Equipped with nothing more than a cricket bat, some funky scanner, and six rounds for your little pea shooter, you’re shoved into a world overrun with the undead. Sans the bat and scanner, this is a situation you’ve found yourself in many times before. The gloomy world before you flashes to life as lightening lights your way, and in the close distance you catch the looming shadow of a reanimated corpse. Your heart pounds, knowing that if you don’t handle this situation right, there is no checkpoint to soften the blow of your death. Welcome to the desolate world of Ubisoft’s “ZombiU”.
“ZombiU” is one of those games that suffers more from innovation and less from the fact that it just another zombie FPS. While there is plenty to this Wii U launch title that I initially fell in love with, over the course of the several hours I put into the game, that love quickly decayed to antipathy thanks to the the game’s predominant less-forgiving mechanics. “ZombiU” focuses a core section of its gameplay around the Wii U’s gamepad, and while the layout makes sense, only a portion of it works when the game starts moving.
Your introduction to “ZombiU” has you running from an incoming horde of zombies, and right off the bat you can tell that this won’t be the easiest game to control. I found myself playing with the game’s sensitivity for a good five minutes before realizing that there was no means of smoothing out the movements. None-the-less, I pushed on, dodging gaping jaws and chomping teeth before finding myself in a make-shift safe house within London’s underground metro system. A rather distinct voice, which comes either from the TV or gamepad depending on the pad’s volume, barks orders at me as I prep myself for my trek back outside to the infected city.
There’s a story behind “ZombiU”, but it’s nothing that helps drive the game forward. The real task is to survive as long as possible, for when you die your character is permanently gone. Not to dissimilar to “Demon’s Souls’” death mechanic, when your character is bitten, you start back at the safe house. In “ZombiU”, though, you don’t control your wandering soul, but rather a completely different survivor that must track down your reanimated body to retrieve any items you previously gained. It’s a clever means of adding suspense and tension to the game, but when you consider the fact that a lot of the game doesn’t work so well, it becomes “ZombiU’s” biggest drawback.
Despite being decaying bodies of flesh, the zombies of “ZombiU” are apparently made of stone. If you’ve never held a cricket bat before, there is a lot of weight behind them; so you should expect it to do a little damage when your character slams one down on the skull of a decaying corpse just one time. The zombies in “ZombiU” take a good five or six hits just to be brought to the ground for one last final blow. Even the handgun proves to be a weapon lacking in any oomph, as head shots do little more than a crack from the bat does. It’s not too hard to make the gamer feel underpowered in a zombie title, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of a weapon’s effectiveness. Rather, it should be due in part to the sheer number of enemies. While “ZombiU” throws a healthy dosage of shambling undead at you in some spots, the lack of any decent weaponry (even higher powered weapons) often makes it impossible for your fight instinct to kick in; and with the somewhat clunky controls, flight is rarely an option.
There were times where it felt like Ubisoft built the game so that death was a guarantee. On numerous occasions, I found myself preoccupied by one of the city’s reanimated guardsmen only to see the damage indicator flash onscreen letting me know my attacker was at my rear. It doesn’t take much to die in “ZombiU”, especially since zombies can insta-kill you despite your health bar; so if one zombie catches you by surprise, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll find yourself back at the safe house in another person’s shoes.
It’s unfortunate, but Ubisoft did not make London interesting enough to keep having to backtrack to your fallen comrade; and even a “fast travel” system doesn’t soften the blow as these areas are both hidden and scarce. The bland environments and dull lighting do little to freshen the experience, and since the undead don’t respawn (lest the game restarts), traversing through charted territories is a bore. Survival horror titles are known for their backtracking, but having to go through the same exact motions just to get back to the area you died in gets to be more of a chore than anything. Had Ubisoft made it so that you jump into the shoes of survivors scattered all throughout the city and opened up London a bit more, I think this could have been a rather solid mechanic.
Integrating the gamepad fluidly into gameplay was a task that some thought would be impossible upon the Wii U’s launch announcement. “ZombiU” shows that it is quite possible, but it does come with its nuisances. Throughout the game, the gamepad acts as the in-game backpack and mini-map, allowing the gamer to search through supplies or check their location without a break in the action. It’s quirky, but at no time does it feel convenient to have your character lower their guard to fish for a health replenishing soda. It also grows quite tiresome to have to keep looking from the television to the gamepad, and I often found myself not bothering with my inventory to avoid a crick in my neck. One of the cooler implementations of the gamepad is the enviro-scanner, which allows the gamer to get a 360 degree view of the surrounding area and mark off various points of interest and items so that they show up on the television screen. The scanner also provides an amazing source of light - something that is needed quite often in “ZombiU - so it’s quite a letdown that your character can only turn while scanning the environment.
The gamepad has its other uses, such as the rudimentary act of removing barricades from doors, but it never surpasses its usefulness as a backpack, map, and scanner. The map, when updated through the scanning of CCTV’s found throughout London, has a sonar functionality that lets you know what’s around the corner. With rats and birds a-plenty in London, it gets old quick to have to ping four or five times just to know whether you’re picking up a zombie or some scurrying rodent.
“ZombiU’s” online component also happens to be its most interesting feature. At any point in the game, gamer’s can tag walls by spray painting a limited selection of symbols that can either warn someone of a hidden zombie or direct them to the next fast travel location. During my time with “ZombiU”, I came across several tags that essentially lead to nothing, so its effectiveness is all user based, but being able to warn someone of impending danger made me feel slightly connected in a game that lacks any online multiplayer. Another decent aspect involves your friends list. When a friend is killed, you are alerted as to where you can find their reanimated corpse so you can loot their body. It’s a small inclusion, but if your friends list is big enough, you may find yourself looting bodies quite often.
The offline component pits two players against one another. One gamer picks up a Wiimote to awkwardly control the character while another handles the gamepad to place zombies on the screen. It’s understandable as to why the defending player needs to use the Wiimote, but aiming comes off as erratic and unsteady, giving the gamepad a pretty decent edge. Unfortunately, while this would have made for the perfect competitive gaming mode to play online, Ubisoft decided to keep this mode localized.
As it stands as a launch title, “ZombiU” is a decent introduction to the Wii U and a fairly good means of getting familiar with the gamepad. Beyond on that, though, the game suffers from “launch title” syndrome that creates a lackluster and often frustrating experience. Ubisoft has a clever idea on hand that could have blossomed under the right circumstances; and with a little polish, the developer could wind up pushing boundaries if and when a sequel ever hits their radar.