ZombiU has drawn many comparisons to Red Steel, the seemingly promising Wii launch FPS which turned out to be absolutely terrible. Both games were made by Ubisoft and generated a lot of hype as a ‘mature’ game for a new Nintendo console, and both were held up as potential showcases for their console’s respective innovations; motion controls for the Wii and the tablet controller for the Wii U. Thankfully, ZombiU is not, despite what some reviewers have claimed, the Wii U’s Red Steel, and is in fact something much better than that.
ZombiU tells a fairly standard apocalypse story, taking place in a London swarmed by undead hordes. The player controls a series of random survivors, who are guided by a figure known as the ‘Prepper’, an ex-army type who has created a safe house in the London Underground and assists other survivors from a remote location through radio. As the survivors journey throughout London, they are tied up into the question of the origins of the zombie blight, and how it can be reversed.
A huge part of my enjoyment of this game came from the London setting. I mean, sure, it’s very much a tourist’s vision of London, but I don’t really have a problem with this. I mean, when you’re fighting zombies inside the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace I’m sure as hell not going to complain. It’s actually in these big set pieces that the game most shines, with these locations genuinely rendered in an atmospheric, if entirely inaccurate, manner. When attempting to recreate the more normal streets of London ZombiU is less successful, and it just doesn’t ever quite feel right. I almost wish that ZombiU had gone full tourist and bought us to Covent Garden, Westminster and St. Paul’s. Sure, it may have been a bit contrived and silly, but this is a zombie game for crying out loud, if that isn’t an opportunity for silliness I don’t know what is. All said however, the setting works. Although I imagine that the inevitable sequel will move elsewhere, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to them sticking with London, as there’s a lot more they could do there.
The actual plot of ZombiU is more coherent and interesting than I expected, but considering that my expectations were at rock bottom that’s perhaps not saying much. ZombiU is highly tied into the British monarchy, with the prophecies of the occultist and spy John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, playing a key role. Throughout the game, letters to the our Queen can be found, and she casts a long shadow over much of the game. It’s quite interesting, but never really goes anywhere. Now, there was no part of me that actually thought that we’d encounter a zombie Queen but…well, a man can dream right?
ZombiU is a triumphant assertion of what the Wii U is capable of, creating an experience which simply wouldn’t be possible on other platforms. Basic movement, shooting and basic interaction with the environment is handled gimmick free with the buttons, with the Wii U gamepad screen serving several different functions. When accessing the inventory the game doesn’t pause, with the TV screen pulling out into the third person view while the player roots around their backpack on the tablet screen. This creates some incredibly tense moments as the players gaze flicks back and forth between the screens, focusing on the necessary task on the gamepad whilst looking out for zombies on the TV. This mechanic is used in several different ways throughout the game, and works incredibly well. The gamepad is also used for aiming certain weapons with scopes, using the gyroscope controls to point and aim, offering a degree of accuracy which the Wii U’s predecessor never quite managed to attain, even with MotionPlus.
One of the most interesting mechanics of ZombiU is the way that it handles player death. When the player inevitably falls beneath a wave of zombies, their character doesn’t just respawn at the last checkpoint. Instead, the player awakes in the safe house as a new survivor, and must hunt down and kill their zombified former selves to reclaim their equipment. This is an incredibly cool mechanic, although the actual plot of the game doesn’t do nearly a good enough job of acknowledging this. It took around twenty survivors to get me to the end of the game, but the characters still spoke to me as if it had all been one person, rather undermining one of the central mechanics of the game. If the player dies again on their way to get their equipment back, all of the player’s hard earnt loot is lost, and it was this which caused my great shame. Here I make a confession. I didn’t finish ZombiU. I make a point of finishing almost every game I buy; I hate the feeling of not getting my money’s worth. I have to really detest a game to stop playing (I’m looking at you Dark Souls), so it’s a bit odd that I didn’t finish ZombiU. I ended up in a position in ZombiU is which there was no way for me to continue, however many approaches I tried, and I eventually gave up. Luckily this was right at the end of the game, just after the point of no return, so it could have been worse. It’s galling, but oddly appropriate for the bleak tone this game evokes.
The game is paced well, with a good balance between larger scale set pieces and tenser, more atmospheric sections. There are a few dud sections, such as a weak ‘arena’ action section, which requires quick shooting in a game which really doesn’t mechanically support this kind of gameplay. The gunplay is awkward and slow paced, but that’s normally fine, because you’re not a trained veteran, but simply an ordinary civilian. I was rather piqued by an irritating fetch quest towards the end, which reminded me unpleasantly of Wind Waker’s Triforce hunt. Like with Wind Waker, this section felt like padding to artificially extend the game. However, also like Wind Waker, the actual experience isn’t horrible, as the world of ZombiU so compelling to explore. It’s just irritatingly lazy and contrived.
ZombiU isn’t exactly a technical marvel, but it’s functional. There are some irritations, such as the jerkiness and repetitiveness of the zombies’ animations, but by and large this game looks pretty great. Sure, the visuals are a bit murky and blurry but, why not? It actually makes things a little bit scarier! The voice acting, particularly for the intriguing ‘Prepper’ is surprisingly good, and actually got me interested in some of these figures. The moans and snarls of the zombies avoid cliché and silliness to be genuinely unsettling, with the understated soundtrack really helping to raise the tension. ZombiU is quite uneven in places, but it does have a coherent style to it, respectful of classic zombie stories which came before it yet kept carefully distinctive.
ZombiU isn’t an unqualified success; there are a multitude of niggling flaws which persist throughout the game, but at its core this game just works. This is a terrifying, immersive and atmospheric experience, and one which stands as a perfect showcase of Wii U’s potential. Since Ubisoft made a sequel to the disastrous Red Steel (Red Steel 2 is highly underrated by the way), I think it’s very likely we’ll be getting a sequel to ZombiU, and I for one cannot wait.