ZombiU is an open-world first-person survival title that cribs a great game mechanic from 2009’s Demon’s Souls and, with the help of the Wii U’s unique tablet controller, adds enough flavour of its own flavour to distinguish itself in a sea of games concerning the undead apocalypse.
The mechanism in question is the respawn system from Demon’s Souls, diluted and given a twist. Each death in ZombiU brings a new character – male or female, with a unique name and occupation – into the world, leaving the last fallen hero to shamble about as a particularly loot-laden member of the undead. The first order of business, then, is usually to track down the previous character, cave their zombified face in, and claim all their stuff. Die before this is accomplished and that loot is dispersed to randomised locations throughout the world. It’s not original, but it is a great way to ramp up the tension in an already frightening game.
That defeated enemies and uncovered areas of the map remain thus across characters certainly makes recovery much easier, although players shouldn’t expect to return to the site of their demise unharassed, as the odd zombie player from the games of others tends to spawn between the player and their last incarnation. At best, the resulting passage of play is a tense crawl back to the site of death and at worst, it’s a mildly tedious wait through several loading screens, depending on where the expiry took place.
Swing and a miss
ZombiU’s difficulty keeps the action leaning towards former, but unfortunately a lot of its toughness can be attributed to overly-fussy melee combat. With guns and ammunition scarce but a cricket bat afforded every character, wood-to-face is the order of the day. The problem here is double-headed. Firstly, a pregnant pause exists between the squeezing of the controller’s trigger and the swinging of the bat, as if a short prayer must be offered Sir Donald Bradman in exchange for bloodying up the willow. It’s a problem compounded by an inability to “prime” a hit; as soon as the button is pressed, the Rube Goldberg machine that eventually results in an attack is set in motion.
This lack of urgency is compounded by the second problem, a narrow hit range. In tandem these make any enemy encounter fraught, as the grasp of a zombie brings instant death, yet anything from three to ten solid cranium connections are required to drop each one. It’s clear that something approaching realism is the target here, with the fact that the player is controlling a typical member of the public who may not possess a top-notch pull shot emphasised throughout.
That works in the favour of the good-enough shooting, but the cheap death that often follows a single errant swing of the bat just isn’t cricket. The ability to shove approaching enemies back slightly ameliorates matters, but even the range on that move is easy to overestimate, and comes with equally deadly consequences. Tension is abnormally high during every encounter though, which was surely the point, and it does mean that taking on any more than two foes at a time is tantamount to suicide. Fortunately, there aren’t the massive mobs of undead gadding about as there tend to be in games of this ilk.
What the melee – and the game as a whole – gets right is atmosphere. Characters shriek and wail in terrified cadences as they bludgeon zombies, their arms becoming coated in thick, gunky crimson. Too much sprinting and their breathing becomes ragged and panicked. A flashlight is often the only light source, and the 10 seconds it needs to recharge every few minutes can seem an eternity. The sense of isolation and the thoroughness of the near-extinction event that preceded the player is heightened not by the usual tropes of an untouched dinner or crackling TV, but rather by dusty wreckage and a distinct lack of bodies or any sort of sound or movement, save for a few ravens. For all the player knows, whatever wiped almost everyone else out went down decades ago.
A mysterious NPC who provides minimal audio guidance over a speaker system is the only inkling players have that they are not alone. A spare, dissonant, strained score that is perfectly subtle and ambiguous works wonders too. The game is also extremely light on cutscenes, leaving players in the driver’s seat and unable to relax throughout. That accessing the inventory system on the GamePad restricts the player’s view yet doesn’t pause the game is excellent use of the Wii U’s tablet peripheral. Only tips written on the walls from the development team and the names of those who have recently beaten the game appearing as graffiti ruin the immersion.
Speaking of the GamePad, its touch-screen is generally well-utilised, save for the odd moment when the screen must be tapped to remove a barricade from a door or the cover from a manhole. A GPS device of sorts, it also provides an Aliens-style proximity radar, the aforementioned limited inventory, and an environment scanner. The last is an efficient way of sweeping the immediate surrounds for loot, and saves endless action button mashing when in a room full of cupboards, for example. The inventory works fine, except when dragging ammo to a gun, when the touch screen proves far too resistant and often interprets a slide across its surface as a series of discrete presses.
ZombiU also contains a local multiplayer mode that is promising in concept but underfed in practice. Here, the GamePad is wielded by the Zombie King, and it displays a top-down view of a map into which the King places zombies of various types to impede the player. Each zombie spawn costs points, which recharge quickly enough to allow a low-level minion to enter the fray every 10 seconds or so. Using a nunchuck/Wiimote combo or the Wii U’s Pro Controller and watching the TV, a second player fights their way through the horde to complete standard multiplayer objectives such as capturing flags. It’s FPS against very basic RTS, and a good example of something only the Wii U is capable of doing locally. A fun diversion limited by shallow Zombie King play, it still adds value and an interesting side note to an already decent package.
The zombie genre may be beyond tired at this point, but ZombiU proves that small adjustments to the formula can make it feel fresh and exhilarating. The combat can be frustrating and the fetch quest nature of some missions that send players back to the same locales again and again is grating, but it’s a tense experience in a way that few games are. While unlikely to be the game that sells millions of gamers on the Wii U as a system, ZombiU is a strong game and its purchase a no-brainer for those who own the console already.