Consider this your introduction to ZombiU.
ZombiU has many incongruent qualities. The cricket bat’s swing animation (singular) is shallow and repetitive, in contrast to the few firearms that feel realistic and satisfying. The story constructs another zombie Armageddon from an uncontainable outbreak, yet the telling of this tale crosses gameplay staples of DayZ and Dark Souls. The actors pine for a serious tone befitting a no-hope scenario, in spite of the laughable results. Although odd jump scares are more generic than frightening, the game’s perpetual state of nighttime produces a grim atmosphere as undead silhouettes hide among the fog. And the flaws that do hinge on broken derive from the game’s reliance on the Wii U’s GamePad, so why does this peripheral actually enhance the experience?
This time jolly old England – London specifically – has been bitten by the apocalypse bug. Several people weathered the initial rapture, though they remain woefully unprepared for the unexpected blight. To ready the constant streams of traffic conductors, salesmen, and school teachers that pass through the subway only to die and be replaced, a man known as the Prepper provides “safe” lodging to refugees. Those quotations marks were not typos. The safe house will come under attack from the rare wave of infected, and the Prepper expects the player to venture out and clear the surrounding tunnels while he sits comfortably in his bunker, watching the scene unfold on the local police cameras. Although the goal at large never strays from survival, the voice in your headset also asks that you run errand boy quests, topping up a generator’s reserve fuel or gathering weapons from an abandoned depot.
Death is an eventuality that costs players every soda can, flare, grenade, and rifle. In these mournful moments, ZombiU evokes a sense of attachment. After a scripted assault on the Prepper's makeshift HQ, my battered survivor lasted another four hours before falling to his death. I turned off the console immediately – not as a vain attempt to recover the lost hero, but because I was too distressed over his untimely end. These sudden depressive periods ruined my will to pick up the pieces and carry on with the mission. It took me one week to complete ZombiU for this reason, though the in-game clock reads ten hours. You can reclaim possessions if, as a new character, you journey to the site of the previous person’s demise, but those armaments permanently disappear if you die before reaching the reanimated corpse.
Zombies will instantly kill survivors grabbed during the undead lunge animations.
Players will not be the only ones to have a negative reaction each time a survivor expires. The Prepper goes berserk via some conflicted writing. When a new civilian spawns – or wakes up in this case – the Prepper will spout occasional nonsense about being partners and how you betrayed him, even though the fresh face gazing into the cameras has not known the man for more than six seconds. While those emotions inevitably boil over when he learns of another organization that wants to evac you and a scientist’s possible cure, the inconsistency still applies to objectives that carry over between lives. It would seem, then, that the storytelling was meant for Survival mode. If players die on this difficulty, the game ends. No respawns, no checkpoints.
The single constant to the chaos is the Prepper holed up in his sanctuary, and his vote of confidence does not make thinning tides of undead easier or less tiresome. Players scavenge firearms, medicine, and ammunition discarded by their previous owners upon their diseased rejuvenation, yet I stuck to the unbreakable cricket bat for 90 percent of my playthrough due to the scarcity of supplies. The melee encounters fail to leave an impact – be it comical as seen in Shaun of the Dead, or sickening as a decapitated corpse collapses under a weighty execution. Even the burliest of protagonists cannot cripple a zombie in fewer than five swings (regardless of how much brain matter leaks through their open head wounds), and that number increases for special or armored infected. Instead, I chose to upgrade the standard pistol to at least retain some semblance of gameplay variety that did not involve running away.
The environments counteract the disappointing – and often clunky – combat as a real treat of their own. From the Tower of London’s ruins, to the ornate halls of Buckingham Palace, to the grime of narrow sewers, the claustrophobia squeezes the air around you. Eyes dart between the GamePad’s map and the character's first-person perspective once the motion scanner locates fresh movements, and new pangs of horror shoot down your spine with each errant gunshot. Of note, ZombiU’s preschool elicits a greater tension than the visually superior Dead Space 2. The contrast between the bloodied play rooms and the light, airy tunes of a nonstop music box thrives on your vulnerabilities. Dead Island was the last title to convey zombies as a threat, with settings strictly limited to daylight hours. In ZombiU, the sun does not rise, and in the basement of that nursery, survivors will not sleep.
Now I understand why that meal was taking so long.
The GamePad finds more uses beyond a simple GPS/radar tool, too. Opening manholes covers for fast travel, barricading doors to buy yourself time, deciphering Enochian symbols for passcodes, and picking locks offers more engaging possibilities for the tablet in the player's lap. Sometimes you need to perform these actions under pressure, and nothing (besides the nursery) scared me more than watching a herd of zombies inch closer while I jiggled a lock’s final tumbler. Sadly, the developers leave inventory management solely to the GamePad, and the action does not pause when you open the backpack. While hardly an issue in many of the spacious locales, one sequence brought about death because the half-dozen infected pursuing me about the enclosed arena afforded no opportunity to search the bag for additional Molotovs, mines, or medkits.
But the single-player at its worst surpasses the multiplayer. No zombie game would be complete otherwise, right? The two-player competition twists the concept, designating the GamePad player as ZombiU’s version of Left 4 Dead’s Director. Those persons spawn infected about the map that try to feast on their rivals sitting inches away in the real world. Still, the combat remains the weakest link in ZombiU’s brittle chain, leaving player two – who must use a Pro Controller or Wii remote/nunchuk – at a disadvantage. The back-and-forth battles would be more rousing if ZombiU contained any form of online multiplayer permitting two GamePads. Instead, the only online functions available allow gamers to post messages in a friend’s world, or slay other reanimated survivors connected to the Internet after they perish.
ZombiU is many things: terrifying, comical, beautiful, ugly, perfect, broken, repetitive, exciting. It makes the ideal case for Nintendo’s latest line of hardware that does not include the word "Mario," and the interaction between the screen in the player's hands and the characters on TV lays the groundwork for other studios to perfect the Wii U’s capabilities. Owners in need of an original Wii U experience should invest in ZombiU. The game has its share of hiccups, but a good scare will remedy that situation.
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release Date: November 18, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Wii U (Reviewed)