Platform: Wii U
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
ZombiU is a survival horror game.
It's not a shooter with zombie trappings, nor a rollercoaster thrill ride. Instead, Ubisoft's hardcore Wii U launch title is the profound terror that comes from being totally alone in the face of implacable foes you're ill-equipped to deal with. It's the oppressive dread of stalking empty corridors, knowing that death could lurk around every corner, and the heart-stopping panic of countless jump scares. It's the paranoia of having to glance down from the screen to check your scant inventory just long enough for nightmarish things to rip your throat out. The fear of permanent death that keeps you rooted to the spot, unwilling to explore further because you're just too damn scared to move. The horror. It's the horror.
Put simply, ZombiU provides the 'true' survival horror experience we've all been craving, and one of the most ruthlessly effective examples of the genre we've seen in years.
After the city of London becomes infested by a mysterious undead outbreak, players assume the role of a lone survivor beckoned into Shadwell tube station by a mysterious good Samaritan known only as 'The Prepper.' Hiding behind a network of cameras, this odd and somewhat menacing ally grants you a reasonably safe place to rest and a high-tech tablet equipped with a scanner and camera. Armed with little more than a cricket bat - your only melee weapon - you'll stalk through a reasonable facsimile of London on a selection of missions for some equally desperate fellow survivors and scavenge for meagre supplies.
More to the point: you'll have to survive. Which is no mean feat.
From the off, ZombiU hits players with an oppressive sense of complete and total isolation. Much of the game will be spent in near-silence with only your survior's ragged breathing for company, slowly gnawing away at your psyche as you explore empty corridors and city streets. Seeing such a bustling and vibrant city so deserted is preternaturally wrong, and the feeling of cloying, clawing dread quickly becomes your constant companion. Fantastically atmospheric sound design uses subtle cues to totally unnerve you, such as occasional ghastly moan or shuffling sound (that might be from an approaching horror or a scenery object you accidentally bumped into), while a tight torch beam reduces your peripheral vision to a bare minimum. It's an unbelievably tense and unremittingly grim experience, a perfect foundation for a thoroughly unsettling few hours.
ZombiU's titular Zombis [sic] may be slow, but they're immensely durable and utterly relentless. Each undead monstrosity requires at least four blows from your cricket bat to stun, let alone kill, while only a couple of scratches or a single bite will be enough to kill your squishy survivor. As such, open combat against a horde is akin to suicide, forcing you to sneak around, find alternate routes, distract them with flares or run desperately to your next objective as the baying pack snaps at your heels. Nailing barricades to doors can buy you a few seconds to take stock, whereas finding a ladder or bolt hole will only delay their inexorable advance for a short time. You'll always be pressed, always hounded and always, critically, so very vulnerable. The constant mix of complete isolation and desperate flight is akin to psychological torture, in the most unexpectedly brilliant way possible.
At one point I was actually unable to move, unwilling to walk past a corner as the oppression and claustrophobia caught up with me. It took me ten minutes to muster up enough willpower to continue, even though I took to MiiVerse for some emotional support from strangers. When played with the lights off and listening through a decent pair of cans, only standout genre classics like Condemned and Amnesia: The Dark Descent can match ZombiU.
Melee combat is purposefully clunky, to the extent where a panicked trigger press only shoves the nearest Zombi away. Dealing a strike takes an unbearable second to wind up and aim, meaning that perfect timing will be necessary to knock an assailant back before they close in for the kill. A few upgradeable firearms are up for grabs, but come with their own set of drawbacks. Powerful headshots have to be precisely aimed to avoid wasting precious ammunition (and putting off long reload times), and their loud report brings every shambling freak in the vicinity howling to your location. If you're willing to pull the trigger, you'd best be prepared for a battle royale and a last-ditch defence with your back to the wall.
ZombiU integrates the Gamepad peripheral into almost every aspect of the experience. As a scanner, you can tilt the tablet to find hidden items or CCTV screens to hack, but its most common use is much more fundamental. Looting items and browsing your inventory forces you to glance down at the touchscreen, making something as simple as equipping a grenade or using a medical kit a tense and vulnerable moment in and of itself. Removing barricades, picking locks and fumbling at key codes also requires you to use the touchscreen, allowing Zombis to sneak up on you and making desperate escapes even more terrifying. What could have been completely immersion-breaking ends up engendering a profound feeling of paranoia, as even the most basic actions require you to lay yourself totally bare.
