The launch of Wii U has a lot in common with the launch of the Wii. In both scenarios, the general populace were not entirely sure what to expect from Nintendo’s new innovative systems. In both scenarios, the gamers of the world were eagerly anticipating one of the only exclusive M-rated games. On the Wii, it was Red Steel, which, like ZombiU, was developed and published by Ubisoft. Red Steel is notorious for being a widespread disappointment (though I liked it). With the launch of ZombiU, many are quick to label it as a “another Red Steel”. Professional reviewers everywhere are giving it outrageously low scores due to its focus on survival horror over action, and many anti-Wii U people roaming the forums are quick to rub these scores in the faces of the early Wii U adopters. But these people couldn’t be more wrong. ZombiU is a must-have title for Wii U and is quite simply one of the best survival horror games of the last decade.
Survival horror has been treated rather poorly in the seventh generation. Capcom has bastardized the most beloved survival horror franchise by turning Resident Evil into an action fest. While this has seen some good things, it has also robbed the games of their survival horror hook that made them unique and desirable amongst a crowd of similar games. Silent Hill has been mostly unsuccessful in its attempts to revitalize itself and the genre, and there have been quite a few failed attempts at original IP. In fact, the only survival horror game worth mentioning out of the seventh generation is Dead Space. ZombiU makes sure the eighth generation kicks off with a fantastic survival horror game that delivers heavily on both the “survival” and the “horror”.
Players start the game as a random survivor in London, England, and are quickly contacted by the “Prepper”. They are instructed to run to the safehouse, with nothing to defend themselves with at all. Right off the bat, ZombiU thrusts players into a dangerous environment with which they have no means of self-defense. The only option in this early segment of the game is to flee from the undead masses that quickly come down upon the player.
Upon reaching the safehouse, players are introduced to the main mechanics and elements of ZombiU. Basically, London has erupted with an outbreak of zombies. The Prepper is there to offer advice through the Wii U speakers in what is an effective and chilling use of audio. The first task is acquiring and using the Prepper Pad, which looks similar to a GamePad on screen. This device is incredibly useful and one of the core mechanics of ZombiU, using new gameplay features that simply haven’t been possible until the Wii U.
On the GamePad screen, players will can see a map. A tap of an icon emits a radar that points out any enemies in the surrounding area. By pressing L, the GamePad can be moved around in real life to scan and search the environments depicted on the television screen. This scanner is used to find clues to solve puzzles or to point out items and enemies in the area, not unlike Resident Evil: Revelations on 3DS.
After obtaining the Prepper Pad, the next course of action is getting a suitable weapon and a bag from the previous survivor that the Prepper was trying to help. The main weapon in ZombiU is a cricket bat which is found early on in the game. The cricket bat is used to bash in the brains of zombies, which accentuates the brutal combat system in ZombiU. Yes, the combat is a tad repetitive, but that only adds to the atmosphere. In reality, people don’t bash other peoples’ brains in using flashy melee attacks. No, if a zombie was coming at you, you’d just repeatedly swing the damn thing until they were dead, and that’s exactly how combat plays out in ZombiU. It’s gritty, bloody, and zombies take a whole hell of a lot of strikes to take down. This makes every single zombie in the game a huge threat.
Inventory management using the aforementioned bag is also a big element of ZombiU. The bag holds all the supplies found in the game. New guns are discovered by exploring London, and other helpful supplies such as healing items, flares, and grenades can also be found. Players can hold up to six items for quick access on the touchscreen, but everything else can only be used by stopping and looking into the bag. This does not pause the game, and gives the enemies a very good opportunity to kill you. A similar mechanic is used in Resident Evil 5 where the game does not pause during inventory management, and I like that it is being continued here in ZombiU.
Because of this, something as simple as equipping a flare can be a heart-pounding and horrifying moment. Playing ZombiU is almost uncomfortable because of how genuinely scary the game is, and this is a feeling I haven’t had since playing the original Resident Evil as a child. Zombies have been popping up in all kinds of games lately, but ZombiU makes them scary again by creating tension like this.
I feared the supernatural zombie types introduced throughout the game would ruin that tension, but on the contrary, they make everything even scarier. Zombies with red mist surrounding them deal more damage than the other zombies, and can be absolutely devastating when encountered. Electric zombies cause interference with the GamePad, taking away the map. Spitter zombies shoot acid from their mouths at a distance, and running from those foes are also the source of some of the game’s scariest moments.
ZombiU integrates all of the Wii U’s unique features into the gameplay. So not only is ZombiU a fantastic survival horror game by itself, but it is also one of the only games available for Wii U at launch that feel like they were tailor-made for the system. I’ve mentioned numerous ways that the touchscreen is used in ZombiU as well as motion controls and AR, but there’s more.
By more, I mean Miiverse. Miiverse is Nintendo’s “social network” functionality that they’ve added to the Wii U. I am not a big fan of Miiverse in other games as I don’t see how it improves the experience by much. It’s kind of cool to see Miis from around the world roaming the plaza in Nintendo Land, but that novelty wears off rather quick. ZombiU features the most ingenious use of Miiverse yet, and I doubt it’s going to be topped any time soon. In ZombiU, players from around the world that have their Wii U connected to the Internet can show up in your game as a zombie at any time, adding another layer of tension, but also reward, as these zombies will have more and better lootable items than the typical zombies.
