Following the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for all things undead, ZombiU comes hot on the heels of shows such as The Walking Dead and many, many zombie movies. The plot sees you escape from a horde of zombies, infected by some sort of plague, and into Shadwell tube station where you are greeted by the voice of the Prepper (he’s from my home county of Yorkshire – grand), a guardian type figure who explains what’s happened and leads you to a safe house where you can be, temporarily, free of being turned into one of the undead yourself. Once there you are set tasks, starting with switching on a generator to bring power to the place, to getting weapons and heading to various London-based locations to arm yourself and solve the mystery of how the world became zombie-fied.
If Nintendo ever wanted a launch game to show off its new Wii U GamePad – even more so than its own New Super Mario Bros U and NintendoLand – then ZombiU is its dream title.
The main zombie-fuelled action takes place on your television in full HD glory, but the GamePad is where a lot of the intrigue takes place. Whereas in most games – like the Tomb Raider games I used to enjoy so much as a teenager – when you go to the inventory, the game pauses, so, even in the middle of a huge fight, you can have a breather to reload or gather your thoughts. There’s no such freedom here. Your inventory is on the game pad so whilst looking through your bag the game continues on the main screen, so if a zombie is after you they’ll get you, and won’t stop to give you that freedom of rooting through your belongings.
Anyway, back to the main menu of the game. After some very creepy opening music and imagery – which sets the tone for an incredibly sensory game – you get the crucial message ‘How long will you survive?’ The twist of this game is that, if you’re bitten by a zombie you are dead and return to the safe house as a new character, with nothing but your default cricket bat weapon, where you have to get back to where you were killed to continue the game and kill your previous character to retrieve their belongings – but if you die on this journey your collected kit is lost. This mechanic really makes the game feel much more realistic and circumvents the feeling of invincibility that pervades so many games these days.
The game is primarily made up of two areas: campaign for single player, and multiplayer. Alongside these are leaderboards which list the best players for survivor scores and playtime – far outclassing me, I’m afraid – with the ability to tweak the options using buttons on the touchpad. UPlay, where you can create a ZombiU account to get bonuses (you have to sign up online first) including customisations and more; options, where you can tweak the controller, display, and sound in various ways plus see the credits; and a neat little bonus addition of Me As A Zombie, which uses the GamePad camera to superimpose zombie markings on your face and tracks you in real-time, and is surprisingly powerful and impacting if just a little side distraction. You can take pictures of yourself but there doesn’t seem to be a way to upload it some social networking sites which seems an oversight.
Back to the main meat of the game, and the campaign is where you’ll spend a lot of your time. It’s split into two modes: normal and survival. Both are, in principle, the same, but normal allows you to play continuously, returning to the safe house every time you die, whereas survival is the harshest version. Die once and you restart the game completely.
So how does ZombiU stack on up Nintendo’s new HD console? Well, graphically it’s the best showcase out of the games I have played. The locations are crisp and detailed, with buildings and exterior locations look like real buildings, with the palpable decay of a post-apocalyptic world. The London locations – a real plus for me to play a game set in the UK and not some unfamiliar American high-rise city – are recognisable and well rendered, especially Buckingham Palace, which you come to early on in the game – and there are some great atmospheric effects.
Speaking of atmosphere, this is one area in which the game excels. The light-levels, rain effects and the sound effects and musical score are all designed for maximum tension. Depending on the character you play will depend whether you get grunts or screams as you attack zombies in a primal fashion, and tension is ramped up by the sounds you hear, or don’t hear, and you can scare yourself in a room even if there’s nothing around to attack you.
If a game as early on in the WiiU’s lifespan is a graphically competent as this, I look forward to what games further down the line will look like. It’s difficult to say whether it looks film-like, but the environments look lived-in and it’s hard to imagine them looking better (or worse, depending on whether you like seeing the destruction of England’s capital city).
The zombies themselves come in various sizes and shapes but the sense of destruction and injury as you hit them is gory and well created and, though there is the occasional glitch as they hit surrounding objects, it’s mostly pretty well done. The AI of the zombies, though, isn’t the best, and often when you’d expect them to see you or come after you as you kill another zombie they don’t, which makes the game easier but also doesn’t feel quite right. That said, they’ll often come at you if you make a sound or flick your torch on or off, so there is a level of sophistication there – it just feels a little inconsistent at times.
As you enter the game – with the menu revealing your playtime and how many deaths so far and a great Cabin In The Woods opening credits-style first shock – you get a flutter of CCTV footage to establish your locations, and then you wake up with a start on the bed of the safe house where you pick up your cricket bat.
On your television, you primarily get a third person shot of the action with your weapon of choice visible in the corner, be it the melee weapon of your trusted cricket bat – how English is that? – or one of the several guns you pick up, plus your next objective in the top-right corner. You control your character with the GamePad’s two analogue sticks, left for moving, right for looking. The X button performs commands, holding the back left trigger arms your weapon, and then holding the right one too swings or fires. The back right trigger on its own pushes enemies back. The front right trigger lets you do a quick 180 degree turn and the front left turns your GamePad into a scanner, which you can move around the locations physically (or with the right analogue stick if you prefer) to analyse the area and check computers, CCTV cameras and much more using the touch screen to check things.
