Poor ZombiU: the hopes and dreams of a hardcore gaming community – and its likelihood of picking up Nintendo’s new Wii U – falls squarely on its mismanaged shoulders.
It’s a tough job that very few games could pull off with any success, and ZombiU certainly hasn’t. There’s a lot to like about the Wii U’s first zombie game, sure, but it comes with so many concessions that it is by no means a must-have.
Much has been said already about ZombiU, its “old school” sensibilities and the similarities to Dark Souls yet seemingly very little about the element of fear.
ZombiU puts players in the uneasy shoes of a survivor in a zombie-strewn version of London. It begins in an underground station as a character – known only as The Prepper – introduces himself.
He’ll act as your guide to the world of ZombiU, kitting you out with your BOB (an unnecessary new term for ‘backpack’) and sending you on your merry way.
Once you’re out on the streets of London you’ll be alone with little more than a cricket bat and three bullets to see you through to the end of the stage. The atmosphere is genuinely thick with fear as you trudge around the streets hoping against all hope that a zombie doesn’t pop out of nowhere.
Watch us play through the early parts of ZombiU.
But ZombiU isn’t about cheap thrills and flicker-of-shadow type horror, this is survival and you need to scavenge for the necessary bits and pieces to keep your character alive.
There’s the “old school”, then. Backpack management is a key part of the ZombiU experience, and knowing what to discard and what to keep will play a pivotal role in how long you survive.
And we do mean “how long”, since you are going to die. ZombiU isn’t an easy game; one zombie can be caved in with little effort, but as soon as they appear in multiples you’ll have something to worry about.
You won’t want to resort to your firepower either, since the noise will attract the rest of the swarm to your position. Quietly and carefully is the way to play ZombiU, and even then you’re going to die.
When you do you’ll ‘restart’ as a whole new survivor, with a new name, a new face and a limited collection of tools to survive with.
Lament the loss of all that upgraded equipment, though? Then you’ll need to return to the spot where your former self spent their final breaths, decapitate the now-zombie and collect the loot for yourself.
There’s the Dark Souls, then. It’s a neat twist on the risk/reward nature that Demon’s Souls first introduced, but truth be told it has been watered down quite dramatically.
The visual effects and art style make ZombiU one of the most distinctive around.
After clearing an area or section of its zombie infestation you’ll find these places become devoid of enemies. You’ll face up against the odd new member of the walking dead, but you could quite easily sprint to most locations without fear. It starts to make the whole world feel a bit sparse, and dials down the horror far too much.
It kind of negates the risk/reward tactic, too, if a single zombie or two is all that prevents you from returning to your ex-self. That said, we’re glad of the breathing space because in all honesty ZombiU can often feel like a pain to play.
It’s so rigid in its mechanics that the fun of the combat – and the fear it might’ve once produced – is seriously hampered. Each basic zombie takes four strikes to knock them down, after which you simply hold the right trigger button to bash their brains in and finish them off.
Later zombies take a few more hits to kill, and though in increases the difficulty it also highlights just how arduous the combat is.
It becomes monotonous to such an extent that you could literally stand in position and wait for the zombie to approach. Taking on two zombies at once is easy once you understand how the mechanics work, since it’ll become a juggling of alternating attacks.
ZombiU’s combat becomes so tiresome that thought of replaying sections is off-putting, especially when it’s not your fault. When it’s playing within its own set of boundaries ZombiU can feel tense, it can feel exciting and it can feel overwhelming. Which is great.
“What a lovely voice.”
But there are so many times when it tries to break the rules it has created. Zombies that don’t register on the radar, for example, are a cheap way to create shocks. It disregards the one rule it tells you at the beginning and – should you be unfortunate enough to die by this trickery – it feels unfair.
The same is true for the action-led set pieces. On multiple occasions you’ll face an unexpected force of zombies and you’ll have to deal with them in a way dictated by the developers.
This could be by utilising a conveniently placed mounted turret (with not-quite-enough ammo), by evading the grasping hands of the horde to reach an objective marker (only to find it blocked) or by expecting to be saved by a distant NPC sniper (to have them fire at the zombie furthest away from you).
It’s never clear how you tackle these situations and while all this ties into the die-and-learn Dark Souls method, these set pieces are a one shot thing. If you die during one you won’t get a second chance to try again: instead you’ll need to return with limited supplies and hope you can overcome the zombies that are still there.
It feels unfair when it should be just be challenging, but it wouldn’t be quite such a bitter pill if the game wasn’t so linear.
The story – believe it or not, there is one – is more than just gathering supplies and weaponry and surviving the zombie apocalypse. Instead you’ll be sent on seemingly useless errands to uncover the truth behind the cult-like Ravens and the prophecies of John Dee.
Ignoring the fact that such a dramatic story is an unnecessary inclusion, these tasks send you to specific parts of the world. What should feel like a Metroid-esque open world becomes restricted by keycards and convenient barricade-crushing zombies.
And while you can return to previous locations, of course, to collect any additional supplies you might need, but often the desire to do so is minimal at best.
So as we said at the start of our ZombiU review, there are a lot of concessions to enjoying this game. ZombiU should be lauded for its atmosphere and when it all plays as intended there’s a lot to like, but ultimately this is not a game that is for everyone.