscreen is used to manage your inventory and displays a mini-map of the immediate area, which shows your location and nearby items. It is also used for context-sensitive actions, such as barricading doors or hacking combination locks. The built-in gyroscope, allows you to snipe and move the controller around in space to focus on and scan different areas of the area in order to discover items. While performing any of these actions, the perspective on the television switches to a fixed third-person view, showing the player character and the surrounding area. It’s usage happens in real-time, so performing task like barricading doors while a horde of zombies shamble towards you greatly ramps up the onscreen tension.
In addition to the standard campaign ZombiU also features a Survival mode, which is exactly what it sounds like: one death and it’s game over. Thankfully, the local-only multiplayer makes up for the repetitive single-player experience. Both players are trying to capture flags, but have wildly different play styles. The player with the GamePad takes control of Boris – the self-titled King of Zombies – deploying AI-controlled zombies from a top-down view on the touch screen, while the other players act as Survivors, killing those zombies and attempting to survive the onslaught. The survivor plays a more action-oriented version of the main game while Boris indulges in what is almost real-time strategy. This high-action mode is the opposite of the rest of the game’s design, and is infinitely more enjoyable.
If you’re not a fan of survival horror and you’re disappointed with the direction of titles like Resident Evil, than your going to love the concept behind ZombiU. It may not be a system seller for Nintendo’s new console, but it’s proof that the Wii U’s Gamepad isn’t just a gimmick but a legitimate gameplay tool. Although the first-person movement can be clumsy, and there are a few stark difficulty spikes, with a little bit more polish, Ubisoft may be on their way to a standout M-rated franchise.