ZombiU Review: This Wii U Launch Title Offers Some Truly Intense Scares and Great Gameplay

by David Sanchez December 11, 2012 @ 7:39 pm

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Survival horror in its purest form has all but disappeared over the past several years. While certain games still have elements of horror and stylistically dark themes, it’s really difficult to find a game that makes you feel like you’ve lost all hope — like you’re going to die and you’re really only prolonging your gruesome, horrific fate. The reason a lot of individuals don’t feel that way is because “survival horror” video games these days thrust them into a world that’s hardly scary, and they have a ton of equipment at their disposal to use as they see fit, in the process being free of any real worries.

Thank goodness ZombiU is nothing like any of those games.

When Ubisoft first revealed ZombiU, the game had the potential to be a genuinely enjoyable romp through a zombie-plagued London setting. I don’t think anyone ever thought for a split second that this game would spark the glorious return to form for an entire genre, but that’s exactly what happened. ZombiU delivers an experience that’s actually frightening, and while it suffers from a few unavoidable bumps along the way, this journey is well worth taking.

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As far as plot is concerned, this is your typical tale of the undead. You find yourself amidst the horrific zombie apocalypse, and all you have to guide you is the voice of a man known only as “the Prepper.” This guy offers to help you out by providing you with shelter, but obviously, you’re going to have to earn your keep by following his instructions and doing everything he says. Generally this entails risking your ass to get supplies, helping other characters out, and so on. The Prepper’s safehouse is your central hub, allowing you to save your game, store collected items, and turn in after completing missions.

The Wii U GamePad comes into play throughout the entire game, and it’s incorporated quite nicely. When you’re traveling through London the touchscreen acts as map and radar, pointing you in the direction of your next objective. At first all you have is a blank screen, but finding special monitors and scanning them with the GamePad will upload that specific area’s map, allowing you to navigate a bit easier. You can also scan suitcases and zombies so that you can find out if they have necessary items, and scanning doors lets you know if they’re barricaded from the other side. Tapping the radar icon sends out a signal that tracks all life forms, indicated by red dots on the screen. This feature helps you keep track of zombies in the area, but it doesn’t make the game easy or less scary. It’s important to know that the radar tracks all life forms including animals, so sometimes you’ll expect to turn a corner and find an undead freak, but you’ll instead be startled as a crow notices you and flies past you.

Of course, you should never keep your guard down, because that red dot on your radar could have been a zombie, and chances are it will be. Unless it’s a rat. Either way, be prepared, because ZombiU is a game that loves to play tricks on you. It constantly keeps the tension high, and it plays some of the most amazingly terrifying mind games of any video game in recent memory. If your radar isn’t picking up a life form nearby, then you may just hear the distant groans of a walking corpse. You’ll know it’s nearby, but you won’t be entirely sure, and as those groans grow louder, you’ll get this sinking feeling deep down, knowing that you may not make it back to your safehouse.

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You can access your inventory through the touchscreen, equip items, use health supplies, and rearrange your looted equipment. This system works nicely a lot of the time, but dragging and dropping items isn’t always as responsive as it should be. Easily the most useless function occurs when you’re tasked with removing barricades or boarding up doors. You’ll be prompted to tap the touchscreen repeatedly, and doing so just seems unnecessary and tacked on. Thankfully, these instances don’t dominate the experience and only pop up once in a while. Despite the fact that your character stops what he or she’s doing while you access the touchscreen features, it’s important to note that the world around you won’t stop. If there are zombies after you, they’ll continue to charge at you, so get that ammo or health item you need from your backpack and keep moving.

The entire atmosphere of ZombiU is shrouded in dark shadows, and it forces you to stay alert and prepared at all times. You’ve got a flashlight to keep areas decently lit (nothing is ever well lit), and using it exhausts its battery life. Simply turning it off will recharge it, and while the recharge rate is actually quite rapid, mere seconds feel like an eternity when you’ve got a zombie or two (or three) chasing you down a dark sewer. It’s absolutely terrifying, and that small source of light should definitely not be taken for granted. It’ll save your ass more often than not, so use it wisely.

Your primary weapon is a cricket bat, and you’ll use it a lot throughout your experience in this dreadful rendition of London. It doesn’t deteriorate and you can’t lose it, so more often than not you’ll find yourself smacking the undead upside the head with it. These zombies are tough, and you can expect to deliver a hardy four to six shots with your cricket bat. If you encounter infected riot cops who happen to be wearing helmets, expect to land a good eight shots before you can finally crush their brains in. The action is visceral, and if you’re outnumbered by even a single zombie, your entire strategy changes to a game of survival.

