Release Date: November 30 (Europe), November 18 (North America)
Platforms available on: Wii U
Genre: Survival horror
While gamers can always count on a catalogue of fantastic first-party games on Nintendo consoles, the systems have become notorious for their lack of consistent third-party support. On the Wii especially, this was coupled with a perception that the system only catered to a more casual audience, while more challenging and complex games became more associated with Nintendo's competitors.
With Wii U, Nintendo is hoping to turn that perception around, and ZombiU has become the flagship game to showcase that new hardcore direction on the new console.
ZombiU begins by throwing players into the middle of the action, chased through the streets and alleys of London by hordes of the undead. By chance, the survivor stumbles upon a safe room, where a mysterious voice calling himself 'The Prepper' seems well prepared for the zombie apocalypse, and welcomes the chance to help the survivor.
The immediate danger of the introduction sets a tense tone for the game, with the promise of death around every corner. This tone is further cemented when The Prepper's first mission for you is to recover the backpack from the last survivor he helped. That "survivor" is also the first zombie you kill, a grim precursor to the adventure throughout a zombie-infested London that only gets darker from there.
Among the gear inside the recovered backpack is the prepper pad, which is basically an in-game Wii U GamePad for your survivor. It has a number of uses, including a radar to scan the immediate area, and area maps once you have found and scanned the CCTV terminal in each area.
While ZombiU is played in a first-person perspective and has guns, it is closer to an adventure game like the Metroid Prime series than a traditional first-person shooter.
ZombiU's controls help cement the difference between it and a conventional first-person shooter. The main attack button falls on the right trigger, which on its own performs a light shove to push zombies away. To actually damage enemies, you have to first prep your weapon with the left trigger, which either raises your cricket bat for a swing or aims down the sights of a gun.
The fact that even guns perform a shove by default is very purposefully done, forcing players to alter how they approach each situation with more deliberate actions. There is no rushing in ZombiU, at least not if you want to stay alive.
Combat primarily revolves around the cricket bat, the game's sole melee weapon, in order to conserve what little ammo can be found. Zombies take a lot of hits to go down - anywhere between three and seven thwacks - followed by a finishing blow once the zombie is beaten to the ground.
One zombie is easy enough to handle, but when they start appearing in groups the tension level and sense of danger instantly shoot up. These aren't your average shambling corpses either, as they are capable of running and even climbing ladders to reach you.
Your survivor adds to the tension with a brilliant use of sound effects. Seeing a zombie will cause the survivor's breathing to grow heavy, which quickly escalates to barely-controlled yelps and wails with each swing of the bat or pull of a trigger. These survivors are meant to be everyday people after all, and their terrified reactions go a long way toward filling in the game's atmosphere without straying into becoming cheesy.
The zombies will flail at you with swiping attacks that chip away at your health bar, but if they get too close they can also grab you for a one-hit kill regardless of how much health you have left. That may sound unfair, but remember that the default attack is simply to push zombies away. Every aspect of the game - from the controls and combat to the environment and enemy designs - work in a brutal harmony to support a more deliberate play style.
Eventually - or perhaps it won't even take all that long - your survivor will become zombie food. The game warps you back to The Prepper's safe house where a new survivor has just arrived, presumably the same way you did in the game's opening.
If you return to where you were last killed, you will find a zombie of your former self. More importantly, they will still be holding all of the equipment from when they were alive. Killing your own zombie lets you recover the lost gear, though it is no easy task since the zombies that originally killed you will usually still be lurking around the next corner.
If you die again before recovering your equipment, it is lost. Most of it is lost forever, though important items like guns will eventually respawn where you first found them.
It is a harsh penalty for dying, harsher actually than the notorious Dark Souls since dying creates an additional enemy to contend with. It also creates repetition, as you retread the same areas to find your lost gear. Normally repetition would be a bad thing, but for a game like ZombiU it actually serves as a benefit by building familiarity.
Each time you return to an area it becomes a little more comfortable, with your literal comfort zone slowly expanding beyond the confines of the safe house over the course of the game. The pacing is such that new areas are introduced just as old ones start to feel familiar, so even with the expanding comfort there is always an undercurrent of unease.
Let there be no mistake, the balance between comfort and tension vastly favours the latter, but that tension is only bearable because of the brief glimpses of calm as you walk through familiar streets.
Environmental awareness and observation are key as you creep from room to room and carefully examine your surroundings in an attempt to ensure your survival. Pressing the right shoulder button performs a quick 180-degree turn to watch your back, while wooden boards can be found to seal off doorways and help control where zombies can go.
The prepper pad also helps in this regard, providing the ability to scan your surroundings by holding the left shoulder button. Scanning gives you a night vision view through the GamePad screen, letting you mark important items, doors and enemies on your map.
It will also tell you whether containers in the environment have any useful gear inside, which can be an invaluable tool since manually searching trash bins, cabinets and desk drawers leaves you vulnerable to attack.
