Back at E3 2011, Ubisoft introduced Killer Freaks From Outer Space, a sci-fi/horror first-person shooter made exclusively for Nintendo’s recently announced Wii U. The trailer’s over-the-top sense of humor raised some eyebrows and then… it fell off the radar. There wasn’t a peep for months until Ubisoft unveiled ZombiU at this year’s convention, a completely revamped version of the concept that aimed for a more serious, tense experience for the hardcore gaming crowd. While we’ll never know if the goofy alien invasion shooter would’ve worked, the tonal switch gave birth to a high concept survival horror game with incredible atmosphere and big ideas. Sadly, a lot of those ideas are better in theory than execution, turning ZombiU into an uneven mix of terror and tedium.
The Baby Factor: If Resident Evil, Demon’s Souls, and Dead Island got together for a threesome but couldn’t pull off any suave moves like the Catherine Wheel after talking a big game, their love child would be ZombiU.
Even with all its shortcomings, ZombiU starts out strong, thrusting you right into the thick of things by dropping your character – of which you’ll have many – into one of London’s Underground Stations. Fighting your way through a small horde of zombies, you’ll soon fall into the Safe House and be introduced to The Prepper, an ex-military survivalist. Aside from providing shelter, a save point, and a storage chest for items, the Prepper gives you the greatest tool in the entire game: the Prepper Pad.
Utilizing the Wii U Gamepad better than any other launch title (even the first-party stuff!), the Prepper Pad allows you to access your map interface, quest log, inventory, weapon skills, quick travel points, and background information about the plot – depending on the weapon, it can also be used as a scope. The uncertainty of which screen to look at is a little overwhelming at first – chalk it up to console growing pains – but helps mold the intensity of the situations. Everything happens in real time, so managing your inventory while not in the comfort of your Safe House leaves you susceptible to attack. The Gamepad integration is really what makes the game; without it, ZombiU would be just another FPS with zombies.
Well, almost. ZombiU’s other big draw is the implementation of permadeath, causing players to lose all their on-character items and weapon skill levels and placing them back in the Safe House as someone else. The idea of backtracking to kill your zombified former incarnation and regain your supplies is morbidly entertaining, but the difficulty of the task is practically non-existent since enemies typically don’t respawn mid-mission and objectives that were completed before dying stay completed.
And that’s the first downfall of ZombiU: the ideas that are supposed to put your gaming skills to the test don’t challenge you as much as they create inconveniences to navigate around. Take permadeath, for example. One of your many characters has just died and they were holding a modified shotgun. It’s a no-brainer: that shotgun will undoubtedly get you out of a jam, so you need to find your last character. Except this is your first time playing and you didn’t find the quick travel point that was hiding in a dark hallway somewhere, so it can’t be accessed from the Safe House. Now you’re forced to complete twenty minutes of in-game walking through uninhabited areas with no enemies to get a shotgun, which you might not even find ammo for again. There’s nothing difficult about that; if anything, it’s boring enough to be obnoxious. The intrinsic motivation of not dying only becomes vital to success when playing ZombiU‘s Survival difficulty, which – like Diablo III’s Hardcore mode – erases your character completely once they die and makes you start over from the beginning.
Since ammo is scarce, most zombie executions will come courtesy of your trusty cricket bat, which every character spawns with, along with a handgun, six bullets, and a flashlight. Melee combat is the name of the game because of this, so it’s shocking that it’s so clunky. Each characters raises their bat like it weighs fifty pounds and brings it down on their pursuers as slowly as possible. Somebody probably thought this would create a sense of helplessness but most people in a similar situation would be swinging their bat around like a belligerent asshole, not frightening themselves into fighting as inefficiently as possible. The scarcity of ammo and clumsiness of the combat would be better suited in a game that challenges you not to engage your enemies, an idea that is sadly never realized. Instead, ZombiU forces you into cramped hallways with unavoidable zombies, only to allow you to lure them out one-by-one into an adjacent hallway and beat their heads in. It’s exciting the first time around but by the hundredth zombie, it’s become a lather, rinse, repeat scenario in the worst way possible.
The zombies are pretty unintelligent, hence the easily employed “lure out of the room” method. Zombies standing right next to each other will sometimes have completely different reactions to your presence; one will turn and pursue, while the other will just lumber off in the other direction. The poor AI is a fairly consistent problem throughout the game, unless you’re encountering an evolved zombie which only happens a handful of times and is the closest thing to a boss battle the game offers. There’s also the very sporadic occurrence of the infected suddenly developing Michael Myers syndrome, causing them to keep up with your sprinting speed.
Visually, the game is unimpressive. Character models are pretty standard looking, with environments only faring slightly better – fire and fog effects are the only things that look close to being next-gen. Clipping issues occur more often than they should, but even more distracting than those are the environmental designs that are used over and over again. Go into any sewer area and you’re bound to see the same architecture and rooms; staircases, sewer reservoirs, ladders, metal doors, holes in the wall, busted lockers, and nasty looking water are all staples of the underground design.
Even with a lot of things working against it, ZombiU still manages to outdo recent entries in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises in terms of survival horror – with the exception of RE: Revelations. Along with its numerous, interesting uses of the Gamepad, ZombiU does some genuinely great things with its sound design. Your character trembles and whimpers as zombies approach, pants when you’ve sprinted for too long and need to catch your breath, and grunts when you bring that almighty cricket bat down on the game’s endless amount of skulls. The Prepper communicates with you through the Gamepad’s speakers, along with other radio transmissions, helping further the immersion.
Nintendo opted not to include a mandatory trophy/achievement system on their new console, leaving it up to developers to create their own on a game-by-game basis. Ubisoft gives players an option to create a Uplay account to redeem in-game rewards for its four challenges, each of which can be easily obtained on a single playthrough, but offering nothing great in return. The development video is a ho-hum slideshow, the cricket bat decals are okay (I guess?), and the alternate game logo is… something that people want?
The final reward, which is a new multiplayer mode, seems like the most worthwhile of the bunch, but is as unmemorable as the others. Each multiplayer mode consists of one player using the Gamepad and assuming the role of the King of the Zombies, while another uses the Wiimote/Nunchuck combo or Pro Controller and becomes the “survivor.” The King uses the Gamepad’s screen to place zombie units around the arena, who in turn try to eat the survivor. Even though they all differ slightly (the first is a time challenge, the second is a kill count, and the third is a capture-the-flag deal), none of the modes will hold your attention for more than a round or two. There’s a lack of online multiplayer (not a huge loss), but the game does use your internet connection to allow the game developers to send you messages via graffiti and place other players’ zombified characters into your game so you can loot their gear, which is neat.
There are a few other things that put a bee under my bonnet, like the fetch quests and linear nature of the game that could have been improved with an open world environment, a glitch that deleted all my quick travel points and made me walk through the game for FOREVER after my character fell down a manhole, and the unsatisfying looting and lack of item variety, but ZombiU excels when it comes to survival horror. The game mechanics are wonky and inconsistent, but you’ll never feel at ease, even in your Safe House, paving the way for a nerve-wrecking campaign that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The Final Word: It has many flaws, but ZombiU will satiate your survival horror cravings for the time being and possible change your perception of the Wii U Gamepad for the better.