You'll cower, whimpering, as the hordes scream for your blood. You'll shriek as hidden Zombis abuse your limited peripheral vision to rip out your throat. You'll batter each and every corpse you encounter, convinced that they'll rise up and bite you (in fairness some do). Sometimes, one of your friends will appear in your safe house as a special infected, hitting you in the one place you thought you could let your guard down.
And sooner or later, you will die.
Death is brutal, quick and above all permanent in ZombiU. Should your survivor fall, you'll step into the role of another randomly-generated character with the bare minimum of loot, and have to restock before resuming the storyline. All unlocked areas remain open to you, allowing you to scour previously-cleared levels for randomly respawning supplies or leave them in your safe room chest for a future character to use. Backtracking is grimly compelling whether you're playing as a new character or gaining extra gear as an experienced survivor, since Zombis and corpses are placed differently when you return. At some point, you'll also have to track down your infected former self to secure your old equipment, facing off against a tough new foe who you used to identify with. With savepoints and safe spaces spaced relatively far apart, it's possible to argue that even Dark Souls is a little lenient compared to Ubisoft's offering.
ZombiU takes an interesting approach to local multiplayer, presenting one of the most intruiguing asymmetrical options on the system thus far. One player gets to act as a brave survivor armed with a selection of powerful guns, whereas their opponent becomes an omniscient zombie overlord capable of summoning a varied smorgasbord of enemies onto the map using the Gamepad touchscreen. It's like being the director of your own horror film (or the AI director from Left 4 Dead), and though online cooperative modes aren't included, it's still a superbly innovative idea.
Graphically-speaking, ZombiU is probably mediocre. Some fuzzy texture work and grainy low-resolution murk call Xbox 360 launch titles like Condemned: Criminal Origins to mind, though in fairness, a smeary vision filter makes it difficult to see exactly how impressive the visuals are. A patina of filth and grime appears on your screen every time you look at a light source, which is admittedly atmospheric (and cuts peripheral vision yet further, urk!) but doesn't make much sense in context. We're supposed to be looking out of the survivor's eyes, yet we're separated from the action by a virtual lens or pane of glass.
A few technical issues also make themselves known within the first couple of hours. Interminable loading times, both upon starting a new game and accessing a new area, often prove to be tremendously aggravating (not to mention embarrassing for the new system), while an odd triggering glitch can render Zombis immobile if you retreat far enough back through the level. Some strange visual quirks also come to the fore every now and again, from clipping issues to weird hovering fireballs once burning Zombis have been extinguished.
These are ultimately minor niggles compared to ZombiU's biggest unavoidable flaw: it isn't fun in the traditional sense. It isn't supposed to be. Ubisoft bravely decided to focus every aspect of the game on making the player feel vulnerable and pressurised, meaning that there are few moments of joy or catharsis beyond simply surviving another couple of minutes. Often you'll feel numb, exhausted and drained rather than satisfied. The clunky combat and inconvenient save system works brilliantly in context, but some players will utterly hate them.
That's fine: ZombiU isn't trying to please everyone, or indeed anyone. It sets out to terrorise its player base as comprehensively as possible and succeeds. Whether this is a major selling point or an instant dealbreaker depends on you.
- Scary, tense, paranoid and panicky: a true horror experience
- Creates a feeling of complete loneliness and vulnerability
- Innovative and immersive gamepad features show off the hardware to horrible advantage
- Thrillingly atmospheric sound and visual design
- Interminable load times and a few glitches
- Mediocre (if atmospheric) visuals
- Emotionally draining rather than entertaining: many players simply won't enjoy it
The Short Version: ZombiU terrifies and terrorises its players with every trick in the book, and a fair few new ones courtesy of the WiiU hardware. Though an emotionally draining and occasionally awkward affair, Ubisoft's brave hardcore proposition proves that big publishers can still deliver true survival horror.