ZombiU is a survival-horror game with a first-person perspective for the Wii U. It launched alongside Nintendo’s new system as one of the higher profile launch titles. Ubisoft Montpellier developed the game with Ubisoft publishing it. ZombiU falls into a fascinating position within video games with its position as a survival-horror game and a launch title for the first next-gen system. These two things seemingly work against ZombiU in certain ways as most launch titles are often forgettable even if they are good and survival-horror is a genre, despite wish to the contrary, many have claimed died when Resident Evil transitioned into an action game. The question with ZombiU is whether it manages to be both a successful survival-horror game that shows not only the potential of the Wii U without falling into the good for a launch title pitfall.
ZombiU places the player in control into random survivors of a zombie apocalypse in London. Since the main character changes, there is very little characterization that happens outside of what the player attributes to each survivor they inhabit. Granted each random character at first is unique (after a while models will recycle) and the game gives each one a bit of background through cues during rebirth (each time there is a new survivor they have a new name, profession and look). What each character does have regardless of the lack of characterization and seemingly finite time the player will spend with them is that they are eager to survive and the limits of their determination will be tested. Yet plenty of that comes from the player going through the game and performing the actions than anything else (as with most first-person games that have random silent protagonists).
However, Prepper is not the only person who has an idea of how to deal with the Black Prophecy and during the game, the player comes in contact with Peter Knight a Royal Physician. Knight’s plan is more proactive in trying to find a cure and he asks the player to help him find documents to aid his discovery of a cure. Then there is Sondra, who is the leaders of the Ravens of Dee, and her plan is to evacuate and find some place not overrun by the dead. Prepper with eyes and ears everywhere is against either plan and always encourages that the player focuses on survival. These three solutions/approaches represents the gamut of zombie strategies and the player will be able to pursue to certain degrees of success each one. It is interesting to put these in the game, but without the ability to choose, it comes down to different errands/missions to string together gameplay.
The gameplay is where ZombiU shines. While the player is given the ability to fight zombies and really it encourages taking out zombies (though various methods admittedly), fights are not easily avoided. What the game does well is give the player plenty of options to go after zombies. There are guns, which are obviously more powerful that can dispatch zombies easier than other tools. However, using guns will make noise and can alert other zombies to the player’s position and instead of taking out one zombie, there is a horde bearing down. In addition, aiming much like in life is not easy and even a good headshot will not guarantee a takedown. There is the option to use a melee weapon (cricket bat) to take out a zombie quietly, but it takes so much effort and is ineffective against more than one zombie. However, this helps to conserve ammo and sneak around better. The player can use distraction weapons like flares to attract several zombies attention to then unleash a Molotov or a grenade or simply walk past them to a door.
The various methods and the realism of them are paramount to creating a visceral gameplay experience. Not only that, but due to the player feeling like a regular person it makes fighting even one zombie a terrifying prospect. (Zombies popping up in vents or appearing seemingly dead only to come to life is horrific and is scary).One zombie is nerve wracking, but when a horde of them comes after the player is tense and survival is not guaranteed. With one wrong move, a zombie can get through and devour the player resulting in death. Death leads to the player coming back as a new survivor without any of their old gear and resetting their score (points are given for surviving). Yet this leads to one of the coolest gameplay features where to gain back their gear, the player must track down their old selves and then bash their brains into mush. It is a surreal experience, but helps put an emphasis on survival among all the horror.
There are the GamePad functions that need to be mentioned when discussing gameplay. The main features of the GamePad are the touch pad. The touch screen displays the mini-map, so navigating the world is done using the touch screen. Accessing the inventory menu is done by using the touch screen and when going through inventory or looting a body, the game never pauses. Thus, the player needs to be aware of their settings at all times when changing a loadout because not paying attention will lead to a zombie devouring their brains. Then there are obvious applications like touching the screen rapidly to take down barricades or sliding a lock pick to open locked doors. There are more GamePad functions like using the gyroscope to look around the world and scan objects for useful information. In addition, to use sniper scopes holding the GamePad up to the TV is necessary to bring up the targeting sights. Overall, they are practical applications of the GamePad, but not hugely novel nor distinguish itself from other Wii U games that use the GamePad’s functions.
Graphics and Sound
It is never easy being first and launching on new hardware always puts a game at a disadvantage. ZombiU is not immune to this because graphically the game is nothing spectacular. It is not ugly or bad, but it is only on par with middle-range games for current-gen systems. However, from a Nintendo perspective, it is leaps and bounds ahead of what the Wii could produce. So that is some advancement. While the graphics are not indicative of what the Wii U might be capable of, the game does a great job of using lighting to create atmosphere. There are spectacular uses of lighting that creates some truly scary moments and help to strengthen the horror aspect of the game.
What also aids in creating a scary atmosphere is the sound design. While the various protagonists never speak, they do grunt, breathe heavily and struggle as they fight off zombies. The best example of this is when using the cricket bat to take on a zombie. Melee takes considerable effort to kill a zombie in the game and with each progressive swing, the voice actor/actress’ grunts/screams become more intense and harried conveying the visceral action this takes and how difficult and terrible the action is. It is a great way to show how difficult survival in the game is. The voice acting from the random characters the player runs into is good. ZombiU features an orchestrated soundtrack by Cris Velasco that is great and gives the game a 28 Days Later feel.
Despite having some unfortunate pressures put on it, outside of the normal pressure of being a good game, ZombiU manages to be successful. The game is a great example of a modern survival-horror game. It makes survival and horror based on the player being a regular person that has the ability to overcome the fantastic circumstances occurring. Those proclaiming the death of the genre should play the game to help re-evaulate that opinion. ZombiU also manages to be a good game regardless of its status as a launch title. However, that helps because everyone who buys a Wii U should buy the game because it is original (to the degree that the zombie genre can be) and an effective genre game.