There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Wii U before we can all drink the Kool-Aid and support Nintendo’s new system unequivocally. The Wii U is a system that cannot sell itself on specs, so it needs to convince fans that it can offer a unique and original experience that its competitors cannot match. Nintendo managed that feat with the Wii, so betting against them for the Wii U may be unwise. Especially when you have games like ZombiU.
ZombiU was built specifically for the Wii U from the ground up, and it shows. It may be possible to adapt it to another system, but it would require a redesign so severe that it might make more sense to simply create a new game with a similar setting and feel. Ubisoft’s zombie offering manages to incorporate the GamePad as well as any game on the launch docket for Nintendo, and it also signifies a trend of more adult-oriented games coming to Nintendo’s new console, something that the Wii was noticeably missing.
And make no mistake, ZombiU is a game for adults. It isn’t that it is an especially gory game, although there are plenty of grotesque images, but the game is exceptionally good at building anxiety through its mechanics.
Using the Wii U GamePad, you control your randomly generated character through a nightmarish reflection of London after a zombie outbreak has brought civilization to a screeching halt. Only a handful of survivors remain, while the angry and spry infected roam the streets. Your goal is simply to survive, but the best way to achieve this is through preparation.
Your best bet is to take risks and complete goals given to you by “The Prepper,” a man that communicates with you through the radio only. His motives are mysterious, but he gradually fills you in on what is happening and explains that this outbreak is the culmination of a Black Prophecy, which was foreseen centuries earlier by John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court magician. The Prepper, and others like him, planned for the current zombie apocalypse as best they could which gives you a chance.
While ZombiU is primarily built around the gameplay more than the narrative, the story is surprisingly deep and engaging. Filled with secret societies and occult messages, the goals you complete help to unravel a mystery that is at least four centuries old, and the truth will play out over the 12-15 hour campaign. One thing that is deliberately missing, however, is any backstory on the character you play.
You begin the game in the midst of the zombie outbreak, with no time to think or prepare. It’s through luck that you stumble upon The Prepper, and you begin with no significant skills or abilities. You must complete goals and sub-objectives if you want to level your character up and help him or her to adapt to the environment and grow. Right up until you die.
ZombiU has an interesting take on respawning. Once you die, no matter where you are or what skills you have unlocked, your character will remain dead. You will respawn in the original location the Prepper led you too, and you start as a completely new character back at zero – although your story progress remains. If your previous character was carrying some equipment that you want back, you can go to where you died and find the zombified corpse of your former avatar, which you will need to kill in order to retrieve your belongings. Your levels will be lost forever though.
This presents an interesting twist. To earn levels and improve skills, you will need to invest a fair amount of time in the game with a single character, but it’s best not to get too attached. The longer you survive the more powerful they become, but the game really isn’t a question of if you die, rather when and how. So when that moment inevitably comes, the better you have played, the more your loss will resonate. If by some chance you complete most of the game with a single character, you may actually feel a sense of existential loss for your character as you continue in a much weaker shell. It certainly adds to the sense of dread as you find yourself overwhelmed and needing to run for your life – or in this case, run for your character’s life.
One interesting addition to the game is the online connectivity. While you cannot jump into another person’s campaign, when you die your zombie will occasionally appear in the game of your friend, sporting your gamer tag and loaded with bonus experience and items. If you are not connected online, the game will randomly generate characters like this, but it is far more interesting to suddenly turn a corner and confront your friend’s shambling husk that you then kill for fun and profit from.
ZombiU requires the GamePad controller in a very fundamental way. Beyond offering a map, the GamePad has a sonar like ability to let you know when enemies are near, and it is required to scan your surroundings and find items, identify threats, and complete certain objectives. You also need to use it to use your backpack, as well as pick up new inventory. That means sooner or later you will be caught looking at it while a zombie sneaks up behind you. It all helps add to the tension, and it makes you question whether or not it is worth exposing yourself to run out for an item in an area with zombies.
As for the rest of the controls, the GamePad moves as well as any controller, and the size and weight are easy to adjust to. While moving around with a weapon, you have two buttons you need to push, one is to prime the weapon, the other is to use it. For example, your first weapon and last resort is a cricket bat. To prime it, you hold the left trigger to cock back the bat, then the right trigger swings. A firearm does roughly the same thing, with the left trigger aiming and the right firing. Pushing the right trigger alone pushes back oncoming zombies, but does not hurt them. This is an extremely useful tool though, as the zombies are fast and aggressive, and it takes a moment to prime your weapon.
Running and escaping are easy, in theory, but the zombies are dogged in the pursuit of your sweet, sweet flesh and if combat is not an option – and often it won’t be – you may need to try to escape to an entirely new section and hope the zombies don’t pursue.
The game is local play only, but there is a multiplayer component as well that pits you against your friend. There are three modes for this, but they all operate under the same principles. The person with the GamePad is shown the map from a top down view, while the other uses a standard controller to play as a traditional FPS player. The GamePad wielding player is then given tokens, which they can then spend on different types of zombies to spawn around the map and attack the other player, or try for an objective. It plays out a bit like a tower defense game.
One of the modes is a territory-based game where the traditional player can quickly capture flags, but is limited by ammo vulnerability to the horde of zombies. The GamePad wielding player then allots their points to spawn a specific type of zombie needed to capture the territory, guards to defend it, and runners to chase the other player. There is a limit to the number of zombies you can have active at once and you quickly earn upgrade points that unlock a choice of more zombie types, but it all comes down the strategy.
Another mode uses the standard controller and has you and your friend take turns fighting off an endless wave of enemies. The players swap the controller between rounds, and whoever has the most kills before they die wins. The local only play makes the multiplayer an interesting side attraction, but the campaign is what will make this game memorable.
And memorable it is. The preview Ubisoft was showing was the first section of the game and included a look at Buckingham Palace, a central location within the game. This also highlighted the power of the Wii U. When you first approach the iconic palace, the weather changes and a storm begins to rage. The effects look smooth and fluid, and the angry faces of rotted zombies look amazing. It isn’t head and shoulders above the Xbox 360 or the PS3, but the graphics are impressive, both in the look of the world and characters and the effects that go along with it. It will take more than a few sections of a single game to get a real sense of the Wii U’s potential, plus launch titles rarely come close to pushing new hardware, but what ZombiU showed was encouraging.
ZombiU impressed me in many ways. My concern for the game was that it was a game based entirely on the mechanics and then a survival horror skin was dropped over it, but I was wrong. ZombiU is a complete package that uses the Wii U’s unique attributes in ways that honestly improve the gaming experience. Without a familiar brand name ZombiU probably won’t come close to matching the sales of other Wii U launch titles like New Super Mario Bros. U or even Ubisoft’s own Just Dance 4, but it may be the best reason to own a Wii U so far.