It is unfortunate, but it seems as the years pass us, the survival-horror genre is spreading thinner and thinner in the wonderful world of gaming.
Many people feel that it has been a while since we got a true survival-horror experience from a video game. Even with a huge franchise that defined the genre such as Resident Evil, players have not had that feeling of loneliness, caution, desperation and above all, fear. These primary elements have instead gone down action alley to suit the desire of those who prefer explosions over eerie silence.
ZombiU, one of the many launch titles for the Wii U, dared to defy this trend when it was announced during E3 2012.
Set in an open world London, England, you assume the role of a random survivor in a desperate attempt to survive and escape the hellish zombie (also known as blighters) apocalypse that has cloaked the land in darkness. Assisting you in your fight for survival is the Prepper, a mysterious man behind the walkie-talkie who guides you throughout the story on how to survive.
When the character you are playing as dies, you assume the role of a new character that wakes up at the safe house. You will also lose all of the loot you had on your previous character. However, you can travel back to the location you died and kill your former character to reclaim your supplies. It is certainly an interesting concept, but it is pointless and does not make much sense. Usually you do not have to go out of the way to get your stuff back because it is in the location you have to return to anyway. The Prepper also talks to you as if you are the same survivor he was previously talking to and assumes you understand the task at hand.
Keeping you character alive is not without a purpose though. Not only will your score increase the longer you stay alive, but you progressively become better with weapons. Once you die, the bonuses you earn with weapons reset.
As a launch game, ZombiU does not have great visuals, but they are not necessarily terrible either, though some textures look slightly gritty. Where the game lacks in graphical power, it makes up for it in its lighting. Like the game, the lighting is realistic. In most games that have dark areas, there is often this miraculous light that lets you depict the environment around you. However, since this is a hellish London where the power is out nearly everywhere, when you enter a dark room, you cannot see anything unless your flashlight is turned on, and it is nice to see this in a game for once.
The zombies can look quite gruesome. As you bash them with your cricket bat or shoot one of their limbs, it will show the flesh ripping off in a bloody manner.
Much like the visuals, the narrative is not worth your attention span. The game does a sloppy job of explaining certain plot elements that it made me stop caring after a while, but plot is not why you would want to play this game.
Instead, you should play it for how realistic it is, which is a perfect way to describe ZombiU. It almost felt like the game was trying to prepare me for a real zombie apocalypse.
The pacing of your character, for example, is spot on. Normally in games with a first-person view, you run at a decent pace and sometimes have the ability to sprint. In ZombiU, normal movements are comparable to power walking and “sprinting” is running at an adequate speed, and even then the sprinting does not last long.
When you are aiming any gun, it is never fully accurate similarly to other shooters, but this is not a bad thing. If anything, it is more realistic because the character you are playing as does not have the accuracy of someone trained in the art of arms. The person you are playing as likely does not handle weapons on a daily basis, so they are not going to be Clint Eastwood when shooting.
There are a variety of items you must scavenge throughout the game’s world to help you survive. These items include food, weapons, medical packs, ammunition and weapon upgrades that can be applied to work benches scattered through the game’s world. Once you grab an item in a certain area, it will never come back. This caused me to become conservative and aware of how often I would whip out my gun or use medical packs.
My cautious behavior also activated when I fought my first zombie. Even a single zombie caused a bit of fear to run down my spine, but when I found myself facing a horde of hungry flesh eaters, my heart raced like my sprinting character. Even a simple scratch to the arm deals quite a bit of damage, and this is where the fear instilled in ZombiU shines. I cannot remember the last time I played a game where the average enemy, who does not have any special abilities, could strike this kind of adrenaline in me.
Your most important tool in your fight for survival is the BOB (Bug Out Bag). Your BOB holds supplies, weapons, healing items, information on your character and useful tips on exploring the world, which is all looked at on the GamePad. While scavenging through your BOB, the game does not pause, which could leave you vulnerable for a zombie attack at any moment. This exposed feeling had me fearing for my life every time I needed to simply check my bag for supplies.
