ZombiU review: Survival horror reborn

zombiu review survival horror rebornUbisoft Montpelier’s ZombiU might not end up being the top-selling Wii U launch title, but I think it’s easily the strongest original IP in Nintendo’s diverse launch lineup. Looking like an FPS and playing like anything but, this inventive effort delivers survival horror to a post-Dark Souls world. From Software’s critically acclaimed and widely divisive RPG is a clear source of inspiration for many of the best ideas in ZombiU, only the Ubi studio ditched the swords & sorcery fantasy trappings in favor of a zombie apocalypse.

Sure, zombie games today fall into the same category that “World War II FPS” did a few years ago prior to the release Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This one is different though. You’re not mowing down hordes with a military arsenal at your disposal. You’re not a one-person-army charged with saving all of humanity. Instead, you’re simply a desperate survivor trying to eke out an existence in post-zombie London while the hordes press in from all sides. Or, rather, a score of desperate survivors.

I, Zombie

I am convinced that ZombiU‘s tutorial is designed to kill you. It certainly killed me, as well as many of the other pre-release players that I spoke to. You get a breakdown of some basic controls before running into your first horde, which gives chase and ultimately devours you. For me, it happened when I tried to climb a ladder to freedom. As my hand reached out for the top rung, the first-person field of view suddenly swung downward to a zombie that had latched onto my foot. Seconds later, I was worm food.

I’m convinced that bit is part of the tutorial because the next thing that happens in ZombiU is so clever and so unusual that this early section seems like a natural place to introduce it. The camera cuts away to a new location, a secure location, with a young woman curled up on a military-grade cot in the mysterious Prepper’s fortified encampment. Her name and former life’s occupation (long since forgotten amidst the flood of survivors that were to follow)  flashed up on the screen, but she was very much a different person than the first unfortunate survivor’s shoes I had inhabited.

zombiu review survival horror reborn

All death in ZombiU is permadeath, at least from a gameplay perspective. If a zombie reduces your health to zero or manages to get a stray bite in — which happens much more often than you might expect — then that character is effectively (un)dead and it’s time to take the reins of a new survivor. Your first task as this fresh identity is always the same: find your former self, dispose of its zombified form, and recover the precious resources that you fought so hard to find before you were unceremoniously eaten by the walking dead. The first time this happens in ZombiU, it’s delightful. If it happens when you’re an hour or more from your last save and deep in zombie territory, it’s an absolute disaster. 

In both cases and all of those in between, it’s refreshingly exciting. A game-changing feature, even. One that you can turn off in the one-life-to-live Survival difficulty, but that mode admittedly feels like it’s missing the point.

At it’s dead, decaying heart, ZombiU is effectively a new twist on survival horror. It’s Resident Evil for a new generation, or Resident Evil for the next-generation, if you prefer. The design is undeniably clunky in a lot of fundamental ways. Maps can be difficult to negotiate when it comes to finding a destination (though the ever-present map and radar feature on your Wii U GamePad is a huge help). Zombies are tough customers even in solo encounters, requiring a good four or five smacks upside the head with your trusty cricket bat before they expire for good. Taking on more than one without a gun is just asking for trouble, and even bringing a firearm along doesn’t guarantee success. All zombies have a grab move that amounts to an insta-kill if you can’t back away in time.

Read that again: all zombies can insta-kill you without warning. There are hundreds that you’ll encounter in ZombiU.

That clunkiness is important though. It’s clearly intentional in a lot of places too. Access your backpack from anywhere and you’ll have to divert your attention to the GamePad screen as your character on the TV kneels — totally defenseless, as you see from a new third-person perspective — in front of the open pack. The same applies whenever you stop to break open a door barricade, pry back a manhole cover, or fiddle with locked doors. You’re looking at your GamePad screen while occasionally glancing upward to see if any of the walking dead are shambling in your character’s direction.

zombiu review survival horror reborn gunplay

As much as popular fiction has romanticized certain aspects, the zombie apocalypse is terrifying. Ubisoft Montpelier seems to understand the critical importance of delivering an experience capable of conveying that terror. In the same way that the original Resident Evil‘s “tank” controls helped to heighten tension, so too does ZombiU‘s challenging design. You’ll feel real fear whenever you venture into unknown territory for the first time, and it’s absolutely justifiable fear. More than any other game that came before it, ZombiU amounts to a zombie apocalypse survival simulator.

The Horde Cometh

Your walking dead foes in ZombiU are randomly placed and unpredictable. It’s generally a better strategy to run than face them head-on, though combat is an inevitability. Firearm ammo is very scarce in post-apocalyptic London, meaning you’ll want to conserve your bullets for bigger encounters and desperate stand-offs. Even in those situations, you’re best off if you switch back to your trusty, miraculously unbreakable cricket bat once you’ve whittled a group down to one or two. Anything to keep you from firing one more bullet than you absolutely have to. In a game where healing items and wood plank barricade materials are more common than ammo,  every missed shot burns more painfully than the most humiliating Call of Duty multiplayer loss.

