Prior to the american release of ZombiU, I had no interest in it whatsoever. Then it came out and people whose opinions I respect started making comparisons to Dark Souls — that got me interested. In playing it, I can see the mechanical similarities, but it’s not quite on the same level. Despite its flaws, however, it has become one of my favourite games of 2012.
• Developer: Ubisoft
• Publisher: Ubisoft
• Reviewed on: Wii U
• Also Available On: N/A
• Release Date: Available Now
ZombiU throws you into the action very hastily, and I mean that literally. After a brief introductory video you find your character outside a London Underground station and being chased by an oncoming hoard. The game’s incredible grasp of providing terrifying tension is set here, as your first action in game is to figure out what the sprint button is and quite literally run for your life, evading the zombies within the station interior as you come across them.
It takes about a minute to find the safe room, and once there you will have a good idea of what ZombiU is all about. It’s a true survival horror game. This isn’t Dead Space, or Left4Dead, or Resident Evil 5. You are, at all times, about to die. You are persistently vulnerable, and the game never fails to remind you of that.
The safe room turns out to have been set up by a character that refers to himself as The Prepper. His purpose throughout the game is to guide the player by providing intel on locations worth ransacking, and operating surveillance cameras and various other security systems around the city.
This is where the Wii U GamePad comes into play, in a way that is surprisingly very effective. Once you have found a security junction box, you can flag it using your GamePad, enabling The Prepper to access the local map for that area. The map is dynamically displayed on your GamePad screen and tracks your position at all times. Next to the map is a button that sends out, for lack of a better description, a tracking pulse not unlike the signature technology from Alien. The pulse will display dots on the map indicating both animals and infected humans. One of the best tricks ZombiU has in its terror arsenal is to show you a mass of red pings around the corner from you, but when you get there it could just be a collection of birds and rats. Though you’ll find yourself being incredibly wary either way.
The GamePad also has a couple of other uses: Firstly, you can hold the left shoulder button and hold the hardware up to scan the environment in a way reminiscent of hokey AR games, but in this case it will display interactive points in range of your position, which you can then flag to discover what they are and permanently add them to your map. This is especially useful for flagging Zombies, since it tells you outright whether each flagged unit is carrying a lootable item.
The other, and arguably most major use of the GamePad is the inventory screen. By dragging your finger downwards you will access your inventory, leaving your character on the TV screen in an animation of him/her fumbling through their backpack. The genius of this aspect of the game is that gameplay does not pause, so you’d better be damn sure you’re in a safe place before switching your focus to inventory management.
The gameplay itself is sadly where the ZombiU’s faults lie. Your control over the character’s movement suffers somewhat from a combination of awkward twitches and latency issues, and as you might expect, this makes the combat far harder than it necessarily needs to be. The sketchy controls are countered somewhat by the right shoulder button acting as a 180-degree quick turn, but it’s this lack of polish alone that mars what would otherwise be a truly great survival horror game.
It could, of course, be argued that the flawed controls lend themselves to the experience, making it more difficult to maneuver the tight corridors and fire the few guns you will find accurately. And if that seems like a line of reasoning you could align with, I imagine ZombiU would seem perfect to you. To be honest, I coped with it. Though that is not a sentence I should really need to justify an argument with, in an ideal world.
Speaking of weapons, few games have managed to push a sense of brutality quite like ZombiU has with its default Cricket Bat. It will take several head hits to bring down even the most generic form of Infected, and every blow portrays gruelling bludgeoning accompanied by screams of effort from your character.
Guns are also an option, but they are few and far between. And even when you find one, keeping enough rounds per gun in your inventory to make them regularly viable is a difficult proposition. You are aided by other items though, with grenades, Molotov cocktails, land mines, and flares (which, incidentally, attract all forms of infected while active), rounding out the game’s arsenal.
Earlier in the review I mentioned that ZombiU had been compared to Dark Souls, and they surely do utilise a similar gameplay hook to From Software’s masterpiece. When your character dies in Dark Souls, they drop all of their collected souls in that spot. When you respawn you can, if you choose, return to that location to get your souls back. ZombiU derives from this by having your character turn into a Zombie when killed, retaining their full backpack. You will then take control of a new survivor, spawning in the aforementioned safe room. Should you then decide it’s worth the effort, you can find your old self, kill them, and steal their gear.
ZombiU is ultimately the survival horror experience that many of us have been waiting for for a long time. The combat may be sluggish, but it is also based on a fair system of animation priorities that — once again — make it comparable to Dark Souls. It’s unfortunate that the controls are so sluggish, as this weighs down on what would otherwise be one of the finest examples of survival horror ever released (which is something I never thought I’d say about a Nintendo-exclusive game!). As a result of its difficulty and intensity, it certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those that enjoy sitting on the edge of their seats in underlying dread: this is a game you should absolutely play.