Remember survival horror? You know, games where you had to manage resources and conserve ammo, and every encounter was a panic-inducing race against death? With the Resident Evil series straying away from the genre it made popular, you might not remember survival horror. However, if you’ve been longing for the genre to make even a small comeback, you’re in for a treat. ZombiU, the Wii U launch title from Ubisoft Montpellier, delivers for the most part.
ZombiU plays a bit like an old-school Resident Evil, except without fixed camera angles and terrible controls, and with a dash of Dark Souls thrown in. It is a first-person survival game in which you must explore a zombie-infested London and gather resources as you desperately try to stay alive. Resources are scarce. You start off with a flashlight, cricket bat, and a pistol containing six bullets. As you explore post-apocalyptic London, you will eventually find more crucial, life-saving items: Molotov cocktails, grenades, mines, silenced pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, all the usual suspects. But you’re always at risk of losing everything.
If you die—and you will—in ZombiU, your survivor is permanently dead and continues to haunt that area as a zombie. You wake up in the safe house as a new survivor, equipped with the same meager starting supplies. If you can make it back to your previous survivor and kill the zombie, you can loot it for your old supplies. But that’s if you can make it back. Make one false move, and it’s incredibly easy to die. Miss with the swing of the cricket bat, and that could leave you open to a zombie lunging at you and instantly killing you.
Twice near the end of the game I lost everything. So many valuable weapons. That is what makes every excursion and encounter in ZombiU so terrifying and unbearably intense. The stakes are always high. In Dark Souls, you are at risk of losing experience points you haven’t spent yet. In ZombiU, dying can send your character progress back to square one. (Luckily, you get to keep your campaign progress. Phew.)
Adding to that intensity is the smartest use of the gamepad out of any Wii U launch title. The gamepad acts as your map, backpack, and an environmental scanner. The scanner allows you to stand still and look around the room you’re in and hack doors, mark objects, and reveal hidden messages on the walls using the gamepad’s screen. Interestingly, you can rotate and view the room in full 360 degrees, which can lead to twisting into some awkward positions on your couch.
The map is functional and nice to have right in your lap instead of having to pause the game to get your bearings. Late in the game, however, it gets upgraded with a radar that shows zombies in the area as red blips, increasing your fear and anticipation of turning every corner.
As your backpack, the gamepad is where you do all your inventory management in real time. If you need to grab a gun or a mine out of your backpack, you better hope you put enough space between you and the horde of zombies coming at you, because the game doesn’t pause. (Oh, don’t get me wrong. You can pause the game, but all you will see on your gamepad is a question: “How long can you survive?”) As you frantically move items around on your gamepad’s touchscreen, you will see your survivor digging around his backpack on the TV screen as the zombies close in. The same real-time intensity is true of actions like checking your map or entering a code on a keypad. I haven’t felt such time-sensitive, frantic pressure from a game with touchscreen controls since Trauma Center.
And a big part of the fun in this game—and the genre in general—is the pure and simple joy of resource management. It’s all about planning your next move. Due to your limited backpack space, you have to figure out what to bring with you on your next excursion, and what to leave in the safe house. (You’re also choosing what you’re willing to lose. Unless, of course, you stupidly think you’re heading to the final mission, and you bring everything and die.) When you’re out in the streets of London, you have to choose what to keep in your backpack, and what to keep in your even more limited on-hands inventory. It’s great to have a game bring back this crucial survival horror element. It’s even greater that ZombiU manages to put a fresh spin on resource management with the gamepad (and the possibility of losing your resources). I admired pretty much everything ZombiU does with the Wii U’s sexy controller, and I would love to see these ideas fleshed out and expanded upon in a sequel.
Some players might like to see the story more fleshed out in a sequel. There is a story lurking in the background, despite the fact that you will probably be swapping out main characters at least once an hour. Each new survivor is guided by a voice who calls himself The Prepper and believes astronomer John Dee prophesied the zombie outbreak centuries ago. There is also a cult of people who were apparently working to prevent to prophecy, and there is a doctor you help to find a cure for the outbreak. It all feels like a thinly sketched excuse to go explore and kill zombies, about as lazy and generic as the game’s title. There may be more to it than that—perhaps if you scan everything and really pay attention—but I didn’t care. I was much more interested in exploring and finding new areas and weapons than following the story.
The thin story didn’t bother me at all, but like many launch games, ZombiU is a bit rough around the edges. The world itself feels a bit shallow, with not quite enough variety between its different urban areas. Graphics are on par with an average current generation game, never impressive, sometimes muddy, and sometimes featuring cheap-looking effects (such as the rain). By far, the most annoying technical issue is the loading times that occur when opening doors to new areas. The game doesn’t pause for them, either. So if you are just narrowly escaping a zombie attack when you reach a door that requires a loading time, you better turn around, defend yourself, and pray you’re not food before the door opens. Loading the next area typically takes at least 10 seconds. The fact that a loading time can get you killed doesn’t feel fair.
Oh, and there is a giant fetch quest that must be completed before you can finish the game, in which you must find Dee’s letters scattered throughout every area. I don’t think anybody has ever liked such quests, and they are less forgivable now than they were back in the days of Wind Waker and Metroid Prime. The game deserves much credit for attempting to revive a nearly forgotten genre, but the end-game fetch quest is one design element that needs to disappear forever from all genres. It disrupts the pacing and halts progress to add unnecessary padding to what is already an adequately lengthy game. At most, the fetch quests that require you to scour every area of a game’s world should be limited to optional quests for completionists and trophy/achievement hunters.
Outside of the main campaign, there is survivor mode and local multiplayer. Survival mode is just a harder version of the campaign, in which when you die it’s game over, so basically it’s for maniacs and masochists. In the local multiplayer, one player uses the gamepad to spawn zombies on the map while a second player tries to survive. It’s an interesting concept with real potential, but I doubt it will keep you and a buddy entertained for more than a couple sessions. Online functionality is limited to leaving messages for other players and running into their undefeated zombies.
The worst I can say about ZombiU is that with a bit more time and a bigger budget, ZombiU’s potential could be more fully realized in a sequel. Fix a few issues, expand on the foundation, and create a bigger world featuring more variety, and ZombiU could go from good to great. As it is, ZombiU is better than most launch titles. And as far as the survival horror genre goes, we haven’t had an experience this pure since the last console generation.