Zombies used to be scary; when George Romero effectively gave birth to the genre with Dawn of the Dead, Zombies were scary. When Resident Evil brought survival horror to an industry unfamiliar with its chilling embrace, zombies were scary. Zombies aren’t scary anymore thanks to games like Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil 5, but, rest assured, Zombies are about to become scary in the near future with ZombiU.
At this point, you’ve undoubtedly seen screenshots, videos, and previews all highlighting Ubisoft’s exciting title for the Wii U, but don’t be fooled; ZombiU is not a first-person shooter and is instead a brand of survival horror that hasn’t been seen since the ending credits of Resident Evil 0. This, I can say with zero apprehension after having recently gone hands-on with the game, is a good thing.
ZombiU begins with a start, literally, as the protagonist awakes in the midst of the zombie apocalypse sans unnecessary explanation and exposition. Within moments, the hero or heroine is stumbling across the scattered wreckage of what was once London searching not for the answer but for the solution: safety. The character’s first encounter with the undead will seem harmless enough, but tensions escalate as they tip-toe through the dark trying their best not to make so much noise as to alert the horde of living dead that awaits. When that fails, all bets are off and survival becomes the name of the game as the player must use everything in their inventory to fend off a rabid population.
If you read the above description and thought that it sounded familiar, then you are correct; that is what survival horror reads like. There are plenty of games that attempt to replicate this sensation, but few have hit the mark as sufficiently as ZombiU.
It is, as was mentioned previously, easy to confuse ZombiU for a first-person shooter; it does, after all, take place in the given perspective and does involve shooting one’s way through many a situation. The distinction is made in the mechanics that supplement this basic form of interface; the name of the game, as was made blatantly clear in the demo, is inventory management and being able to quickly sift through equipment when the going gets tough. All of that is handled well by the Gamepad and the touch screen that so adorns its center; a simple swipe will bring up or close down a character’s backpack, switching equipment is as simple as tapping, and moving around items is done by dragging and dropping. Keep in mind, though, that while the user is digging around in their inventory the game does not pause itself. Instead, they remain vulnerable to all comers; there is nowhere to hide in ZombiU.
Further helping the game’s cause is its aiming sensitivity. When first brought face-to-face with a zombie, I became panicked as I attempted to aim but had a hard time doing so as I struggled to line up my cursor with the nightmarish ghoul that lay before me. At first glance, I wrote this off as a either a tremendous lapse in judgment by the developers or an expected shortcoming of incomplete software; however, as I let the product simmer, I began to wonder whether or not this was an intentional move done in the interest of maintaining the sense of horror so rightfully adhered to by ZombiU. The jury is out on this matter, but intentional or not it does go a long way towards making the experience as frightening as a member of this particular genre has every right to be.
ZombiU is, as great as I’ve made it out to be, not without its own unique failings. As a member of the Wii U launch window, it has been put in the unfortunate position of using each and every new feature of the console regardless of whether or not they belong. I praised the game’s inventory system earlier, but, sadly, that isn’t where its implementation of the Gamepad ends; when aiming a weapon with a scope, the game forces the player to hold up the controller parallel to the screen and look at its screen to line up the perfect shot. Though it isn’t particularly terrible or offensive, it does feel like a tacked-on mechanic implemented only for the sake of showing off every possible use of the new hardware.
The Gamepad makes a more welcome appearance in the game’s multiplayer mode, a competitive offering that pits a human player using the Pro controller against a zombie king controlled by the player holding the tablet-based controller in a race to capture four flags. As the leader of an undead squad, the player holding the Gamepad pinpoints locations on a map in real time where they would like to place one of four different types of zombies; one zombie is meant for capturing flags, one is a unit that remains stationary until it spots the human player, one seeks out the human player, and the last zombie does that exact task only with an accelerated pace. It’s a fun little distraction from the main game that I feel will lose its appeal after the first few times around. That said, it all works well and, at the very least, it gives something to do with the game beyond its campaign.
Then again, the campaign in ZombiU is perhaps its most intriguing feature. In the game, there are 20 different protagonists with names and back-stories that are randomly generated. Of course, were one talented enough in the ways of zombie slaying, they could overcome the entirety of the single-player offering using only one player. Were they to die, a woeful state that can come about through only one bite from a zombie, the character that passed would die and thrive in the world as a member of the living dead denoted by a specialized marker letting you know that the bad guy chasing you used to be, well, you. With this mechanic in mind, one can only imagine the number of possibilities for replay of the game in an effort to perfect it and make it through without losing a single soul.
Because of this unique take on dying and the randomly generated nature of the game’s heroes, the story of ZombiU isn’t the story of its survivors. Instead, as the Ubisoft representative suggested, it is the story of the journey through post-apocalyptic London. In my opinion, this isn’t an especially satisfying hook, but, also in my opinion, the appeal of this title is more in its handle on survival horror than a strong narrative.
When I first saw ZombiU, I couldn’t help but have that feeling of fatigue with zombies as an enemy type. When I saw ZombiU in person, I couldn’t help but have a feeling of fatigue with the way zombies are being handled elsewhere as an easily disposable means of progression. This is a game that has rekindled within me an interest in zombies and, in doing so, looks to be the resurrection of the survival-horror genre that the industry has been craving for years.
ZombiU is a launch title for the Wii U and will be available within the console’s first few months on the market.