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As you continue to try and stay alive, several weapons will become available to you. Aside from your default handgun, you can collect a crossbow, a shotgun, explosives, and an assault rifle to name a few. While guns are loud and generally not very ideal, they do the trick when you’re surrounded by zombies. Aiming in ZombiU isn’t perfect. As a matter of fact, it’s a bit fidgety, but really, that just makes the game even more intense. I’ve never understood how games can have a protagonist who’s never used a gun in his life all of a sudden have such a natural feel for heavy firepower. ZombiU doesn’t give you that luxury, instead requiring that you make very single shot count, which is a lot easier said than done when you’re clearly stepping into the shoes of a character who’s never used a gun in his life.

ZombiU takes a unique approach to death. If, no, when you happen to fall victim to a zombie attack and die a gruesome death, your current character will be gone for good. You’ll then witness a new character waking up in the Prepper’s safehouse, ready to continue the work of the last individual. You’ll lose all of the guns, ammo, and health items you picked up along the way and pretty much start from scratch. Thankfully, all hope is not lost. If you go back to the area where your previous character perished, you’ll be able to collect all of your previously found goods. The only catch: You’re going to have to kill a zombified version of your last character, and if you die trying to do so, all of your old loot will be lost for good.

Despite the fact that these characters never talk, I found myself struggling with killing my previous character during one of my play sessions. While this wasn’t the case early on when my characters were being eaten alive more frequently, I eventually managed to get pretty far with one particular character, lasting over two hours and completing a large number of missions. When the time came to put her down permanently, it was one of the harder things I had to do in the game.  After I crushed her skull and looted her backpack, I dumped her into the ocean and finally moved on.

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ZombiU truly is a riveting experience from start to finish. Even though you’ve got a useful radar to help you out, the game sometimes throws zombies at you out of nowhere. I can’t count the number of jump scares I experienced during my time with the game, and as much as I hate to admit it, there were a few instances where I actually screamed. ZombiU is a scary game — one of the scariest games in recent memory, and quite possibly the scariest game of the year. It’s true to the survival horror genre in every sense, and it triumphs because of that.

Sadly, ZombiU isn’t exactly a graphical treat. The game is actually quite ugly in parts, and sometimes it seems like little effort was made to make this look like more than an above average Wii game. It’s also a shame that character models are recycled so frequently. Those gripes aside, there are certainly some cool lighting effects, zombies animate eerily, and the dark ambiance is fitting.  The sound design is also strong, with music that plays loudly as you face hordes of zombies and the groans of the undead staying with you long after you’ve survived an encounter.

You can get through ZombiU in about 10 to 15 hours, and there are even some fun extra modes to play around with. Survival challenges you to enter the campaign with a single survivor. Once you die, you’re done. This is a solid component for folks who want to climb the game’s online leaderboards. King of the Zombies has one player taking control of hordes of zombies and giving out commands through the GamePad while another player needs to capture bases as a survivor, fending off the “king’s” minions and using either the Wii U Pro Controller or Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo. This mode is a fun distraction, and one that can really be enjoyed whether you’re the king or the survivor.

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As great as ZombiU may be, some hitches get in the way of the enjoyment a bit too frequently. As previously stated, tapping the touchscreen for certain actions isn’t fun, and dragging inventory items doesn’t always yield successful results. But by far the most tedious aspect of ZombiU is its series of glitches. While I certainly can’t say that I’ve encountered as many bugs as other individuals, there was one in particular that really irked me. One of my objectives required me to clear an area of zombies. I did so, and I couldn’t progress. I walked around trying to figure out what to do, and I ultimately exited the area and reentered it. I had no choice but to take on those zombies again, this time with a lot of my ammo depleted from my first encounter. I barely made it through, and I finally triggered the cutscene that was supposed to occur the first time around. The fact that I spent so many supplies and nearly lost my survivor was quite upsetting.

A handful of slightly annoying flaws notwithstanding, ZombiU is a true spectacle to behold. The game single-handedly reinvigorates the survival horror genre, and it does so in prime fashion. Developers, take note, because Ubisoft has created something magnificently special here. ZombiU isn’t some tribute to a long forgotten genre. No, it’s much more than that. It’s a successful entry that actually manages to do what so many other games have tried to do recently. The only difference here is that ZombiU succeeds. It succeeds in delivering a wonderful third-party experience on the Wii U. It succeeds in offering mature audiences a worthwhile M-rated game on a Nintendo console. It succeeds in utilizing the GamePad nicely. And above all else, ZombiU succeeds in scaring the crap out of those who dare enter its world.

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