I will admit that I was skeptical of ZombiU throughout the lead-up to it, especially during the E3 demo. I felt as though pulling players away from the television in order to complete tasks on the gamepad would prove frustrating and I thought the game looked like a typical terrible launch title.
I am happy to say now that I was wrong.
ZombiU is Nintendo and Ubisoft’s offering to the core gamers, a Dark Souls-meets-Resident Evil tour de force that is on my shortlist for Game of the Year.
ZombiU‘s first impressions are, admittedly, not great. It’s not the prettiest game in the world by any stretch. The character models are not particularly detailed, and the polygon counts aren’t as high as they should be. What ZombiU lacks in character detail, however, it makes up for in its environments. The London represented in ZombiU is dank and dingy, a crusty representation of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It is set at an indeterminate time after the zombie apocalypse hits Europe, and everything is properly dilapidated. The lighting compliments the environments well, as the scattered light sources cast off realistic looking shadows that only serve to enhance the terror. The camera is dirty and smudged, which is indicative of how cohesive and thoughtful the visual design of the game is. While fighting zombies, they will lose chunks of themselves during the battle, exposing skull, brain, and other nasty details. The world in ZombiU is beautiful in its ugliness, and the varied environments only serve to highlight the breadth of expertise on display here. Players will travel through ominously-foggy streets, rain-soaked shipping containers, and even through a swampy area during the course of the 12-to-15 hour campaign. It’s all uniformly excellent, with very few repeating areas. Each mission will take players to a new, visually interesting area teeming with zombies.
If there’s a place to discount ZombiU, it’s in its combat. The central mechanic of using a cricket bat to bash in the heads of the undead seems like it might get tedious after a while, but the true genius and tension in ZombiU is manipulating the zombies in order to fight them one at a time. At the outset of the game, you find yourself terrified of everything, constantly pinging the radar on the gamepad in order to ascertain the location of and avoid zombies, but in the latter third of the game you become the hunter, drawing zombies away from groups in order to bash their heads in. The things which would be a detriment to you at the beginning of the game (light and noise) become your allies as you learn to flick your flashlight at zombies in order to get their attention and pull them toward you. The actual fighting then becomes a sort of sick reward, a satisfying death dance with your prey before eventually putting it down. There are guns in the game, but they should be used only when necessary. ZombiU generally gives off the impression that the person being controlled is just an average survivor, so the gun mechanics aren’t as tight as true action games. The characters in the game shoot as if they’ve never shot a gun before, which is realistic and only adds to the tension.
The gamepad also comes into play in ZombiU, though perhaps its import has been overstated overstated. It serves as a map, radar, scanner, and inventory management area all at once, and each different element is handled gracefully. When accessing your backpack, you are instructed to look down at the gamepad, but while you are dragging things around and healing yourself, the game world continues to happen in real-time. It is entirely possible that a zombie will sneak up and attack, which makes the somewhat-unresponsive touch interface more frustrating than it should be. In an interesting twist, though, ZombiU uses this unresponsiveness to its advantage, and the feeling becomes akin to fumbling around in the dark.
The thing about the gamepad elements though is that they all could have been done without the gamepad. It’s not impossible to envision a version of ZombiU on the Xbox 360, PS3, or PC (with a different name, of course), in which the gamepad elements are handled in windows on screen, and the touch interface is replaced by a cursor. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it’s not like ZombiU would be impossible to play without the gamepad. Still, the clever integration of the gamepad is a great start for what might be a truly innovative console design decision on Nintendo’s part.
The sound design of ZombiU is much better than it really has any business being. The voice acting is uniformly strong, from the vigor of “The Prepper” to the somber tones of the actors reading the letters you find. The music has great little touches, including a fiddle (maybe?) that slowly builds up in intensity as you do battle with a zombie. It invokes the score in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which used subtle, somewhat imperceptible elements in its score to heighten tension. The music in ZombiU isn’t imperceptible per se, but the gradual buildup makes the hairs stand on the back of your neck without you realizing it until the source of the tension is revealed to you.
The story and the world are also expertly put together. Initially, ZombiU is a seemingly-aimless story of survival, but after a couple of hours the main objectives start to come into clear focus. The story is typical for the genre, but well told, with as few cutscenes as possible. The world itself is laid out logically, with rooms being easily navigable based on real-world precedent. Apartment buildings feel like apartment buildings, with cramped quarters and a lived-in feeling, while the tunnels and sewers appropriately twist and turn. The mapping between each self-contained area could be better (it can be hard to tell which shortcuts to take to reach certain areas), but by and large it’s hard to get really lost in ZombiU.
Unfortunately, outside of the main campaign there’s not much else to do. The multiplayer, although interesting, is not online-enabled, rendering it useless for players without other experienced ZombiU players in their lives. There is a separate survival mode, but it’s not anything akin to a Gears of War-esque Horde mode. Instead, it takes the gameplay hook of the normal game (dying is permanent but you can find your zombified body and recover your inventory after killing it), and cuts it off. When you die in Survival mode, the game is over. This could be thrilling, but there are moments in ZombiU when death is almost inevitable, making a survival mode more trial and error than anything else.
ZombiU is a surprisingly great game. With a solid combat loop and expertly crafted areas to explore, players who are in tune with ZombiU’s goals are going to find themselves in what is arguably the best horror game of this generation. The game exudes dread through its interconnected systems, including the (maybe purposefully?) cumbersome usage of the gamepad. ZombiU is, right now, the best reason for the WiiU to exist.
A copy of ZombiU for the WiiU was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.