When the WiiU launched about five months ago, it had two major exclusives; ZombiU and New Super Mario Brothers U. They were very different games both tonally and in terms of gameplay but they had one thing in common: they held the responsibility of shifting units. NSMBU was meant to get the hardcore plumber faithful to buy the system, while ZombiU was meant to draw in rabid shooter, zombie and survival horror fans.
Pre-release, ZombiU was touted as "true survival horror" and as a realistic, edge of your seat experience like no other. Does it succeed in its ambitious foray into the dying survival horror genre, or does it get devoured in the hordes of better experiences?
You open your eyes and swing your legs off the bed. You aren't quite sure where you are, only that a man known as "The Prepper" has saved you. The last thing you remember is running into the London metro from the hordes and the Prepper leading you to safety. And then you ended up here. You soon set out on a quest of survival and restoration, finding supplies and hoping to eventually find a cure. But the zombies corner you. It's too late to stop them, your clip runs dry and they take you down to join their numbers. This is how every life in ZombiU begins and inevitably ends.
ZombiU is built on a premise that many zombie games shy away from; hardcore survival. The whole game is based around a perma-death mechanic that lends a sense of dread to every encounter, even if it is only with a single beastie. If your character dies, you wake up in the body of another unwitting doppelganger and head out to finish what your former avatar couldn't. If you find your last character in zombie form, you can beat them to a zombie pulp and reclaim your backpack and supplies. If not, you lose all your supplies for the rest of the game. It adds a very desperate feel to ZombiU, knowing that each encounter could set you back an hour or so in terms of gameplay and supplies. While there isn't much of a story to speak of, the story really is how you get through the game, not the scripted events that transpire. Ultimately, perma-death makes what could have been boring, checkpoint-respawn heavy game much more interesting.
The core mechanic of perma-death may be exciting, but the melee and gunplay of ZombiU is severely lacking. The default weapon is not a pistol as you might expect, but a cricket bat to constantly remind you that, yes, you're in England. At first bludgeoning zombies with it is quite fun. But when you realize that it swings the same EVERY time, the zombies stumble away the same EVERY time and your character grunts-or screams- the same EVERY time, it becomes a tedious slog. Weapons alleviate the tedium a bit, but not much. For the most part-save the crossbow and sniper rifle- they are unenjoyable to use and are only used because of the horror that is the cricket bat.
Visually, ZombiU could pass as a PS3 or Xbox 360 launch title. Textues looks horrendous most of the time, character models are uninspired and animations look stiff and unpolished. None of this is helped by the generic art direction. Ubisoft may have been trying for a realistic and gritty look, but they obviously didn't take any chances trying anything new. One other, very strange complaint I have about ZombiU's visuals is the odd visual filter used. It's almost as if the whole game is not being viewed through the character's eyes, but through a dusty, scratched up camera lens. There is a graininess that pervades every second of the game. It is never enough to drive you insane, but it makes you wonder why an ugly visual filter would be put over an already ugly game.
ZombiU does not have any online multiplayer modes to speak of-although it does have local multiplayer, which I did not try, SORRY- it does have online features. For instance say I'm walking through the subway system and my friends Nocturnus or Fatman (shout out!) recently died in a room I am walking through. They may not have come back to kill their old body yet, so their zombie is wandering around the room, supplies and all. I can then kill them to claim their loot, giving me a nice surprise boost. There is also a graffiti system that can be used to warn players of an upcoming encounter or trick them into meeting their doom. The latter, while an interesting feature, isn't a well realized as it could have been, as eventually I just ignored the graffiti and went on my merry way.
ZombiU may not have been the system seller that the big N was hoping for, but it is by no means a bad game. Combat gameplay may be stale, but the exciting perma-death mechanic makes the overall gameplay experience less painful. Visually ZombiU is a mess, with a distracting visual filter to boot and there is little story to speak of, but in the end, ZombiU is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. The mishmash of poor design and art somehow becomes an enjoyable 10-12 hour survival horror experience, but not enough to warrant a console purchase.