Zombies may be dumb, but at least they respond to gunfire. Using your pistol is a sure way to attract unwanted undead attention. That’s why I was so ecstatic to find a silenced pistol in one of my of my excursions. That’s also why I was so devastated when the survivor carrying the silenced pistol fell to the undead horde in Buckingham Palace. If I wanted my silenced pistol back, I would have to take control of a new survivor and put my former survivor down like Old Yeller. If I died before reaching and killing my old survivor, the supplies he was carrying would be lost forever.
I’m been down the road to Buckingham Palace a few times, and I thought I knew the route pretty well. I was going through the routine when I passed by what I thought was a slain Zombie. Turns out that the zombie was still alive(ish) and kicking and I was caught with my pants down. I backed away while swatting at the undead monster with my cricket back. As I gradually wore the undead monster down, three more Zombies closed in on my position. I was backed into a corner and my cricket bat would be useless against multiple zombies. I had my standard non-silenced pistol and 6 bullets for the three zombies. Six well placed headshots would get me through. My first shot was dead on. My second shot hit its mark and one zombie was down for the count. I scored another two headshots, one on each Zombie. I lined up my fifth headshot. Miss. The zombies were too close. I desperately tried to shove them away, but as I shoved one, the other closed in on me. He grabbed me, and that was that. My survivor was one of them now, and I’d have to restart my mission as a new survivor. The arsenal I had accumulated was lost forever, and I was back to square one. Just me, a cricket back, and six bullets against the undead horde.
Zombi U is a survival horror game in the truest sense of the words. If you’re looking for a game like Dead Rising or Resident Evil 4 that thrives on the visceral satisfaction of destroying waves of squishy enemies, you’ve come to the wrong place. Zombi U is about stumbling through an unaccommodating world with no sense of safety. At no point in Zombi U’s 10 hourish campaign do you feel any real sense of safety or control. You’re not a super soldier, you’re not an elite government agent, and you’re not a bizarrely skilled photographer. You’re simply a civilian in way over his head.
Zombi U’s zombies are among the stouter zombies in the world of video games. Taking each out will take between three and six whacks with the default cricket bat which each survivor starts with. Taking down Zombi’s is a laborious affair, and while you’re taking out one zombie, others can be headed your way. Firearms are a more efficient way to take out the undead, but ammo is scarce and the sound of gunfire will act as a beacon for other zombies in the area. In general, it’s best to avoid confrontation when possible. Of course, you do have goals to accomplish, and accomplishing those goals will necessitate close encounters with the zombie kind. Being able to handle the times when the game will throw 4 or 5 zombies at you is a matter of planning, preparation, and caution. Your character can only take a few hits from zombies, and healing items are few and far between. If a zombie gets too close, they can finish you off with a single lethal chomp.
Unlike many other games, dying in Zombi U has significant ramifications. If you die, which will likely happen pretty frequently, you’ll come back as a different survivor who for some reason seems aware of whatever is going on at the time. If you want to regain the items you had so painstakingly accumulated, you’ll have to find your previous character, put them out of their misery, and reclaim what is yours. If you should fail to reach and destroy your former character, the gear they were carrying will be lost forever. This is a pretty steep penalty considering how rare guns, ammo, and health packs are.
Ubisoft has done a great job of creating a constant and permeating sense of dread throughout the proceedings. This is thanks in large part to clever use of the Wii U’s Gamepad. Managing your inventory is done completely on the Gamepad. Time doesn’t wait for you to fiddle around in your backpack, so you’re incredibly vulnerable while changing your equipped items or looting a slain foe. If you’re anything like me, you’ll nervously be whipping your head back and forth between your Gamepad and the TV screen as you frantically stow away your loot.
The Gamepad also sever another vital function as your scanner. With a quick tap of the touch screen, you can send out a signal which will ping when it detects a nearby zombie or any other living animals in the vicinity. The scanner will only pick up moving zombies, so even if it doesn’t beep, you can’t be sure a zombie isn’t lying in wait ahead of you. In a nutshell, the screen in your hand and your TV screen compete for your attention, and you’re often unsure of where to focus. This may seem a bit difficult to manage, and it is. Even though it’s difficult, it’s also somehow natural in a world where people are accustomed to carrying a cell phone at all times. This unique mechanic helps separate Zombi U from experiences found on other consoles, and it helps show off the unique aspects of the Wii U.
To credit all of Zombi U’s creepiness to the Gamepad would be very foolish. More important than the hardware they rely on is Ubisoft’s knowledge of what makes a game scary. They realize one important thing that other developers have forgotten. The scariest zombie is the one that you imagine is right behind you. Zombi U’s success isn’t about having a mob of the undead chasing you down a hall. It’s about convincing a player that they could be overwhelmed at any moment. With a mixture of smart design choices, art design, and a creepy soundtrack, Ubisoft has made one of the consistently frightening games in recent memory.
I haven’t touched much upon the story because there isn’t all that much to say. This is standard zombie fare. You play as a series of survivors survivor seeking a cure for a mysterious plague while being guided by a possibly demented survivalist. There is some nice dialogue, and some interesting historical context to add a bit of flair for the proceedings, but don’t expect any new twists on the formula. That’s not to stay the story is bad. It gets the job done, but not much more.
While Zombi U has many strong points, it also has many glaring weaknesses. Most notably, Zombi U falls a bit short in the graphics department. The overall art design captures the gritty vibe you’d expect from a zombie game, but now and then you’ll come across a painfully dull texture. Water textures are especially horrid which shows a lack of attention to detail. Perhaps the game was a bit rushed, or perhaps the budget wasn’t as high as it could have been, but Zombi U is a pretty average looking game on a technical level.
Zombi U is also a bit lacking in the content department. The main quest will take you around 10 hours depending largely on how often you’re killed. Aside from that there is survivor mode, where you’re challenged to beat the game with a single life. There is also an interesting multiplayer mode where one player with the Gamepad acts as a zombie overlord while a second player with a Pro Controller or Wiimote and Nunchuck fights off the zombie horde. This mode plays out like an RTS/FPS hybrid. Sadly, there is no online play. Sadder still is that the game doesn’t feature more modes. Zombi U has some strong shooting mechanics that are just begging to be given more prominence.
Here’s the bottom line. Zombi U made me scream. It wasn’t a blood curdling wake the neighbors scream, but it was way more than a yelp. Zombi U feels rushed in many areas, and there were clearly sacrifices made to have the game ready for the Wii U’s launch. However, Zombi U provides a unique, atmospheric, and most importantly, frightening experience. Zombi U is one of the best, and perhaps one of the only, true survival horror games to come out in recent memory. The things that Ubisoft did right more than outweigh the things they did wrong. If you’re a fan of survival horror, Zombi U is not to be missed.