ZombiU is one of the few truly exclusive launch titles for the Wii U. While many third party developers focused on ports or mini-games compilations, but Ubisoft Montpellier decided to come up with an innovative survival horror game that simply asks, “how long will you survive?”
The premise involves a present day London that has been overwhelmed by some kind of nasty infection that is causing humans to turn into zombies. Interestingly, no established protagonist exists. Instead, players take control of a randomly generated character each time they die. How often you die depends on how careful you are, and to a degree, how lucky. For me, I died within just a few seconds of launching the game, but I then soon respawned in a decrepit subway. This is a safehouse, a sort of staging area for you to store and retrieve items, pick up new mission details, and also fast travel to other locations around the city as they become available, amongst other things. You can also “sleep” (save your game) to rest up a bit. Anyway, you are awoken by The Prepper, a mysterious omnipotent voice in your ear. He seems friendly, and is eager to help you survive by providing you with access to his storage and security equipment. He also provides you with a tablet, which is represented by your Gamepad.
ZombiU’s integration of the Gamepad is fleshed out. It acts primarily as your map, but this isn’t just an ordinary 2D map. Ok, for the most part it is, but you can also hold L to scan the environment, even “seeing” through some objects. This scanning ability allows you to reveal hidden messages (including several from the developers), mark interesting objects, hack things, and more. Being able to scan an area from a relatively safe location and marking items on your smart map is quite handy. The ability to scan is also helpful in that it makes finding objects much easier than it would be if you had to physically look over every detail. The Gamepad is also used to access other resources, such as newspaper clippings that reveal additional story details, a basic character bio, current objectives, and your backpack.
Keeping your backpack in proper form is vital as trying to survive by procuring items while in the danger zones just isn’t sustainable. Items from your ‘pack and those that you pick up in the world can be quickly dragged and dropped to several touchscreen buttons for quick access, perfect for switching between weapons or health items. One of these touchscreen buttons, nearest to your left thumb, is assigned to the flashlight. I have to admit playing ZombiU with the Gamepad took a little getting used to, and even when I was used to it I questioned the necessity of the Gamepad. There are certainly ample reasons why you will be switching your visual focus between the TV and the Gamepad, but was the ratio of what the Gamepad added to what it might have taken away balanced? I think overall it is, but playing ZombiU is a little more clumsy and time-consuming because of the Gamepad. That’s not to say that the Gamepad does not make playing more interactive and immersive, I think it does, but suffice it to say that ZombiU’s single player mode would also play well on other platforms that do not have the Wii U’s Gamepad.
That said, whenever you loot something or someone, your focus must shift from the TV to the Gamepad. The TV will show a third person view of your character while your Gamepad shows a typical items screen. At times, a zombie may stumble in while you’re tending to your gear, so you have to be ready to either swipe the touchscreen to close the screen or simply use the left stick to move. It really doesn’t take much for a zombie to tackle and infect you, of which here is little recourse but to become infected and thus lose that character. When your character becomes infected and essentially dies, they become one of the infected, so expect to face them on your next respawn.
It’s interesting that there isn’t a single, established protagonist that you play as, but instead you play as many different characters as you need to. This is very unusual for games in that you’re normally Sam Fisher or whoever, and you’re that character through thick and thin. With ZombiU, starting as a new character everytime significantly reduced how much invested I felt in the game. On the one hand, you of course want to play to “win,” or survive, so you will act accordingly. On the other hand, losing that particular character upon a mistake can make it hard to care about the next few that are generated for you. I don’t know, for others I’m sure it has the opposite effect, but for me, the perma-death system and lack of being able to navigate the story as a consistent character was a distraction.
I thought ZombiU did a pretty good job of establishing an uneasy atmosphere, due to lighting, environmental detail, sounds, and so on. The environments are not the most interesting in the world, and that goes hand in hand with a fairly disappointing graphics quality. Anyway, you’re almost always under-powered and certainly out numbered, so playing cautiously is the way to go. Under almost no circumstance in my experience was it wise to try and attack even just a trio of zombies in an area, simply because they’re aggressive and tough. Melee encounters with the zombies is slow and repetitive, and any mistake will generally cost you dearly. To be sure, I preferred the sneaky, more deliberate gameplay than to the action or combat. Not only did it seem more believeable, but it was more enjoyable.
Overall, ZombiU reminds me of Red Steel. Not because both were launch day games for a Nintendo system nearly six years apart to the day, but because both offered compelling gameplay that utilized the new system’s tech. However, both also have some significant problems or shortcomings. I came to loathe the sword battles of Red Steel by the time I was fighting the ninja, and ZombiU was the source of a few rage quits as well. In spite of that, it’s interesting and unique enough to keep you coming back.
To the summary…