ZombiU | Principal Platforms: Nintendo Wii U (version tested), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC | Developer: Ubisoft | Publisher: Ubisoft | Genre: Survival horror | Year: 2012
It’s a sad fact, but the software libraries that accompany newly released home consoles are rarely worth getting excited over.
Typically bolstered by only one or two legitimately decent titles at best, most new consoles are slow starters that lack the amazing games necessary to justify a cash splurge on their brand new technology.
Out of the 20+ titles released alongside the Wii U in November 2012 for example, most were inferior third party ports of games that hardcore fans had likely already played and there were only a small handful of decent exclusives on hand to help showcase that coveted “Wii U difference”.
Among the meager launch day roll call however was Ubisoft’s mature-rated ZombiU; an exclusive title that got its own pack-in bundle in the US not to mention considerable buzz from critics and fans alike.
As tends to be the case with launch titles in subsequent years, ZombiU can be picked up for a song today, but does the cheap resale price reflect the overall quality of the experience on offer here?
I wouldn’t say so, as ZombiU is easily one of the best launch games I have ever played and it’s a strong contender for a place in the top 5 Wii U games available right now, third party or otherwise.
Set in an apocalyptic version of modern day London, ZombiU thrusts you into the role of a survivor caught in the middle of a zombie pandemic. Watched over by a hidden surveillance operative; a headstrong ally calling himself only “The Prepper”, you must scour the devastated city in an effort to gather supplies and ultimately find a way out alive.
It won’t take you long to understand why this game came bundled with select Wii U systems, as every interesting feature of the Gamepad controller is put to use here and it really sells the benefits of the system as result.
The second screen represents your handy survival kit or “Bug Out Bag” and it can display everything from your inventory, your mission objectives, collected audio recordings and a digital map/radar combo.
Looting cupboards, unlocking doors, setting explosives and many more actions besides are all achieved with swipes on the Gamepad’s touch screen and there’s rarely a moment where you aren’t referring to it for important information or as part of a screen-tapping mingame.
Combat is where things really get interesting though as the prospect of being caught next to a zombie horde is once again made a legitimately frightening prospect.
It really doesn’t take many hits before your character keels over and if a zombie executes a grapple attack then it’s an instant game over (in the early stages of the game at least) for the survivor you’re currently playing as.
Assuming you didn’t choose to play the story under survival difficulty where dead means dead (eek!), you’ll always respawn as a brand new character with basic gear and the added task of tracking down your previous avatar who has likely become a bag-carrying zombie in the place where he/she snuffed it.
It’s a nice little challenge seeing how many survivors you can complete the game with (I finished it in 8) and it adds just that little extra bit of weight to each demise – especially when the zombified remains of other online players often show up in your world loaded with precious loot!
Fighting off the undead scourge is made hugely entertaining because of the rather brutal adherence to realism. Firearms are excellent for dispatching zombies quickly and the recoil from each one feels as satisfying as the immense damage they dish out.
The sound that guns emit is very dangerous however as they will almost always aggravate any undead shamblers in the unseen distance and getting surrounded in this game is not a scenario you ever want to entertain, believe me.
In true survival horror fashion, ammunition for the various pistols, rifles and shotguns is limited so sometimes it pays to equip your default cricket bat and dispatch individual zombies quietly with a few stout whacks to the head.
Melee combat is very much a last resort when enemies attack en masse though, which is just as well considering the game’s occasionally strange physics and the awkwardness encountered when trying to execute a curb-stomp.
As with any “roguelite” game, combat is never something you enter into lightly, but then your survivor’s inherent vulnerability is all part of what makes the game so tense and enjoyable in the first place.
ZombiU is a noticeably artistic game. Unlike some Wii U titles that I could mention, the gameplay is very smooth and the visual quality seen in the game’s many ransacked environments is also impressive.
You won’t escape the Wii U’s typically long loading times sadly, but there are plenty of helpful shortcuts and map markers that will get you into key zones quicker.
There is a beautifully oppressive atmosphere felt throughout ZombiU and you can expect to see (or not see) plenty of pitch black alleyways and corners that are only ever moderately lit up by your handheld lantern.
Some of the game’s environments do feel a bit “consoley” in that they are snugly built and often recycled, but when you combine this with the deliberate pacing, which is brought on by the need for players to be extremely careful, it doesn’t hint towards the game feeling overly hemmed in or short.