Your inventory is managed exclusively through the GamePad's touchscreen, letting you turn on your flashlight and swap between weapons, tools and health items with ease. It also causes your survivor to rummage through their backpack on the television screen.
The game doesn't pause while you're looking in your backpack, with the camera switching to a third-person view so you can see if any zombies are approaching. Searching cabinets in the environment is similarly controlled with the touchscreen and a third-person view, creating a wonderful sense of paranoia while looking for supplies.
The sense of danger while managing the inventory is something ZombiU does better than any almost any other horror game, adding to the game's already oppressively thick atmosphere.
The single-player campaign also incorporates the Wii U's online capabilities, taking strong cues from Dark Souls. A spray paint can lets you leave symbol messages on walls, which will appear to other players when using the scanner.
These messages can warn about zombies in the next room, provide puzzle hints, or reassure players that there is a shortcut to the safe house nearby. However, these messages are left by other players who are quite capable of lying, so messages can also be rated for whether they are trustworthy or not.
Players can also invade each other's games, where if someone on your friends list dies in ZombiU their zombie can also appear in your game. These act almost as presents, since they are still holding all of their original equipment for you to take. When starting with a new survivor, you had better hope that a friend has died recently to replenish your ammo, distraction flares or Molotov cocktails.
As you explore London - ranging from residential neighborhoods and sewers to Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London - you will slowly piece together the story of ZombiU from found newspapers and documents.
The cast of living characters even grows beyond just you and the The Prepper, helping to flesh out the story of survival. However, there is a fairly major misstep in the story, since characters will react to each of your successive survivors as if they are all the same character.
Perhaps the constant re-introduction dialogue between characters would have become irritating over time, but when the rest of ZombiU puts such a tonal emphasis on survival and consequences, it cheapens the story to not acknowledge the changing characters.
Unfortunately, the story isn't the only area where Ubisoft cuts corners in ZombiU. Load times are unusually long, taking over a minute when first loading a saved game and between 20 and 40 seconds when moving between map areas. There were also cases of zombies getting stuck in walls and a few points where scripted events were oddly implemented.
For example, there are some doorways that will trigger zombies a few rooms ahead to become active when you walk through them. If you lure the zombies back near the trigger door, you can stand on the other side and watch as they instantly freeze in mid-animation. Most of these triggers are placed far enough away from the zombies they activate that players will never notice, but not all of them, and it is uncharacteristically hilarious when it happens.
In addition to the beefy single-player campaign - which can last more than a dozen hours - there is also a unique multiplayer mode. Multiplayer puts one person in control of zombies using the GamePad's touchscreen, while a second player uses the Pro controller or Wii remote and nunchuk to play as a conventional first-person shooter.
Playing as the survivor is very similar to the single-player campaign, though weapon reload times seem to be faster to promote quicker action for multiplayer. The player can choose from a variety of starting weapon loadouts, with new weapons that can be found scattered across each map.
Playing as the zombies is a completely new experience though, unlike anything else in the game. The GamePad screen displays an overhead view of the map, with the survivor's location clearly marked as he moves around. The survivor has a red ring around him preventing zombies from being placed immediately next to him, but otherwise they can be dispatched anywhere on the map.
The zombies are paid for with replenishing resources, and there are several zombie types with different AI behaviors such as stationary guards, hunters, spitters and former police officers wearing riot gear. It turns ZombiU multiplayer into almost a strategy game, and a good one at that.
There are three modes to play - assault, killing box and survival. Assault is the star of the show, as both the survivor and zombie players fight to control multiple flags across the map. Killing box removes the flag objectives for scoring based on kills, while survival also drops objectives in favour of time-based scoring.
As players earn kills they can also unlock new perks to choose from, which can include items like mines and health packs for the survivor, or resource boosts and an increase to the number of active enemies possible on the map for the zombie player.
The multiplayer feels almost like a completely different game, with a much faster pace all around and completely removing melee weapons from the survivor player's arsenal to focus on guns. It is also fantastic, and showcases the Wii U hardware as players compete using very different controls and goals.
It is somewhat lacking in content with only five maps to play on, and the survival mode can only be unlocked through a uPlay account. It is also unfortunate that multiplayer cannot be played online, though admittedly it does work best locally where players can exchange controllers each round.
ZombiU definitely has its faults, between technical hiccups, story issues and occasional pacing problems where it can throw far too many zombies at the player at once. However, when it works, it is a masterclass in survival gaming. Ubisoft has expertly built an atmospheric adventure through the zombie apocalypse that oozes with tension, as it plays on paranoia and the urge to survive at all costs.
It is unforgiving and brutal, but in the best of ways that challenges players to carefully consider each step. For those who don't shy away from a challenge, ZombiU may just be the best reason to own a Wii U at launch.