The very first time I got my hands on a proper Wii U game was at the Ubisoft booth at E3 2012 where I made a beeline to the Zombi U station. There I was treated to one of the most novel games on the show floor (and a zombie makeover to boot). Zombi U re-introduces ‘survival’ as a key component of survival-horror, forcing you to decide between taking on the hoard or living to fight another day. Ever since then, my trigger finger has been itching to take on some zombies Wii U style. Now that the day of reckoning is here the question remains: is Zombi U a reason to keep surviving or would it be better off left to the undead?
Right off the bat Zombi U throws you guts-deep into London’s very own zombie epidemic, asking you survive a ravenous mob of undead with little or no direction. In fact I doubt many players will be able to get past this abrupt introduction. But this small, quickly-forgotten part of the game sets the tone for the rest of the adventure. Zombi U is survival-horror by definition, where the slightest mistake or miscalculation will end up costing you your life, permanently.
You take on the role of a survivor of the recent virus outbreak in London, England who is soon introduced to the ‘prepper’, another survivor who has been preparing for the zombie-apocalypse for quite some time. The prepper believes that only those who are prepared have any chance of surviving the plague, which is lucky for you since you are now set up in a safe house deep within a London subway station. This safe house acts as your base of operations, complete with CCTV camera monitors, a safe place to lie down for a nap (and save!), storage box for all your extra loot, but most importantly a safe place to catch your breath from the undead nightmare.
Zombi U is pretty light in the story department. Basically you’re stuck in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and have to survive. Along the way bits and pieces of backstory are revealed but it’s all very loosely associated. While I don’t mind the minimalist story I do find that the game has a hard time trying to figure out its tone. Some moments are grim and dire and the others silly and feel out of place (dub-stepping zombies?). It would have been nice for the game to focus on its strengths and present a world as dreary as its setting and leave the silly campy stuff behind.
In Zombi U, death is permanent. Once your character becomes zombie-chow you’re whisked back to your safe house to start again as a new survivor. Thankfully this new character just picks up the story from where the last one left off, though without all the equipment you had been looting up until your demise. Lucky for you your gear is just waiting for you to be picked up, right where you left it. Of course you have to defeat your now-zombified predecessor to get it, but that’s life in the zombie apocalypse.
But that’s not the only reality of this brave new zombified world that you will have to contest with. Once your Wii U is connected to the internet and Miiverse you will start to find other players' former characters roaming in your game, complete with all the loot they had accumulated (you’re welcome, whoever found my ammo and health laden corpse). In addition to this you can also spray-paint symbols (warnings, directions, etc.) on the walls for other players to find. This novel form of non-intrusive multiplayer is a perfect match for the game world and gives you a bit of hope that life still exists somewhere out there.
The game is played with the Wii U Gamepad - you move with the left control stick (pushing it down to run), ‘LZ’ readies your weapon and ‘RZ’ triggers attacks. This control scheme would be pretty standard if it weren’t for the Wii U’s unique touch screen. From this screen you have access to your entire inventory (some of which can be set in a holster for quick access), your map, and mission info. It's sort of like playing on a super-sized Nintendo DS. Pressing ‘L’ will bring up the scanner tool. A unique hook here is that while you’re fiddling with your backpack the game doesn’t pause, forcing you to be quick and selective about just what you are doing so as to avoid being grabbed by an undead zombie.
The coolest part of Zombi U’s control scheme is of course how the Wii U Gamepad is put to use. For example whenever you want to loot a cabinet or fallen foe your character goes into inventory mode where you have to look at the Gamepad and sort your stuff out. Meanwhile, though, the game isn’t paused and a marauding zombie could easily get the sneak on you. The Gamepad is also used to scan the environments (Metroid Prime style), pick locks, enter key codes and the like, all while your back is turned to whatever is creeping in the corner. Pretty freaky stuff.
This control scheme works wonderfully because it’s both familiar (left bumper to aim, right trigger to shoot) and innovative at the same time. The ability to have six items assigned to your holsters at all times is also a huge help and is critical when organising your inventory. In fact being organised is likely what will keep you alive in Zombi U. Your backpack can only hold a limited number of items, so once that’s full you either have to leave something behind or trek all the way back to your safe house and deposit it there. This inventory management adds a critical dimension to the game and forces you to take every action into consideration, sort of like if you were actually stuck in a zombie plagued city.
In the past few years some games that were once staples of the survival-horror genre have garnered criticism for adding in more action-heavy elements (you know who you are!). Well Zombi U pulls out almost every trick in the book to scare you and boy does it ever work. The environments are spooky and desolate, you have very limited health and ammo, and the zombies are tough as nails. The game does throw some cheap scares your way, but for the most part this is a game that keeps you on your toes from start to finish, never really letting your fear subside. Tension at its best.