Ubisoft has grasped the limits of the Wii U hardware very well here and has disguised any rough edges behind grimy video filters and high exposure lighting, leading to a high contrast image that looks quite breathtaking in its bleakness.
There’s an interesting story going on behind the scenes as well and it’s one that doesn’t burden you with cutscenes or exposition in order to be entertaining. It’s disappointing that the narrative completely trails off towards the end, but the quality of the NPC voice acting is superb and there are plenty of hidden plot details stashed away inside the various notebooks and letters scattered throughout London.
The most interesting stories though are inevitably the ones that you will create for yourself. Like the time a zombie followed you up a ladder and knocked you off a three story building, or the time that an unexpected burglar alarm brought an entire township of undead to your location – and you somehow survived!
Such tales of hardship and valor stem from the potent difficulty although that’s not to suggest that Ubisoft has gone overboard in punishing players for failure.
ZombiU has a sleek learning curve reminiscent of Dark Souls. It’s similar in that you can leave cryptic messages for other online players to find in their world and also recognizable is how powerful the knowledge of terrain can be and how quickly the engaging combat system will tip the odds in your favour if handled correctly.
Admittedly the game’s final act does spoil some of the game’s appeal. This is mainly due to the addition of unnecessary gimmick zombies such as the explosive or acid-spitting variants on the standard walker and then there’s a rather annoying fetch quest that merely pads out the story a bit longer by getting you to revisit previously explored areas with new equipment.
It’s hard to imagine, but I suppose that certain gamers might find ZombiU to be a tad samey for their tastes. In addition to the aforementioned Dark Souls leanings, the dank environments and aggressive combat is very reminiscent of a similar launch title – this time for the Xbox 360 – called Condemned: Criminal Origins and I have to be honest and say that the meaty gunplay had me thinking of Postal 2 of all things.
But then ZombiU still feels like a complete package as it comes stuffed with a hilarious 2 player battle mode, Uplay achievement support and a fun little extra where you can use the Gamepad’s front-facing camera to transform your face into a zombie before sharing it with other players.
The multiplayer offering is what deserves special mention however as it’s an absolute riot and a remarkably innovative riot at that. One player takes the role of the Zombie King and uses the Gamepad to spawn zombies from an overhead map screen whilst a competing player (using a pro controller or Wii Remote with Nunchuck combo) takes the television screen in the traditional first-person view as they try to survive the onslaught and capture control zones for points.
The lack of setup options make the replay value in this mode seem rather suspect, but its accessibility factor is genius because a player of any skill can use the Gamepad without much problem and it’s hard not to just burst out laughing as you watch the survivor frantically fight for his life!
ZombiU is a stunningly well designed game overall though. The gameplay is intelligently thought out, the popular theme is perfectly realized and there are plenty of ominous set pieces to scare suggestible players silly.
The game’s recent appearance as a stripped-down budget release for competing consoles betrays not only ZombiU’s star-crossed commercial failure, but also a certain reality that the game works in spite of the Wii U Gamepad it so readily takes advantage of.
It’s true that the Gamepad is not irreplaceable here – in fact, you might even say it’s a mere novelty – but a key element it does add is a level of immersion that the other versions probably lack. There’s no distracting user interface on the TV screen of any kind and it really helps involve you in the setting as a whole.
For my own playthrough I came up with the idea of using the Wii U headset in tandem with the Gamepad to increase the immersion factor even more. Take it from me: hearing all of those crystal clear and sometimes frantic audio messages punch straight through to your ears is a very cool and disturbing way to play!
And the need to divert your attention away from the main screen to the Gamepad is a negative point that actually works in this game’s favour, as the feeling of being susceptible to attack whilst rummaging through your backpack or messing around with a keypad for example, makes for some of the game’s most enjoyably terrifying set pieces.
In the simplest of terms, Ubisoft looked at Nintendo’s hardware and produced the perfect game for it.
That’s not to say that the game is without its faults, but in terms of playing to the Wii U’s strengths and then obfuscating its biggest weaknesses – using nothing but good old fashioned game design and solid theming – ZombiU has accomplished a rare feat in becoming a launch title of true merit and remarkable innovation.