Combat is an unwelcome prospect in general due to the hardiness of your zombie foes. Every new character spawn starts with the same unbreakable cricket bat, which must be readied with the ZL trigger and then swung with the ZR trigger to do any damage. Pressing ZR on its own strikes out with a quick shove, which does no damage but is still plenty helpful when you find yourself overmatched and in need of some breathing space. Unfortunately, the combat never evolves past this point.

zombiu review survival horror reborn decapitation

There is definitely something to be said for always keeping the player in a weakened position. ZombiU is built to challenge you and to make every encounter a potential last one for any character you happen to be playing as. There’s no denying that this starts to feel like a grind after awhile, however. Melee is your principal form of attack throughout the game, and it’s a shame that it never evolves beyond “swat zombies with cricket bat.” Even adding something as simple as a slightly more powerful bludgeon would have helped diminish the sense of grind, especially once you start encountering slightly more powered up zombies, such as those decked out in riot gear.

Next-gen In The Current-gen

The most negative criticism I have for ZombiU relates to its visual execution. This isn’t a bad-looking game, but it’s also definitely not one that can be held up as an example of why the Wii U is next-gen technology. There are plenty of better-looking games available even now at launch. It’s almost as if Ubisoft Montpelier was working on this as a Wii title and then switched over to develop it for the new Nintendo platform. The world looks fine, if a bit dark, but the zombie hordes are filled out by the same relatively small set of character models, diminishing the immersiveness of what is otherwise a deeply involving game.

The technical execution of the Wii U’s unique properties, at least, is great. There’s always another zombie lurking somewhere in the darkness, and the Wii U GamePad is equipped with some nifty tools for keeping track. A map view of your surrounding area is always visible on the second screen, to the point that you’ll even watch it exclusively to guide your movements through areas you know to be “safe.” There’s also an easy-access button on the screen that you can tap at anytime to send out a radar pulse, highlighting any living creatures in range as red blips. The radar picks up (moving) zombies as well as birds and rodents, and it’s not uncommon to creep slowly toward a group of red blips… only to see a flock of crows gathered around a fresh corpse.

The map also points the way to any shortcuts you’ve discovered, which is very useful for navigating London’s relatively open world. ZombiU follows a fairly linear trajectory, though there’s nothing that requires your sticking to the main path. In fact, exploration is pretty much necessary since it’s the best method for gathering the resources that you’ll need to survive. That said, the 10-or-so-hour story requires a fair bit of backtracking, and finding those shortcuts — manholes — becomes essential for curtailing frustration.

zombiu review survival horror reborn gamepad play

Making the most of the map also requires the use of your scanner, which moves the action down to the GamePad’s second screen as you swing your view around the environment from a first-person perspective. The scanner highlights points of interest — anything from enemies to lootable containers to doors — that you can then mark using a simple touch control. The first-person scanning makes use of the Wii U GamePad’s gyroscope, with tilts adjusting your field of view, though you can thankfully supplement that with the right analog stick.

Zombie World

There are some cool online features as well, including one that nods very specifically in the direction of From Software and Demon’s/Dark Souls. Inside the campaign, players can post notes for all to see. This could be anything from hints to a friendly hello to lies that send you in the direction of something that might devour you. Messages can be rated too, so you might want to ignore that low-rated message telling you that the dark, blood-spattered hallway in front of you that has inhuman moans echoing out from the shadows is, like, totally safe, bro. Note that I wasn’t able to see these messages for myself during my pre-release playthrough, but this is how the in-game messaging works.

There’s also a local-only multiplayer game mode that pits the zombies, controlled by one player, against a survivor.  The survivor player uses the standard combat controls on either a Pro Controller or Wii Remote/Nunchuk (though the former is definitely recommended) to take on foes dispatched by his/her opponent. The zombie player never actually takes direct control of the walking dead. Instead, the second player uses touch controls on the Wii U GamePad to send out zombie forces from a limited supply, sort of like a real-time strategy game. It’s an enjoyable diversion from the main game and it also glimpses into the sort of things that are possible on the Wii U for unconventional multiplayer action.

Conclusion

ZombiU may not be perfect, but that’s also part of its charm. This Wii U launch title isn’t one that everyone will enjoy, but it’s easily the most refreshing take on survival horror to hit consoles in this generation. If you love being punished by From Software’s Souls games and you hold tight your fond memories of struggling to take on those first zombies in Raccoon City, then all you really need to know is that ZombiU was pretty much made for you. It’s an absolute launch highlight for the Wii U and another unconventional success from the industry’s most unconventional publisher.

Score: 8.5 out of 10

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(This game was reviewed on the Wii U using a copy provided by the publisher)

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