ZombiU, possibly the most important launch game on the Wii U, seems to be the antidote to the fans poisoned by Nintendo’ family friendly route. With it hitting the all important hardcore notes; zombies, gore and violence, difficulty and HD graphics, is Nintendo finally giving the fans something they want, beyond a few first party titles?
ZombiU sees you, a survivor of a zombie apocalypse that’s taken hold of London, doing your best to stay alive with the assistance of a mysterious man known only as The Prepper. This man, who saw this apocalypse coming, talks your way to survival via the the Prepper Pad (GamePad) giving you instructions, background details and general exposition of your surroundings.
Although I was sucked into the world of ZombiU thanks to its design and style, I felt that the story underpinning the game wasn’t particularly strong. It had it’s moments of intrigue, and carriers the game well enough, but it just doesn’t have that big hook. Picking up newspapers and documents to flesh things out but the core plot just didn’t grab me. And for a semi-open world game I was a little disappointed there weren’t any side missions which are often the best bits in similar games.
If you’ve become disappointed with the direction of Resident Evil and the general slip of Silent Hill, I think you’re going to be very pleased to hear that ZombiU fits into the gap that Resident Evil has left behind. Personally I like Resident Evil 6 and although I appreciate it’s a different game from what it used to be, I liken it from the change of Alien to Aliens. But I also loved Resident Evil: Revelations and I suppose that’s the closest recent game to ZombiU. They both even have almost identical handheld scanners to pick out important items. But using this function, as with any function involving the pad, puts you at risk from attacks (similar to Dead Space’s vulnerability). As you’re forced to use it for searching the environment for health packs, ammo and weapons mean’s there’s not a moment’s rest and it’s really quite exhilarating. It almost feels like a zombie survival simulator rather than a game at times, it really does feel like you’re a vulnerable citizen doing their best to live another day.
Other uses for the GamePad include a pretty basic yet effective inventory management. It works very well and allows quick access to all your equipment in real time. And good inventory management is key to survival. If you suddenly finding yourself needing a gun and a health pack and it’s not in the quick access button, you’re a gonner. Digging into your rucksack, or Bug out bag (BOB) as it’s referred to in the game, means your eye is off your surroundings and any impending threats. Being only a few hits away from death, it means you need to be on your toes at all times.
So be thankful then that when you’re walking around the pad displays an Aliens style radar beep/dot tracker system. It’s very helpful as it picks up enemies that you can’t yet see, giving you time to prepare when you see a cluster of red dots. But be careful, it doesn’t pick up still zombies that aren’t quite dead but it also picks up crows. This mean’s you’re on a continuing wave of tension as times when you thought you were safe, you suddenly see a group of zombie’s wanting a piece of your brain. Other times you’ve built up a strategy for taking out a bunch zombies, only for it to be a flock of crows. I can tell you that I haven’t felt this on edge playing a game since Silent Hill 3.
Another interesting mechanic used is how you can actually die and the person you were controlling has now joined the hoard of the undead. That’s right, you’ve fully ceased to be. So to continue the game you take control of a random new person with a whole new back story back at your safe house. It would have been brilliant if this affected your attributes but sadly that’s not the case. Your new character just has a random name, look and occupation. What would have been good is if you controlled a paramedic you would have been quicker at tending to your wounds. Or a policeman could have been better protected due to their their stab vest. The list could go on so it’s a shame, but nevertheless, your mission can be affected.
As you’re an entirely new person, you don’t have any items on you that the last person had, including that shotgun or more importantly, that mission item that you need. So you have to go back to where you previously died and bash the brains out of your former self, now a zombie hungry for flesh. Kill them and you get all your stuff back. Die again before you’ve recovered the backpack and loose all the supplies and you’ll have to work even harder to get everything back again. Thankfully to make it easier for your new life, you can store items in a locker for subsequent characters to use. That means another juggling act you’ve got to contend with. You need enough supplies to see you through your current character, but die and leave nothing for the new character makes your job even together. And you will die, so you always need to be prepared. But the important thing is that ZombiU isn’t harsh or unfair. I died because I was an idiot, wasn’t prepared enough or just got caught out. It wasn’t because of some stupid spamming tactic used by the AI.
What this game does is make you think, makes you work for survival. You’re not some supersoldier, you’re just some Londoner that went to work one day and all hell broke out. You’ve never picked up a gun in your life and too many burgers has made you pretty unfit, so there’s no unlimited sprinting. Your aim isn’t great either and there’s no quick scoping. What you have in ZombiU is a throwback to a time when games rewarded hard work and planning and severely punishes recklessness.