Your other vital survival tool is the Pad (which is basically the GamePad). The Pad has multiple functions including a map, a radar for any movements, hacking electronics and a black light scanner to search the environment for necessities. As you progress through the game, you will acquire upgrades that improve the Pad. One of these upgrades includes making the radar constantly scanning for any movement, which took some of the thrill out of not knowing what – or what all – could be around the next corner. You can also use the Pad to write messages on walls for other players with internet connections to view.
Other than using the GamePad for the Pad, you will also have to perform tasks such as lockpicking, opening a sewer grates for fast travel or unblocking a door. Executing these tasks also happens in real time, leaving you open for an attack at any moment, which made for some great thrilling moments.
Saving requires you to locate a bed. Beds not only save your progress, but they will recover your health as well. Unfortunately, the save points are few and far in between. I was only able to find two beds through my entire playthrough. It became irritable having to run all the way back to the safe house so I could make a quick save.
If you have an internet connection, you have a chance to run across other player’s dead characters. This is a great feature because you can not only see the score that person had when their character was killed, but you can kill their zombie and potentially come across useful loot, which really helps when you are in area that you had already picked clean.
ZombiU’s greatest shortcoming is its combat. You will spend a majority of the game using the same melee weapon; a cricket bat. It is one of the most repetitive combat mechanics I have played in a game in recent memory. Killing an average zombie takes at least five or six hits to bring down and then finish off with a final swipe. To top it off, hitting with the cricket paddle is slow. Now imagine slowly swinging at a zombie five or six times and then multiply that hundreds of times. That is how boring it gets.
Alongside the repetitive combat are technical and frustrating issues. For starters, the falling damage is random. Sometimes I would fall two feet while running down stairs and lose half of my health. Other times I would fall 10 feet, land on sand, and die. Then I would fall twice that distance on stone and lose as much health as I did from falling two feet on a flight of stairs. In a game that has fantastic points of realism and relies on your survival skills for high scores and better use with weapons, I could not help but rage when I did not die by the hungry hands of a blighter, but rather a 10 foot drop on soft sand with full health.
With the 22 deaths I endured during the story, it took me roughly 13 hours to complete on Normal difficulty. If you tend to have masochistic behavior when it comes to games, there is Survival mode. You are only given one character to play with and if you die, you will lose all progress you made within the campaign, and do not bother saving. If you die, you are not allowed to enter your Survival mode playthrough, so you have to delete your file and begin anew.
The multiplayer pits two local players against each other in carnival-like games. The person possessing either a Wii U pro controller or Wii remote with nunchuck controls a survivor. The person with the GamePad plays as the self-proclaimed king of the zombies, King Boris, where you dispatch zombies in designated areas to prevent the survivor from completing their objective. Although I did not find the multiplayer as engaging as the single player, I can see how some people could find a round or two every now and then entertaining.
The options have a couple of nice features that I felt were worth mentioning. Lefties can finally rejoice, as you have the option to make you character left-handed. I do not know about the rest of you, but I personally dread aim assist. That is why when I saw an option to disable it, I could not help but smile. Seriously, thank you Ubisoft.
If it was not for the repetitive combat, random falling damage and sloppy story, ZombiU could have been something special. I have never played a game that has such realistic elements nor have I ever shaken in my boots at encountering a few normal enemies, let alone a small army of the undead. I am glad to have played ZombiU because it is the first game I have played in a while that I feel is truly worthy of being dubbed under the survivor-horror genre, but the bumps on the road made the journey less than great.
Robbie Key proudly serves his post under “Reviews and News” for Analog Addiction when he is not wetting his pants at the sight of a zombie. He is also Stephen F. Austin State University’s new Entertainment Editor, a blogger for IGN, has a passion for those cryptic things known as video games and most importantly, he is American. You can follow his completely relevant Twitter updates and watch his awesomtacular YouTube videos. Be sure to look out for his future Wii U reviews as well.