In case you were wondering, Zombi U is a pretty slow paced game, and that’s what makes it so satisfying. You will rarely find yourself confronted with more than two or three enemies and if you did it’s your own fault. The game practically begs you to be sneaky and try to avoid the undead, providing you with more tools for distraction and evasion than actual combat. In fact the game discourages the use of guns since, of course, guns make noise and noise attracts zombies, so it’s always best to be stealthy and quiet, though sometimes it’s a bit too obvious just what the game wants you to do (exploding barrel surrounded by zombies you say?).
However, if there is one area where Zombi U’s gameplay could use some sprucing up, it is in the combat department, specifically the melee encounters. It takes forever to defeat a zombie with your trusty cricket bat (sometimes six or more bonks to the noggin). And with bullets being such a scarce commodity it’s usually a better decision to try to bludgeon them to death. The cricket bat is also your only option for beating on the undead silently and efficiently, so don’t expect a better, faster option later down the road.
Without a doubt one the best things about Zombi U is the pacing. The game just sets the perfect ‘survival-horror’ mood. You can go for dozens of minutes without even a glimpse of an undead and then - ‘beep’ - your radar goes off, an eerie note breaks the long silence, and a blood curdling scream lets you know that you’ve been spotted. Another thing that struck me about Zombi U is how the game makes you feel like you're actually smack dab in the middle of post-apocalypse London. The art direction absolutely nails the city and its underground subway system. Exploring both London’s tourist traps and desolate civilian areas is an absolute blast and it’s plain to see that a great deal of work went into crafting this world. I just wish the actual zombies had a bit more variety to them (how many guards in the big hats are there in London?).
As a launch title, Zombi U definitely doesn’t steal the show in the graphics department. The environments, while pretty large and varied, are ripe with bland textures and zombies that, if they weren’t scary enough already, can clip right through solid walls. It looks bland on a technical level. Add to that some loading issues (hey, you stole Metroid’s loading door trick!) and you have a game that, while it doesn’t exactly feel rushed, certainly doesn’t feel polished either.
It’s also worth mentioning that Zombi U is a very dark game. In fact, most of the time you won’t be able to see what’s lurking in front of you. While this definitely does add to the immersion (the lack of a HUD on the TV is also fabulous for this) it also, naturally, makes things hard to see, which over the course of a whole game just makes it seem like there's not much to see in the first place, which is such a shame considering all the work that went into crafting the ruined city of London.
The game’s audio is also top notch, helping to deliver a healthy dose of scares along the way. The game uses silence and ambient noises to spook you in a way that’s really out of this world. You can walk for dozens of minutes without hearing anything but maybe a far off raven and your own footsteps, which lulls you into a false sense of security only to have it taken away from you all at once by a loud sound and a zombie’s scream. This may just be the perfect horror game soundtrack.
Clocking in at around 15 hours - depending on your skill level - Zombi U is a decent length for a game in this genre, especially when you consider that it’s a launch title. The issue here is that once you’ve gone through the main mode there isn’t much replay value. You can try Survivor Mode (if you’re insane) and the multiplayer is fun for a bit, but in the end Zombi U is a bunch of great ideas with decent execution in a very small package.
There are a few extras to help pad out the experience. The game features on offline multiplayer mode titled ‘King Of The Zombies’ where one player, wielding the Wii U Gamepad, places zombies on the battlefield and survivors (either using the Wii Remote and Nunchuck or the Wii U Pro Controller) try to capture as many flags as possible. It’s a fun mode but there isn’t much depth to it and the lack of online multiplayer really does hurt the replayability of this mode. There are also online leaderboards that keep track of your campaign score as well as a throwaway feature called ‘My Zombified Friend’ where you can take a picture of yourself as an undead and upload it to Ubisoft’s servers.
Modern games, specifically horror games, have gotten a bad rap for being a bit on the easy side, a trapping that Zombi U does a respectable job of avoiding. From the punishing enemies (every encounter can cost you your life) to the challenging gameplay, Zombi U will push you to your limits. Add to that the fact that death is permanent and you have a constant reminder that this game will push you. For the true masochists out there, the game also features a ‘Survivor’ mode where you are only given one life to play through the entire game.
In recent years the ‘zombie apocalypse’ has become a staple in movies, TV shows, books and, of course, video games. So when Zombi U was first announced you could be forgiven for giving it the cold, dead shoulder for being 'just another’ zombie game. But those brave enough to dive into its post-apocalyptic underbelly will find a rewarding, challenging and terrifying experience that, while it doesn’t push the Wii U’s capabilities, does take advantage of its unique features to deliver something very refreshing.
This review is based on a Wii U copy of Zombi U.