When players die in ZombiU, the character they were playing as turns into a zombie. Players then respawn back at the safehouse as an entirely different character. From there, the goal is retrieving the gear that is being held by the former player turned zombie. Dying while trying to get the gear is awful, as all that gear disappears and is no longer obtainable again. ZombiU is brutal with its difficulty as well, because it only takes a single zombie bite to end the game. Health meters are drained quickly by swiping zombies, and there are plenty of quick-deaths out there, such as hidden explosives and high falls.
ZombiU is rarely frustrating, though the cheap deaths can become a little annoying. There is an explosive type of zombie that blows up violently with a single cricket bat strike or bullet. While I have no problem with this zombie for the most part, the developers tend to only throw these guys at you when you have no other choice but to attack them and die, or don’t attack them and die. These moments are few and far between, but it just feels unnecessarily cheap.
The game uses a mission based structure. Players travel to various areas of London, with great variety, and complete objectives for the Prepper and a couple of other characters met throughout the course of the game. The story is simple in that there are zombies everywhere and the goal is to survive, but the backstory can be expanded upon by collecting various documents around the city and reading them, just like the survival horror titles of yesteryear.
Unfortunately, one of ZombiU’s biggest flaws is the lack of strong characters. The Prepper and the other NPCs are simply not enough to build a solid narration around that features serious emotional attachment. The characters that you play as are random and have no personality. It’s impossible to care for them. Yes, you will be scared many times in ZombiU, but you’re not scared for the characters you’re playing as, but rather, you’re scared for your stuff. Perhaps a set amount of survivors all in the safehouse, interacting with each other, and what-not, would’ve been more suitable for developing emotional bonds to the story and those involved in this zombie outbreak. Losing characters that actually have personalities would’ve made the deaths in the game that much more tragic and would’ve taken ZombiU to the next level.
Another issue I have with the game is from a graphical and technical standpoint. When looking at lights, the player’s vision is obscured in a cluster of dust particles. This makes no sense. It’s like when you’re wearing glasses and the glasses are dirty, then light hits those glasses, and you can see all the dirt. Except none of the characters in the game even wear glasses. It’s just an annoying visual effect that has no purpose besides being a source of annoyance.
On to the technical issue, ZombiU generally runs great. A lot can be happening on the screen at once without any lagging or slowdown of any kind. However, there are times when trying to open a door that the door simply does not open because the game is too busy loading the environment behind that door. This can also lead to cheap deaths. It’s definitely not game-breaking, but like I said, it can lead to a cheap death or two, but I have a feeling ZombiU was rushed a bit to meet launch, and with just a couple more months of polish, this problem probably would’ve been avoided.
In the meantime, ZombiU provides adequate graphics that teeter between great and mediocre. Environments have a nice level of detail and are very creepily designed. Most of the game is dark and dreary, but when colors are used, they are used to really great effect. Fires are bright and shocking. Explosions are thunderous and terrifying. Voice acting is good, and overall, I was impressed with the presentation. Character models could use a little touching up, but they are only seen for a brief second anyway when they wake up in the safehouse.
Besides the main campaign, players can play a tougher Survival Mode that only allows a single life throughout the entirety of the game. The end of the game features an excessive amount of backtracking that ruins the mood a bit, and doesn’t really support the idea of multiple playthroughs, unfortunately. Comprehensive new game + options would’ve made ZombiU even better as it’s easy to miss a lot of content your first and even second time through the game. Weapons can be upgraded by using them, and there are also physical upgrades to weapons that can be applied to them using workbenches. This feature is not really fleshed out, but it’s still fun hunting down improvements for your weapons.
A multiplayer mode is also available. It lacks online, but the multiplayer is a fun use of the asymmetric multiplayer that Nintendo keeps pushing in regards to the Wii U. One player uses the GamePad and are able to spawn zombies around the map, while another player uses the Wii remote + nunchuk or a Classic Controller Pro to control a survivor on screen and try to complete their objectives or simply see how long they can survive. The multiplayer can be fun, but it is also fairly barebones as well.
In the bonus features, one will find “Me As A Zombie”. Similar to many of the “zombification” apps on iOS and Android mobile devices, this uses the GamePad’s camera to turn the face of the person looking at it into a zombie. The app is a little more advanced than the iOS apps out there and works a little better, featuring multiple zombie faces and snappy face recognition. It’s an amusing diversion, and shows that the developers of ZombiU were committed at using nearly all of the features of the Wii U, and they have to mostly great results.
ZombiU has turned a lot of people off because it’s not an action game. I went into ZombiU expecting to be disappointed due to the negative press around it, but I came away very impressed. As a survival horror nut, I’ve been starved of quality releases in my favorite genre for years, but ZombiU proves that the survival horror genre can still entertain and most importantly, scare. ZombiU is definitely one of the best games on Wii U right now, and seeing as how it’s a Wii U exclusive, I’d say it’s definitely a good reason to go out and get the system, especially if you’re a survival horror fan.
Tested on Wii U. Final Score: 9/10