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ZombiU - Review
During ZombiU's opening tutorial there's various posters of a film called Killer Freaks From Outer Space, alluding to the game's much more interesting title during development. That being said, the "U" in ZombiU's title is important; the game was, and very much still is, Nintendo's biggest target for the hardcore console gaming crowd, an attempt to open up the brand following the much more casually-oriented Wii.
To Ubisoft's credit, they don't flinch from making sure that this is a game built for people who want a challenge. One of the game's central concepts after all is borrowed from Demon Souls. Using a spray can, your character is able to leave somewhat limited messages for other gamers, pointing to a supply cache maybe, or highlighting a potentially dangerous room full of zombies. On top of this of course, if you die, that's it, your character's gone. Don't worry, you'll get another one, but if you want your equipment back you'll have to go seek out your former player character and beat his or her undead corpse to a pulp.
ZombiU is very much a first-person survival horror. The Wii U gamepad does a pretty damn good job of making character movement clunky and awkward, but in a way that makes you uneasy and not simply frustrated with how it all handles: tank controls for the modern generation if you will. Furthermore, getting anything from your backpack requires you to look away from the screen and drag it into your equipment slots, solely by using the gamepad. After playing for an hour or two, the movement from looking at the TV screen to the tablet feels remarkably natural and feeds well into what is otherwise a very simple control scheme.
Taking place in London following a zombie outbreak, ZombiU does its best to be an interactive version of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, the opening soundtrack that plays when you boot up the game is very reminiscent of John Murphy's In the House/In a Heartbeat. What story there is simply revolves around trying to find a safe way out of the zombie infested city, there's some conspiracy theory stuff nestled in there which is entertaining but for the most part ZombiU 's plot is about stringing together the various areas you visit, it's the minute to minute episodes of survival that are at the heart of the game.
The potential highlight is sneaking into an infested Buckingham Palace, complete with infected guards still stumbling around with their hats on. If anything though, despite being the most iconic place you visit, it ends up feeling a bit underwhelming. There doesn't end up being anything particularly unique inside; no moment where you're attacked by a zombified Queen Liz, and so there's a sense that they could have set the level just about anywhere and it wouldn't have altered things all that much. In fact, a lot of the game feels like it could have been set just about anywhere and it wouldn't have mattered, bar one darkly comic scene later on that I won't spoil, Ubisoft never seem to get much use out of the London setting.
If anything, it's the more understated locations that have much more of an impact, in part because they're a hell of a lot more creepy. Upon entering a school a note reveals that the children and staff never managed to escape, fifteen minutes later and you're still yet to find a zombie or anything. It's a remarkable chunk of set up and pay off and just goes to show you don't need all the bells and whistles in order to create an unsettling scene.
You've not only got to escape London however, you also have to survive, which means scavenging for medical supplies and ammo for your weapons. By limiting the amount you can carry, the game is relatively forgiving in the amount of ammo it supplies you with, knowing that you'll never be able to carry a hell of a lot.
What's more there's a mini role-playing element where the more your character uses a particular weapon the more skilled they become with it; which translates to increased damage and better accuracy. Any skill upgrades you achieve obviously don't carry over to another survivor, making any failure that bit more punishing. Ordinary zombies will go down in a bullet or two but the variants sporting armour, such as infected riot officers, require a bit more to take down. You also come equipped with a cricket bat mind, which is perfectly capable of taking down a lone zombie if you hit them for long enough, and feels real satisfying to use too.
Overall, the game handles remarkably well, especially considering all the fears that the game was going to be riddled with gimmicks. While some of the other features of the pad that are used in the game, such as being able to point it at the screen and scan the environment for objects, feel a bit tacked on, it doesn't detract much from the tone and style. Putting the map on the gamepad though, was a neat touch, and it's nice not to have to pause the game and pull it up whenever you don't know where you're going. Also, by hitting a button you can trigger a sonar pulse that will point out any zombies that are currently in the area. Believe me, after playing a while, you'll be constantly using it, relying on the telltale "blip" that the pulse makes to know which areas to avoid, while simultaneously cranking up the tension as you do so.
As a launch title, ZombiU is exactly what the Wii U needed: it's decent game in its own right. while also showing off a lot of the consoles functions in a way that isn't too heavy handed. Recently, it was reported that plans for a sequel have been canned, and with the Wii U's line up still looking awfully anaemic, we might not see anything quite like ZombiU again for some time to come. With this year's E3 at least raising hopes for the console, things may get better in the coming months, and ZombiU was a first step in the right direction.
ZombiU was released, in the UK, on November 30th 2012 for the Wii U.
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