London Bridge is burning down.
ZombiU is terrifying. Let’s get that out of the way early. This is a game that hammers home how fleeting life is, over and over again. It’s a game that makes you swear out loud with frustration, and a game that has your heart racing with every hit of a cricket bat to a zombie’s rotting skull. It takes you up high, and then throws you off a building. As London burns to the ground around you, you inhabit a series of survivors from the zombie infection. How many survivors you play as all depends on you.
As you take on the role of each survivor, you begin with the cricket bat and a pistol containing six bullets. This is true no matter how far along in the game you are. How well prepared you are to handle this sort of consequence is entirely up to you, as your safehouse holds a storage box in which you can stash weapons and ammo. Every time you die, all the gear you held remains attached to the now-zombified body of your previous character. You have one chance to kill that zombie and reclaim your goods; if you die in that effort, those supplies are forever lost. You can replenish these items, as they regenerate in areas you have previously found over time, but to say that losing supplies is a setback is a major understatement.
Melee combat is slow and difficult, requiring precise timing and spacing. If you miss a shot, you leave yourself vulnerable to attack for several moments, which is all a zombie needs to kill you. Don’t fret, though: you will die a lot no matter what you do. This is the nature of the game. As you play longer, however, it’s easier to adjust to the challenges of swinging the cricket bat, becoming more proficient at beheading undead foes. Some zombies take quite a few hits to kill, so if you have to deal with a horde, you are better off advancing and retreating to maximize your chances of success.
The game requires you to use the screen on the GamePad for all non-combat tasks, such as inventory management or barricading a door. While in many games having to take your eyes off the screen may seem like bad design, in ZombiU, it’s effective in adding to the sense of panic and vulnerability. When you need to manage your inventory, you have to do so quickly and without error, or you leave yourself helpless against attacks. The inventory screen is a bit clunky, but perfectly usable without resorting to the stylus. ZombiU also uses the GamePad as a scanner. Scanning requires that you hold the L button on the GamePad, and use either the right stick or the gyro controls to move around and detect items in the distance. Unlike in games like Metroid Prime, where the story is largely revealed through scanned items, the scanner in ZombiU is mainly used to find ammo and health items. It can help identify from a distance which zombies are worth looting for supplies, and which are empty-handed. It’s occasionally used to progress the story as well, but if you find it slowing the pace too much, you can scan only as often as you feel is necessary most of the time.
The story is a bit uneventful, unfolding the tale of a prophecy that foretold the zombie apocalypse. A faceless NPC called “The Prepper,” whose sole job is preparing survivors to get by in this hellish world, guides you through the game. It’s a bit jarring when he talks to you as if you’re the same character the entire way through when clearly you’re going through multiple characters as you die, and the same goes applies to several other NPCs you meet in the game. The story feels as if it came before idea of multiple player characters was developed, and never tweaked to make the two agree. Regardless, the voice acting is well done, and lends to the realism of the bleak world.
Aside from the cricket bat, your character can use firearms, but they are easy to lose if you die, and ammo is hard to come by. You always start out with a pistol and one clip of bullets, but the pistol doesn’t necessarily seem like a better way to kill zombies once you are proficient with the cricket bat. Luckily, you can upgrade all the weapons, and those enhancements survive even when your player character does not. It’s one of the few things you can bring across from character to character, and it’s very helpful.
The longer you survive and kill zombies as an individual character, the higher the score attached to that character. This ends up being a fun way to have a high score battle with yourself as you play, and alternatively, a fun way to know how well you were doing after you die. Folks from Miiverse show up in the game as zombies as well, carrying whatever loot they had on them when they died, which is another way to compare character scores and get extra supplies. It’s a fun reminder that Nintendo has built a very subtle, but effective, social media platform running underneath the games on Wii U.
The world of ZombiU looks fantastic, for the most part. Some textures blur when you get too close to a sign or a wall, but many areas have incredible detail and are littered with embellishments that make this post-apocalyptic version of London believable. One scene in particular subjects you to a thunderstorm, and the weather effects add to the game immensely. The lighting tricks the game employs are very successful, and despite my early misgivings about blurry textures, the more I played of the game, the more impressed I was by how it looked. The world of ZombiU falls apart around you, and the mood is set early and often.
The game contains a few simple local multiplayer modes wherein one player uses the GamePad to deploy zombies, and another player uses the Wii U Pro Controller or Wii Remote and Nunchuk to play as a survivor. One mode has you capturing flags, and another simply asks the survivor to hold out as long as possible in a score attack-like mode that includes leaderboards. Neither mode seemed all that interesting when compared to the single-player campaign, but their inclusion is a nice touch. Another way in which you can compete for high scores is the Survival mode. This mode is identical to the main campaign mode, except once you die, that’s it. There are no continues. You are scored based on how long you last and how many zombies you kill, much in the same way that you are scored in the regular campaign on a per-survivor basis.
ZombiU seeks to scare the hell out of the player by making their very survival doubtful, and wildly succeeds. This game is stressful, terrifying, bleak, and, in all of that, wonderful. It is one of the best launch titles I’ve ever played, and quite simply, a return to form in a genre that has taken a distinct turn toward run-and-gun. These kinds of games are not for everyone, and some people may not like ZombiU due to its high level of difficulty or clunky combat. However, if you appreciate the qualities of the older Resident Evil games, the challenge of a game like Dark Souls, and the exploration of a Metroid-style world, this game is absolutely for you. Enter the survival horror.