You wake up alone. Disoriented. In a panicked state and in unfamiliar surroundings. You awake to the realisation that you will soon be dead. Your only witness in this broken world is the disembodied voice that barks orders through your ‘Prepper Pad’ - a 21st century survival tool that’s an imaginative cross between a tablet and a Swiss Army Knife.
You are the latest recruit of The Prepper, an anonymous benefactor who anticipated the apocalypse long before it arrived, and who is now using you as an extension of his vast network of spy cameras and security systems to outlive the end of the world. You think of the survivors who’ve gone before you; the ones who’ll come after. You’ll meet them soon enough.
Set in modern day London in the aftermath of a cataclysmic zombie outbreak, ZombiU was a launch title for Nintendo’s current gen console aimed at an adult audience. In a zombie saturated market Ubisoft hoped this bold move, coupled with the game’s innovative mechanics and clever use of the Wii U’s hardware, would make it a system seller and establish a solid user base from day one.
Sadly, sales of the new console have been tepid at best, and this new IP has become the latest casualty, with Ubisoft confirming in July 2013 that a planned sequel has been cancelled due to lack of sales.
Visually, ZombiU is a grim and gritty realisation of a desiccated London. Many commenters have argued that the graphics are substandard, with overused filters and poor texture qualities akin to the early days of the current generation of consoles. And while it’s true that this is not the best looking game to showcase the Wii U’s graphical capabilities, the aesthetics certainly fit well with the genre. The draw distance is short; the environments dark. You don’t see what’s beyond the inclement weather or fluorescent lighting. And that’s what makes the game so terrifying. Navigating the maze of underground tunnels and landmarks of London can be overwhelming at first.
Around every corner, behind every door, the undead lurk silently, waiting for an unsuspecting survivor to wander into their territory. While the game’s claustrophobic British setting evokes shades of 28 Days Later, the adversaries here are not rage infected super humans, but the more traditional shuffling, undead hordes originally brought to life by George A. Romero. And they are extremely tough. Destroying the head is the only way you can defeat them, which can prove quite difficult early on.
Combat is largely as you would expect. You start out with a Shaun of The Dead style cricket bat, and gradually unlock pistols, shotguns, crossbows and sniper rifles throughout the campaign. The vast majority of your time will be spent in first person, sneaking along corridors, crawling through ducts, constructing barricades.
But with clever use of your ‘Prepper Pad’ you can gain an edge in combat, and this is where ZombiU’s strengths lie. The Wii U gamepad emulates the device your character carries in-game. During normal play the second screen on the gamepad displays a real-time map. Tapping the motion sensor pings a sonic signal that picks up any movement in the area, showing up as patches on your map. It could be rats, crows or the undead, but at least you’ll know when something’s moving around out there.
Holding the gamepad up in front of your TV activates your scanner. Suddenly you’re presented with a first person perspective on the handheld display, your TV output switching to a third person overview. In this mode you move the gamepad around with full 360 degree freedom (thanks to the inbuilt accelerometer) and search your surroundings for points of interest which then appear on your map. Your character mimics your real life movements. There are sections of the game that require you to perform these scans under duress. Things can get quite tense as you try to balance the action across two screens, hacking key codes or picking locks on the gamepad while watching the horde slowly approaching down the corridor on the TV. Sometimes you will make it out with seconds to spare. More often than not, you won’t.
It’s here that ZombiU introduces another novel mechanic; perma-death. If you’ve become enamoured with recent titles such as DayZ, Project Zomboid or State of Decay, you will know that when you die there’s no coming back. You restart at the safe house as a new survivor. Upon your travels you will come across your previous failed survivors (as well as those of your MiiVerse friends) wandering aimlessly, that afford opportunities to gear-up in relative safety providing you can dispatch them quickly.
Story wise, the narrative is understandably contrived; the voice acting is generally good and having characters address you through the gamepad speakers is a nice touch, reminiscent of the voicemail messages in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories on the Wii. They add nicely to the feeling of isolation and break the tense silences that build in the later stages. It gives a sense of immediacy to certain sequences when someone suddenly starts screaming at you through your ‘Prepper Pad’.
There are various game modes on offer, including hard-core survival, where players can attempt the campaign with one character. There’s also a creative local multiplayer mode which sees one player controlling the zombie horde (Left 4 Dead director style) with the gamepad while another fights for survival on the big screen using a pro controller.
All told, ZombiU is a compelling title that deserved a wider audience at launch. Had it released on another console, lacking the novel control features of the Wii U, it would have quite rightly been resigned to the depths of Metacritic as yet another zombie survival clone. However, many reviewers overlooked the innovation and rewarding gameplay, focusing instead on the lacklustre graphics and uncompromising difficulty.
ZombiU is a game that rewards forward thinking and clever resource management over brute force and mindless violence. Sadly, this style of gameplay for a launch title seems to have left many Nintendo gamers cold. But while ZombiU may not have shipped many units, the fact that it has now been consigned to bargain bins - coupled with a recent price cut for the basic model Wii U –makes it an attractive proposition to anyone thinking of investing in Nintendo’s underrated console.
If you’ve become disenfranchised with the current glut of zombie survival tat vying for shelf space at your local retail store, now might be a good time to invest in the ZombiU experience - for less than half the price it was six months ago.