Console launch titles are usually a mixed bag. Ports from other consoles or the occasional Super Mario title tend to represent the high point for months afterward since the system is new and developers are still getting a feel for it. That's why ZombiU is such a nice surprise. It's no modern-day classic, but it's unique and interesting. It may not be a system seller for Nintendo's new console, but perhaps even more importantly, it's proof that the Wii U's gamepad isn't just a gimmick but a legitimate gameplay tool.
ZombiU is set in postapocalyptic London. A mysterious plague has overtaken the city, turning the infected into shambling monsters who crave human flesh. Your character is one of many who are trying to survive. There's no main character in the game, but the constant touchstone is your adviser. A mysterious man known as The Prepper, he communicates with you via radio and serves as your instructor and guide. He's a weird fellow, but he's the best you can ask for in these circumstances.
The setting and concept of ZombiU are neat but not particularly engrossing. Fortunately, the atmosphere makes up for it in spades. There are few games that put as much time and effort into setting up the world as ZombiU does. There's always a sense that things could recover from a zombie apocalypse. ZombiU's pervasive mood is despair. You can't escape, you can't avoid it, and you can't do anything except try to survive. Compared to more goal-oriented adventures like Left 4 Dead, this is a somber experience. Bashing in a zombie's head with a cricket bat isn't a "Shaun of the Dead" joke; it's what you have to do to survive.
Your survivor is guided through the world by a The Prepper, who tries to keep you alive and perhaps find a solution for the zombie plague. You'll frequently venture outside of the safe house to look for important supplies and information. The game takes place in first-person view, and you'll find the controls to be familiar if you've played any first-person game in the past decade, but this is not a first-person shooter. The controls aren't clunky, per se, but they're not designed for you to score perfect headshots or dance around the zombie mobs. Anything you do in the game is a time investment, so the title feels very slow and methodical. This isn't Left 4 Dead. It isn't even a Resident Evil title. The game feels closer in tone to Dark Souls and its ilk. If you're rushing through, you're going to die. Heck, even if you're careful, you're probably going to die.
Essentially, ZombiU functions as a tech demo for the Wii U. Many of the launch titles make halfhearted attempts to include the GamePad, regulating it to a second screen or an inventory menu. ZombiU makes it the heart of the game. Almost everything you do relies on the GamePad in some fashion or another. By default, it serves as your inventory screen and radar. As the game progresses, you'll use it in a variety of other ways that treat it like an important tool instead of a second screen. You can use it as a scanner to look around the environment or play minigames to do things like barricade doors or draw blood. ZombiU's GamePad implementation exploits the division of attention that comes from looking away from the main screen. When you bend over to look at a body, you're paying attention to the body. This makes it extremely tense because you don't know if someone (or something) is sneaking up behind you. If you're in the middle of a zombie-infested shopping center, this can be downright terrifying. Any time you look away from the screen, you're weighing risk and reward.
ZombiU deserves credit for making individual zombies feel like actual threats for the first time in years. With the trend being massive numbers of shambling monstrosities, it's refreshing to see smaller numbers of zombies. An individual zombie isn't that deadly because you can bash in its brains relatively easily. More zombies can be overwhelming. It only takes one screw-up to doom you because ZombiU breaks one of the major rules of video games while staying true to the rules of zombie films: One bite, and you're one of them. Getting into a fight with multiple zombies in close quarters is nearly suicide. Even the most basic zombie can end your game in seconds. When more "evolved" zombies show up later, it becomes deadlier.
By default, you have a heavy cricket bat to smash zombies. It's useful against individual enemies but is increasingly worthless against larger swarms. It's weak and takes multiple blows and much time to dispatch a single zombie. There are a number of guns, but each involves a pretty strict investment of resources. Bullets are rare, and you'll lament each one you're forced to use — especially if you miss. The preparation that goes into combat is thrilling. Every encounter is a matter of weighing risk and resources. Is it worth fighting? Should I run away? Can I handle three zombies with my bat, or do I want to waste a rare bullet? Do I know if something's around the corner to help? You'll ask yourself these questions constantly. You can sustain some damage, but death is always a few moments away. Fortunately, running is almost always an option. You have to fight sometimes, but more often than not, you can book it. If you can get ahead of a zombie horde, you can barricade doors with boards and nails.
Death in ZombiU is not just common but expected. Most zombie survival games gloss over the basic tropes of a zombie apocalypse in favor of gameplay cohesion. Playing Resident Evil or Left 4 Dead in a universe where a single bite means death would suck. Here, it's just part of the game. Every time you die, you respawn at your base as a new survivor. You lose all your equipment and are forced to start anew, aside from any weapons or items you were smart enough to leave at base before your ill-fated adventure. Your old survivor becomes your new target. If you can get back, kill "yourself" and loot the body, you'll regain what you've lost. Die on the way, and much like Dark Souls, you've lost the whole lot. ZombiU is about patience. It's possible to finish the game with a single survivor, and there's even a game mode that supports it, but most players are going to die at least a few times. Death is a setback, but it isn't a permanent one.
ZombiU has more than its fair share of missteps that keep it from being great. The level design is dull. While enemy and item placement is semi-random, you'll find a lot of repetition. It isn't normally a problem, but certain areas quickly go from well trodden to repetitive. There are also a lot of areas that feel overly barren. Scanning for supplies can become a chore when you reach your third room in a row where your slow, methodical search only yields a candy bar. This makes it feel more worthwhile when you encounter a valuable prize, though. The zombies also can go from fun to boring when some of the later variants are introduced. There are several types that are more "boring" than "fun," such as an armored variant, which basically has to be avoided, and an exploding one that feels far too video game-y for the tense world.
ZombiU clearly takes a few pages from Dark Souls when it comes to online play. There isn't online multiplayer, but the world generates passive interactions based on other players. Sometimes you'll find scribbled notes that offer vague one- or two-word hints about upcoming dangers. They're not the most useful, but they add nicely to the atmosphere. You'll occasionally encounter the corpses of other survivors, giving you the chance to obtain the items and loot that they were carrying. It's a small touch that makes the game world feel more "real."
Wii U is technically the first "next-generation" platform, but ZombiU doesn't make the most impressive showing. It looks about as good as a mid-tier Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 title. A lot more effort could have been put into making the world feel more exciting and alive. There are recycled rooms, recycled monsters, and even when something isn't recycled, it can feel rather similar. More randomization or more set pieces would have done wonders. The voice acting is reasonably good, although it consists mostly of The Prepper talking to you. The survivors have grunts and cries, but that's about it. I could have done without the howl of fury that accompanied every few swings of the cricket bat. That gets annoying very quickly, especially considering how often you swing the bat.
ZombiU isn't the kind of game that merits purchasing a new console, but it's still exciting, if flawed. There is no other zombie game on the market that captures the tension and fear of a zombie film the way ZombiU does. The use of the WiiU GamePad makes it a title that wouldn't work as well on another console. You could port it to the X360 or PS3, but it would lose something in the process. Most people picking up a Wii U are likely to purchase Mario, but ZombiU shouldn't be discounted. The new Mario title might be more polished, but there's nothing else out there like ZombiU.
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