ZombiU might not be the best game on Wii U (that’s New Super Mario Bros. U) but it is the one that gives me most hope for the console’s future. We all expect Nintendo’s showcase first-party games to be good, and Mario games to be even better, but ZombiU is a third-party game with an unfamiliar name, yet one of the most exciting games on the new system. It doesn’t quite fit into any single genre, and it seems to have been developed by a team with an idea of what makes the Wii U different and cool. ZombiU might annoy you. It might even drive you crazy. Yet it’s new, thrilling, and a game that wouldn’t work so well on any other console.
ZombiU looks like a first-person shooter, but it’s really a slice of old-school survival horror. You play a survivor in a post-apocalyptic London; its streets, public spaces and underground stations are crawling with zombies, and all authority broken down. Recruited by a mysterious guy who calls himself the ‘prepper’ you’re stationed in a locked-down safe-house in the underground, and asked to take part in a series of missions. These put you in danger of zombie attack, but also lead you closer to the centre of the outbreak, and the dark forces at work behind it.
Real Survival Horror
You know those action games where you tackle hordes of zombies, blasting them with near-impunity and taking headshots for an instant kill? Well, ZombiU isn’t one of those. The first weapon you get your hands on is a cricket bat, it takes several good whacks to kill just one of the walking dead, and even a firearm is no guarantee of a quick kill. Ammunition is limited, zombies are numerous, and a few clawing hits or just one nasty bite are enough to change your Facebook status from ‘lone survivor’ to ‘hungry corpse’. In short, ZombiU is tough.
Actually, make that really tough. There are no quick saves and no checkpoints, and while you might survive a shock attack from a single zombie, groups of zombies can be fatal if you’re not equipped to deal with them. Die, and you start up as a new survivor in the safe-house with only the most basic equipment and the same mission. The first thing you’ll need to do is reclaim your old equipment from the old you, unless you like the thought of losing all those precious weapons, molotovs and health drinks. Manhole covers provide a sort of checkpoint, allowing you to reach key areas without fighting your way through more zombies on the way, but death in ZombiU always costs you time and repetition, not to mention any health or accuracy-boosting perks your survivor has picked up in your time with them. ZombiU is all about keeping each character alive as long as you can.
Scouting for Zombies
How? Preparation and caution help, but the Wii U Pad plays a major role. For a start, it doubles as a scanner. Press the left bumper, hold the Pad up, and you can use it to scan the area as if you were standing in it, scanning specific points to spot zombies, useful items and even any creatures on the scene. The scanner also reveals secrets and hidden messages, and performs quick sonar sweeps for zombie movements in your immediate locale. The Wii U Pad also comes in handy when you’re picking locks, transferring equipment into your backpack, managing your inventory, entering key codes or removing barricades from doors.
The clever bit is that while you’re staring at the pad, the TV screen is busy showing what’s going on around you. The need to keep checking between both screens makes you feel uneasy, and few things in gaming are more chilling than watching a crowd of zombies inching towards you as you fumble for ammo in your backpack or attempt to pick a lock. ZombiU manipulates these feelings mercilessly. Where other zombie games try to hit you with sudden scares or put you under siege from crowds of shambling corpses, ZombiU focuses on suspense, creeping fear and paranoia. It’s always gripping, even if there are times when you wonder if it’s actually that much fun. How much tension do you really want in your spare time?
Tension and Frustration
Sometimes ZombiU can feel mean-spirited or needlessly frustrating. Attacks can spring out of nowhere and it’s a rare mistake that isn’t punished by your immediate demise. Fail to retrieve your equipment from the last-infected survivor and you’ll lose it forever, with the gear and weapons redistributed elsewhere. You can die even playing the tutorial missions, not to mention on completing some missions as zombies invade your home turf. Save points are few and far between, which might be great for building tension, but not when you need to leave the house. Melee weapons often feel pitifully underpowered, and there are slightly cheap sequences where waves of zombies stream out to attack you and there’s just not enough ammo to go around. High blood pressure? Don’t play ZombiU.
Meanwhile the story takes a while to get going and has several duff moments, while the graphics are more functional than amazing. ZombiU paints a convincing picture of a grimy, zombie-infested London, but detail levels are unimpressive and it’s all very grey, brown and gloomy. If you want eye candy from your new console, you won’t get it here.
But if you want atmosphere, a different experience and a real challenge, ZombiU is the game for you. It will be divisive. It’s a classic Marmite game. Yet there’s undeniably something strange and interesting going on here – something that will appeal to the hardcore gamer in a way that you might not expect from a new game on a new Nintendo Console. Well done, Ubisoft, and let’s have some more surprises on Wii U.
Think you’re tough? ZombiU is tougher - the ease with which you’ll die and the difficulty of killing zombies can make it a frustrating game. It’s not a great demonstration of the Wii U’s graphics power, and the cryptic story sometimes feels like it masks a lack of substance. Yet ZombiU’s style, its difficulty level and its ingenious use of the Wii U hardware all work to make it an incredibly immersive and compulsive game. It can be stressful, annoying and frustrating, but something keeps you coming back for more.
This is no polished classic, but it feels like the start of something new. It’s also a sign that the Wii U can deliver new experiences, and not just variations on the same old themes. We’d still buy our Wii U to play Mario, but ZombiU would be a close second on our list.