Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Available on: Nintendo Wii U only
Let’s get one thing straight, ZombiU isn’t your friend. It isn’t going to hold your hand at night and tell you everything will be okay. ZombiU wants you dead, as quickly and as violently as possible. It’s also the kind of game that you would never have seen on the Wii, and to be frank, you won’t find anything like it anywhere else, with incredible visuals and excellent audio to boot. It’s exactly the kind of game the Wii U needs to show off what it can do.
It’s been said enough that it already feels like a lazy comparison to make, but the closest game to ZombiU that I can think of, is Dark Souls. The feeling of tension is incredible, and you know you’re going to die at some point, the question is when, and what you can do to prolong your existence, but most importantly what you can learn from your death.
But let’s back track a bit, the game starts with you, an anonymous stranger scavenging for supplies outside a tube station. Suddenly a voice talks to you, some random Cockney is talking to you through the CCTV system. He wants to save you, and insists that you go into the dark underground to find him, only you’ll be greeted by a safe house containing a PDA that looks strikingly like a Wii U Gamepad, which is important, as you’ll spend a lot of time looking at your Gamepad. Using the PDA, he’ll teach you how to ping the area, to scan items – he has a background in this kind of thing and claims he saw this Zombie outbreak coming – and how to stay alive. Unfortunately, you’ll have to take a cricket bat and end your first member of the walking dead before you can progress, as you need this particular zombie’s backpack, the safe house owner’s last protégé, who didn’t listen to his instructions. He’s the prepper, and he’s your only friend in this world.
From here on out, although you will constantly receive instructions and hints from the prepper (through the Gamepad’s speakers, a nice touch), you are armed with a cricket bat, a gun and some health packs, and allowed to start exploring a bit. The reason you don’t explore a lot, is because you’ll learn very quickly that ZombiU’s London is a horrendously dangerous place. As you progress to unlock your first short cut (manhole covers), you’ll learn your first lesson in Ubisoft Montpellier’s brutal environment, which is to trust nothing to chance. Having successfully fought through an area with 2-3 walkers, the entrance to the supermarket beckoned me in. Me; the stupid, stupid man. Suddenly the supermarket alarm is going off and there is a herd of zombies on their way, as well as zombies coming out of the supermarket. I’d cornered myself, and with that, I was dead.
Exhausted from the attempt to survive, palms sweaty, borderline shaking, and now I have to do it all again? Awaking in the prepper’s safe house, you are now a brand new protagonist, starting with the same tools. Where are my flares? Where is my health? Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!
Trekking back to where you died to continue the task at hand is rarely difficult, whilst the world is alive, even ZombiU isn’t as sadistic as to repopulate empty areas with new foes. Well, sort of, anyway. When you finally get back to where you died, you’re met with a zombie carrying a backpack not too dissimilar to yours. It’s you, or it was you, now it’s a walker. End your suffering and reclaim your goodies, breath a sigh of relief, but don’t dare take a breather like I did, or else you’ll die again and have to face off against another ex-you.
You see, you can pause ZombiU, but you can’t go into your backpack and expect the world to stop. If you go to your backpack, for whatever reason, whether it’s to loot a fallen walker or just to sort your gear out, you are exposing yourself to the hordes of undead that litter the environments. Likewise, if you ping the area with your PDA and find red dots, that means infected are about. But they could be on the floor, walking toward you, or behind you, shuffling toward you as you stupidly scan the area with the in-game augmented reality effect of scanning exact points of interest. And when you’re attacked, don’t expect a friendly infected, and don’t expect to survive for long unless you get your act together and realise it’s you or them.
The only negative to the moment to moment gameplay is that the movement controls themselves feel slightly stiff. Even with the sensitivity set to 100%, movement never feels like previous First Person games, but then, it could be argued that this is intentional, to make life even harder for the player. One of the concerns I had with the Wii U overall is that developers would end up just using the touch screen as a way for the player to play without TV access, but you can’t do that with ZombiU, as the Gamepad is your map, your backpack, your radar.
It’s not all perfect though, and some mechanics do feel gimmicky, like the much-lauded keypad entry. In fact, the more panic inducing manner in which you’ll remove barriers from a door, or put them up (having found a hammer and some wooden planks) is even more tense, especially when you’re trying to keep the infected out. Sure, some of the later game infected are a bit irritating and clichéd, and some will no doubt bemoan the fact that guns aren’t as useful as they should be, but it’s explained pretty clearly every time you start as a new character that they aren’t zombie hunters, they are the baby sitters, the mechanics and the retired of the world, they’re not army-dudes firing crack shots at infected with ease, so melee combat is more the focus overall, and every head shot is earned, so feels like it counts double when you hit it.
Sadly the multiplayer modes are offline only, with the Gamepad user playing the role of the King of Zombies in an isometric view. Strategy based, the King of Zombies has a resource counter, which allows for zombies to be placed onto the map in certain areas, you can’t just put 6 infected on the human’s lap, though you can get close. Each zombie type uses up a set amount of resources, and once they are killed by the human player, that resource is able to be used again. As the Zombie King uses more and more resources, levelling up is allowed, giving a choice of which new, higher strength, more useful infected is placeable on the map. So while you may start out sending simple walkers to do your bidding, you’ll end up with explosive ones, spitters, armour wearing, you get the picture. It’s incredibly fun, offering a more frenetic option to the tense, frightening gameplay of the single player campaign.
There are different modes but they all basically amount to the same thing, human versus zombies, over a few included maps. Assault is a variant that is better known as King of the Hill, and as you’d expect, the human has to take flags as quickly as they can, fending off the King of Zombies’ minions. There’s even a sort of perk system; if the human player does well enough a gift is unlocked, something like a mini-gun sentry, which is always useful and tests the King of Zombies’ skills too. The third mode is unlocked via uPlay, Survival is similar to Kill Box, only you are scored based on how long you survive, not how many kills you get. It’s only a shame that there’s no online multiplayer, as it would really lend itself well to the competitive online environment. Even more baffling is the fact that it’s two player only, you can’t have 3-4 humans Vs. the King of Zombies, it’s just 1 Vs. 1.
VERDICT: Nintendo must be incredibly happy to see a third-party treating their new console with such reverence, because ZombiU isn’t your typical launch title, or even your typical First Person game. It’s unique, treats the gamer with the utmost respect in return for demanding all of their attention. Ultra-hardcore in everything it does, most casual shooter fans would barely recognise the genre on show here, such is Ubisoft Montreal’s achievement.
As you wake screaming in the night, still hearing the devastating scream of a zombie, still able to see the incredibly beautiful, yet dilapidated world that ZombiU takes place in, remember that you asked for this, it’s the hardcore game you wanted on a Nintendo console. Boy oh boy, have Ubisoft ever delivered on that.