ZombiU definitely has a lot to prove. After Red Steel - Ubisoft’s hardcore offering at the Wii’s launch - failed to win over the masses by making large promises it failed to deliver on, public response to ZombiU has typically been laced with skepticism. Now that the game has been unleashed and is happily infecting shiny new Wii U consoles, fears of a repeat offense can be put to rest, while whole new fears grow in their place.
At first glance, ZombiU could easily be written off as another first-person shooter where the player runs and guns their way through hordes of the undead, using an endless stream of bullets to turn them into disgusting Swiss cheese, but the reality of the game is about as far from that as you can possibly get. ZombiU is unequivocally a survival horror game, and not a “survival horror game by 2012 standards.” ZombiU takes players back to the genesis of the genre by providing a constant fear of the unknown and the tension that comes from being only just prepared enough to handle what’s coming next. It’s a breath of fresh air and quite a pleasant surprise seeing as the old powerhouses of the genre - Resident Evil and Silent Hill - have all but abandoned their traditions of turning your fears into a plaything and have instead morphed into straight action games.
ZombiU takes place in a ruined, post-apocalyptic London, where a mysterious man calling himself the Prepper has set up a safe-house and guides the player through missions to help them survive the horror roaming the streets. It’s standard fare, but it's effective enough to provide adequate player motivation during the tense campaign. Your survivor is given a name and an occupation, but that’s it; they are a silent protagonist through and through. The story is all about the madness going on around them, rather than their emotional reaction to it.
There’s a reason for that, of course; your survivor is going to die. When this inevitable event occurs, you won’t go back to a checkpoint or load an old save file. They’re gone for good, and a brand new survivor wakes up in the Prepper’s safe-house to continue his work. While you won’t have access to that character anymore, they’re not really gone; you’ll need to hunt their newly-zombified form down and kill it to get all of your hard-earned items back. For a game with literally zero character development, you will become surprisingly attached to your survivors. Being forced to confront them in combat serves as a farewell to the avatar you spent so much time with, as well as a painfully tangible reminder of your failure; it's an engaging mechanic, to say the least.
The Prepper hooks you up with some pretty sweet tech that makes great use of the various functions of the GamePad, with the most basic being a map and inventory screen. It also acts as a scanner, which you can move around to get a better look at the in-game environment while scanning for items and things that the Prepper can hack for you. The feature that will probably be used most is the radar; with a quick tap on the GamePad screen, this sends out a ping that will show you any zombies in the immediate area. As the Prepper speaks to you it all comes through the GamePad’s speakers, and when this is combined with all of the essential tools tied to the device, it makes you feel much more reliant on the controller than you would in a typical game. Similar to how someone stuck in such a horrific situation would cherish the tool keeping them alive, players will be very happy to have the GamePad in their hands.
However, in an ironic twist, the GamePad also ends up being the game's single biggest weakness. With the controller handling so much of the interface it's easy to get lost in it, especially in intense moments with a lot coming at you. This is partly intentional and helps raise your pulse, but there are times when you feel like you're fighting against the concept rather than the fear it is intended to generate. Also, you have many "quick use" buttons on the GamePad's touch screen to which you can assign items, and predictably during the heat of battle you'll unfortunately wind up hitting the wrong one quite a few times. These aren't game-breaking errors by any stretch of the imagination and after a while you learn to adapt to such issues, but they nevertheless detract from the overall experience to a certain degree.
Creating a sense of tension and trepidation is really what ZombiU does best; the game makes you truly feel like someone stuck in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. You’re someone barely scraping by with whatever supplies you can find - be it a can of soda for a small health boost or a handful of bullets that you’ll have to think long and hard about using - because what if you need them even more later? Your trusty cricket bat (inspired by the cult British horror comedy Shaun of the Dead, naturally) is the only constant, and as it takes a good three or four whacks to kill most zombies you never feel like melee combat is something you’re completely prepared for. The game is hard, even on Chicken difficulty, because without that challenge most of the atmosphere would be lost.
It’s pretty indisputable that zombies are pretty played out in video games at this point, but ZombiU definitely makes them feel new again (as new as walking bags of rotting flesh can feel, anyway). What makes zombies as a concept so scary is that there’s really no stopping them; they can’t feel pain and never stop pursuing you. They don’t run, but they don’t need to because seeing three or four of them shuffling after you - arms outstretched, putrid mouths wide open with blood-curdling moans escaping their disgusting throats - is enough to literally give you nightmares. ZombiU harnesses this element excellently; possibly better than any other survival horror title before it, in fact.
The game looks pretty good as well, giving an early indication of the Wii U’s graphical muscle by inviting players into a dark, dank, grimy version of a ruined London created by an incredible art design team. Zombie designs aren't super varied, but the environments all look great and definitely help set up the tense, horrifying atmosphere that the team behind the game has set out to create. And while “pleasing” isn't exactly the right word, the game impresses aurally as well, with great voice acting from the Prepper and some of the best zombie moans and groans we've had the pleasure of hearing in a long time.
In addition to the standard campaign ZombiU also features a Survival mode, which is exactly what it sounds like: one death and it’s all over. No new survivor, no reloading, nothing. At the time of writing the Prepper’s safe-house features graffiti by the development team bragging that no one has beaten Survival yet, which is definitely not a surprise.
With the Wii U GamePad lending itself so well to asymmetrical gameplay, ZombiU of course takes the opportunity to provide another way to play. In the multiplayer mode, one player takes on the role of Boris - the self-titled King of Zombies - on the GamePad while the other plays a Survivor with either the Pro controller or the Wii Remote and Nunchuck. The survivor plays a more action-oriented version of the main game while Boris indulges in what is almost real-time strategy, using a top-down map of the area to spawn various zombies and kill the survivor as quickly as possible. There are two modes, one where the object is to kill as many zombies as possible before the survivor dies, and the much more fun Capture the Flag mode. Not only is it a total hoot to have two people competing with each other while essentially playing very different games, it also gives players who can’t or don’t want to handle the full-scale horror of ZombiU a way to enjoy the game with friends.
ZombiU isn't perfect, but it sets out to do a very specific thing and succeeds with style. It’s atmospheric and horrifying and will provide plenty of sweaty palms and jump scares, proving that dark, mature games can thrive on Nintendo’s newest console. Anyone looking for a challenging and highly immersive experience with some real heft behind it is definitely going to come away pleased, despite some relatively minor niggles relating to that ground-breaking GamePad. There might not be a whole lot of choice on store shelves yet, but even if there was, ZombiU still absolutely deserves a spot in your Wii U library.