On the touch screen, your two pockets are shown in the top corners, housing your torch, weapon, gun and any other items you have, up to six. Your torch can be switched on and off and it gradually drains as you use it, but builds back up as you don’t. The centre of the screen is your map showing key items and you can activate your sonar with a pulsating button in the right-hand corner that sends a sonar pulse out to show living things in the nearby area. Be aware that’s moving living things, so static zombies won’t show up, and it’ll also show rats, birds and other non-zombies. Your health appears in the bottom left corner and a little plan of which floor of a building you’re on in the right hand corner. You can also drag your backpack down from the top of the screen and move items around or use them. You can also see your survival guide for hints and tips and various kit you have, from the ‘Prepper Pad’ (the in-game name for the GamePad’), hammer, tool kit and more you collect. You can also see your missions and your stats, skills, map, notebook and loads of more bits of information. Finally there is also a radio button which shows keys notifications.
The touch screen is also used at times to wrench wood off doors, and pick open locks which, on one hand, sees the return of the more gimmicky side of the console’s predecessor, but equally makes you take your eyes off the screen and away from what might be after you.
You can leave the safe house and follow the map and combat is as described above with the controls. As you progress through locations you stumble across shortcuts back to the safe house which allows you to skip chunks of the game you might have missed. The game is mostly a quick loader but at times you will be waiting 20-30 seconds for portions of ZombiU to load, especially if like me you die frequently and have to keep going back from the safe house to where you were and having to sit through the same video animatic and a couple of loading sections each time to return quickly to the location, but it’s a minor annoyance and, quite possibly, more of an encouragement to not be as bad a player as myself.
Combat with the zombies can be, at times, frustrating, but you get better as you progress, learning the balance between attacking and running away, but sometimes you can seem to be unfairly bitten. The difficulty curve of the game is pretty steep with stronger and more protected zombies soon appearing, as well as larger to manage groups and zombies that spit blinding venom at you.
Playing the game, though, is incredibly enjoyable. Not only is the tension ramped up by the music and the atmosphere, even in sections without zombies, the satisfaction of killing off another one of the infected is great as well as finding some of the secret exits and multiple paths that the game throws up. You’ll come across, as a player, areas early on you can’t access due to not having the right kit so for players deeper into the story playing earlier areas again will have their rewards.
There is a smooth progression in weaponry and advancements in your kit, with your maps and zombie sonar becoming more useful as you pick up items and progress through the game.
The game also benefits from a well-structured plot: it isn’t just about the fighting. Without giving too much away, messages left by other players suggest something is not quite right in your relationship with the Prepper – and you discover more about the plague and how it echoes back to centuries earlier through what the Prepper tells you and notes left around the place. On the structure of notes left, the development team of the game also leave messages around the place, alongside daily rankings scrawled on some walls, which is an inspired integration into the game.
I’m not sure how much replayability the game will have upon completion, but the single player mode is gutsy with lots to do, zombies to fight and missions to complete, but how long it will take to finish depends on your familiarity with such games and competence in playing.
As you continue through ZombiU, you get some puzzle elements, some platforming sections and much more, in a game that keeps throwing up surprises in an atmospheric and eerie set of scenarios. Alongside the single player mode in its two flavours, you get a game called King of the Zombies. Though not as strong as the single player campaign, it has its own merits. One player plays with the GamePad, the other with the remote and nunchuk, or the new ProController that even came bundled with the game in a special WiiU launch pack (it’s also available to buy separately).
One of you plays as the survivor, the other as the King of Zombies, and you can customise your names on screen as well as see a scoreboard. There are a couple of modes to play, five maps, two difficulties and a couple of scoring options, so not a huge amount but enough to add in a bit of variety.
After the realism of the main game, the circus-style of the multiplayer with a Brian Blessed voice over is a bit more tongue in cheek and also less enjoyable. The Wiimote and nunchuk combination is not the easiest control scheme to play as (the ProController is also recommended in the instruction manual) but I found it competent and easy enough with the analogue stick of the nunchuk used to move and the Wiimote itself the viewing angle.
The GamePad player can place various zombies down on the map in an effort to stop the survivor collecting the flags. I haven’t played the multiplayer version much to really deliver a huge verdict on it, but it’s not as compelling to me as the single player mode and was more confusing in how to play it, but I imagine many players will get a kick out of this.
Overall, ZombiU is a thrilling game that serves as a tech demo of what Nintendo’s new console can do, from using the GamePad incredibly successfully to demonstrate the new ‘asymmetric’ gameplay to making familiar concepts such as arming your inventory much more realistic by not stopping the action, but not sitting back of its laurels like tech demos can do: this is a game in its full right.
The controls are mostly spot on, the HD graphics and rendering of London detailed and the atmosphere created by the music and plotting excels. There are various jumpy moments, and it’s not just a brainless zombie shoot-em-up. Don’t expect the same fights of the Left 4 Dead series; this is a realistically-delivered survival horror that makes you nervous and fearing for your survival, rather than a gung-ho fighter. The mechanic of one-bite death really makes you play differently and is an excellent inclusion. ZombiU is only let down by the occasional unfair death, and the loading screens and visuals lesser-experienced players will have to sit through when returning to the place of last death after being sent back to the safe house in the guise of another player.
Multiplayer is less exciting, but even without that the single player, is enough to justify buying this game, both as a package in itself but also something that shows off Nintendo’s innovative new controller.
A scary, zombie-based survival horror that should be on everyone’s Christmas list – assuming our very own apocalypse doesn’t happen on the 21st of December…