When the Wii U was first unveiled, Ubisoft were quick to throw their hat in the ring, and before long a video for Killer Freaks From Outer Space was revealed. While it didn’t seem to be much more than a generic FPS game, what they showed off as far as multiplayer turned heads and piqued people’s interests in what could be done as far as asymmetrical gameplay was concerned.
That wasn’t good enough for Ubisoft, they wanted to bring more than just a generic FPS to the singleplayer side. The Killer Freaks were removed, the game slowed down, and the tried and true zombies were added to the mix.
While that may not sound any less generic, it’s what Ubisoft have done with the game mechanics that makes this a lot more unique than your standard zombie shooter fare. You step into the shoes of a “survivor”, someone who has yet to fall victim to the zombie outbreak that has plagued London. It’s up to you to stay alive as long as possible and by any means necessary.
While the go-to weapon of choice is a sturdy, unbreakable cricket bat, you have your usual plethora of guns waiting to be found. Before too long you’re introduced to “the prepper”. He explains very little but he does get you up to speed on where you’ll be the safest and equips you with a backpack to store things you may find.
Like any good survival horror, you have limited space in this backpack, and you’ll have to organise what to leave behind and what to take with you. You’ll even need to decide what to keep in the safehouse for any future survivors that may show up, and let’s be honest, they will.
Unlike, well, almost every other game, once your character dies, (s)he’s dead. Permanently. If your death happened to be at the hands of the walking deceased, then your character becomes one and will roam the section of the map they died on. A quick cutscene passes and you find yourself controlling a new survivor who awakens in the safehouse, being guided by the same prepper. Rinse and repeat for every death.
While this may create some confusion with the story, it’s soon forgotten as you head towards your goal and your previous character’s shambling corpse. The double edged sword for this situation comes in the form of item management. Did your previous survivor horde the guns for himself or did he leave some behind as a safeguard? If he did the former then you’ll be heading out as a new survivor with one cricket bat and a pistol with 6 bullets. If you manage to take out your previous self then you get to take back all the goodies you once had, but fail - and this is easier to do than you may think - and those items are lost for good.
ZombiU is a genuinely tense title that sees you holding your breath and feeling insecure from start to finish. The majority of the game is spent with just a small circle of light from your torch lighting your way; it gives an amazing sense of claustrophobia and, when combined with tunnels or sewers, can leave you dreading each and every beep from your radar.
The radar is both amazing and frustrating at the same time. More often than not you’ll be sneaking a glance at the map found on your gamepad and checking to see what the radar is picking up - so much so that you’ll start relying on it. The gamepad can also be used to scan the rooms you’re in and allow you to tag items / undead so that once you’ve put the scanner away you’ll know where they are. These functions become go-to mechanics that you’ll start depending on, and when you think you have nothing to fear, Ubisoft pull the carpet out from under you, leaving you a whimpering mess on the couch.
One of ZombiU’s heaviest critiques is that not only are you given little ammo, but your melee attack seems, for the most part, completely and utterly inefficient; it’s rather normal to have to put wood to skull at least five times before incapacitating a zombie.
The thing is, you’re not playing as a soldier or hardened criminal/fighter; you’re just a regular person with no fighting skills whatsoever. The game makes you feel weak and a few people aren’t enjoying that. You still have guns, upgradeable ones at that, and you’ll find more ammo than the first few chapters of Dead Space, but you’ll also feel horrible weak and useless and it serves to make the game even scarier.
You won’t charge into a room, you’ll creep. You won’t walk up to a zombie with intent to kill, you’ll turn your flashlight off and hope it doesn’t see you. You won’t let off a round from your shotgun before scanning the area for more zombies, and you’ll probably stick to the silenced pistol instead of the brutal Magnum. The game is designed to make you fear what’s around the bend, it’s designed to feel like you’re controlling an average Joe in a nightmare situation, and it’s designed to be hard enough that you may consider changing to the “chicken” difficulty.
For those after a little more of a challenge, there is survival mode - a mode so hard that the Ubisoft game testers questioned if it was even possible to complete. It’s the same game, but this time you only have the one survivor: if (s)he dies then it’s game over, simple as that.
Graphically, the game doesn’t offer anything that couldn’t be done on the 360 or PS3, but it still looks amazing. While ZombiU is incredibly dark for most of the game, the lighting, fog, and lens effects really help set the scene for what is easily one of the most atmospheric games around. Sure, it’s not perfect, you’ll still get zombies clipping with objects and sometimes even being pushed through walls (it only happened once), but the game looks gorgeous.
Something that is quite often overlooked when looking at in-game audio is contextual emotion from the character you’re controlling. One of the best features of ZombiU comes in the form of the survivor's grunts and groans as they do damage with the cricket bat. While the first hit or two are your standard action game sounds, after a few more clubbings you really start to hear the fear or adrenaline in their voices. It’s a small inclusion but hearing your characters panicking tends to raise the level of tension the gamer feels.
With the delay of the pro controller in NZ we weren’t able to get a good hands-on with the multiplayer mode. We did try to get it going with the wiimote and nunchuck controller but it was basically unplayable thanks to a strange aiming method that just wasn’t working. And, since there’s no online multiplayer available, the multiplayer aspect has been removed from this review.
While ZombiU doesn’t have a fully fledged online multiplayer mode it won’t stop you from caving in the heads of those dearest to you. With Miiverse integration, any survivor that becomes a walking corpse will make their way into other’s games. It’s not abnormal to round a corner to find someone from your friends list ambling around with a backpack full of loot. It can be satisfying if they’re all alone, or it can add to the frustration if they died in a room with a few other zombies. Still, cave their head in, steal their loot and then post a picture onto their Miiverse for bragging rights.
ZombiU is a must-buy for gamers looking for something mature and difficult. You won’t beat survivor mode on your first playthrough, you’ll die a lot, and you’ll fear the dark more than in the majority of survival horrors released in the last generation of gaming. While the game isn’t perfect, it’s easily the best title available in the survival horror genre at the moment. If you’re one to run in guns blazing and get frustrated when that technique doesn’t work, then you might want to sit this one out, having survivor after survivor die comes with a penalty, one that might dampen the entire experience for you.