Looks and sound
Being Nintendo’s first HD console, years behind Sony’s and Microsoft, it’s important that games look good on the Wii U. It hasn’t done Nintendo’s finances any harm, but lack of good and well publicised, western style third party titles means a lot proof is needed to show that Nintendo consoles are again a good place for games other than Mario, Zelda and Metroid.
Well, Ubisoft have done a tremendous job with ZombiU, much better than their Wii launch title Red Steel. Firstly, it looks good. True, it’s not up to Uncharted levels, but most games aren’t and this is a launch title. Being a launch title, the graphics will undoubtedly get much better over time. Just look at the difference between Oblivion, and early Xbox 360 release and Skyrim to see the difference. The same relative improvements should be the same for the Wii U. Throughout the campaign, I only once saw a zombie pop in after I walked into the area, but other than that things looked just fine.
But whilst it may not be the best looking game committed to disc, I’d say ZombiU has some of the best attention to detail ever. It’s clear that the team has put every ounce of effort into recreating London as well as they could and it shows. From the right architecture to the signage of the London Underground, everything looks spot on. Personally it adds an extra dimension to the game when it’s based where you lived and worked. It’s only a tiny thing, but it’s a bit like the fun I had in The Getaway, stealing a BT van for a mission (before they edited out the logo that is). They could have used any van, but using something familiar makes it all the better.
However the key thing is that people from other countries aren’t missing out. Sure we like seeing familiar signage and locales, but it doesn’t make it any less immersive for people outside London and the UK. I’m sure our American friends would get more kicks out of the game if they were holed up in Madison Square Garden and killed zombies at the Rockefeller Plaza, or our Australian chums camped in the Sydney Opera House and they had to make their way across Sydney Harbor Bridge. But they’re still enjoying a well realised world in which to survive. If anything it might add something different to them, the fear of not knowing their surrounds may make their journey that little bit more tense.
Out of the whole game I’ve only got two complaints. The only one that’s a problem is the long loading times. It does suck you out of the game when you’re waiting 15-20 seconds for a door to open when only just reached that area loaded up no less than 10 seconds earlier. The other is the frequently reused assets as you enter and leave major sections of the semi-open world. At times I wondered if I was going the right way as I’d seen the same layout at so many other places.
ZombiU’s multiplayer offerings are not online sadly. However forcing you to play it with someone next to you brings back memories of the days gone by playing with friends and siblings, when I personally feel multiplayer was much more fun and enjoyable. From the very beginning of the Wii U’s existence, Nintendo have made some big noises about asymmetrical gameplay. Not content of mastering the GamePad for singleplayer usage, Ubsioft have also nailed its usage for multiplayer.
With three multiplayer modes available, they all put one person in control of zombies, known as King Boris, the crazed boss of a violent gang and self-proclaimed King of the Zombies. I liked to imagine it’s Boris Johnson [Mayor of London]. This person uses the GamePad’s touchscreen, while a second player uses either the pro controller or Wii remote and nunchuk combo to play a typical first-person shooter.
What makes this asymmetrical gameplay work so well is the unique King of the Zombies set-up. Commanding the GamePad, the screen displays an overhead view of the map, with the survivor’s position constantly and clearly marked. What this player has to do is place various zombies, such as the basic undead or specials like spitters, around the map to kill the survivor. Using their unique characteristics, you can out maneuver the survivor. But to stop you spamming the map with zombies, you pay for them with slowly replenishing resources. The survivor meanwhile unlocks new perks as they rack up the kills, such as mines and double firepower upgrade.
Using this set up, there are three modes to play: Assault, Killing Box and Survival. Assault pits the King of the Zombies and the survivor to control several maps across the map. I thought that this mode was going to yield the most fun and although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the mode, it works perfectly well in fact, I preferred the purity of Killing Box. This simply has the survivor holding out for as long as possible whilst racking up as many kills as possible. It’s a testament to the designers that my wife who’s not gamer at all had lots of fun playing as King of the Zombies. This was because of the good, yet simple UI design of the GamePad that’s familiar to some of the mobile games that she’s played in the past. The fact that someone who’s barely touched games in the last 15 years can very quickly get to grips with the controls and can actually play it well is brilliant. I hope that more developers can bring people together as well as this in future. The other mode you’ve got is very similar to Killing Box, but focuses on time-based scoring instead.
The only disappointing aspect is that it only has five maps to play on. To be fair there’s not many more areas in the single player game and at least the maps are varied, but it still would have been nice to have a few more included.
To sum up
ZombiU is not technically perfect, but it is one of the freshest and most intriguing games I can remember playing in years. Not only is ZombiU a really good game, it’s one of the best in survival horror games ever and the use of the GamePad is extremely well executed, proving that the Wii U is console with a very exciting future.