Robert Carter, a plumber from London stood no chance. Armed with little more than a cricket bat, he met his untimely end at the grotesque hands of the undead. The disembodied voice of “the Prepper” warned him; told him to be prepared. He wasn’t. He had no supplies, and he’d run out of ammo for the 9mm pistol that was his only chance for survival, stupidly shooting at everything that moved. Now he was dead, and I quickly learned to fear zombies again. I also quickly developed a drinking habit.
Games featuring those ambling, decaying monsters risen from the grave, zombies, have become a bit too commonplace. I thought, given my experience shooting them, that I’d be able to handle whatever undead menace Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title could throw at me, but I was wrong.
London has been overrun with the undead. It’s not the first time it’s happened, either. The Black Plague that devastated Europe in the 1300s? Zombie Apocalypse one, and it’s happening all over again. The recurrent blight, prophesied by 16th century alchemist, mathematician and royal spy John Dee has come to pass and it’s your job, as a survivor to untangle the the plot and solve Dee’s ancient riddle to find a cure and save humanity. Or die. As tends to happen with alarming frequency, provided you don’t take the time to carefully asses whatever situation you’re in. This isn’t Call of Duty or Left 4 Dead. It’s hardly even a shooter. No, it’s a survival horror – with emphasis on the survival bit.
Guided by the mysterious “the Prepper,” a delightfully paranoid ex-military man, you’ll traverse a decrepit London – from suburbia to more famous locations like the tower of London and Buckingham palace, retreating, as often as possible, to your safe house, located conveniently within one of the city’s underground tube stations. With eyes all over the city, by way of hacked CCTV cameras, your safe house acts as ZombiU‘s central hub, from which you’ll venture out in search of equipment, clues, and other McGuffins to put an end to the plague.
The most arresting thing about ZombiU, and what makes it so chilling is the almost overwhelming sense of dread. Zombie encounters are disturbingly intimate. Unlike most other games that tackle Zombies, you won’t be faced with hordes of infected plague bearers; instead you’re often up against just a handful at a time – and that’s enough. There’s a stark lack of ammunition for the guns you’ll find, and it’s disempowering, not being able to mow your way through a horde. Instead, you’re forced to weigh up your options, and almost always, the best way to go is to draw them out one by one, and smash their heads in with a cricket bat, or lure them out with an attractive flare, before immolating ‘em with a Molotov cocktail
The intimidation, unease and apprehension is further exacerbated by the fact that death has very real consequences. When you die, either at the hands of a zombie, or perhaps, as happened to me more than a few times, falling off of ledges and ladders while running away like a little girl. That survivor is stone cold dead. You’ll spawn as a new survivor – with a new name, occupation and ID back in the safe house.
The problem is that all the gear and equipment you’ve collected is now in a backpack, attached to the back of the silly, unprepared and most importantly dead person you were playing as just moments earlier. If you want it back – and you probably do – you’ll have to trek back to where that unfortunate met his end and remove the previous survivor’s undead head from its undead shoulders. If you happen to die a second time before doing that, that equipment is gone. For good. It gets even worse. Play in survival mode and you get just one life. Die, and it’s over. you’ll have to delete your game and start from scratch. It all comes together to make ZombiU a genuinely frightening experience.
It’s easily one of the best games and experiences available for the Wii U right now, utilising the system’s second screen GamePad rather well. Acting as both your map and a motion-scanning, pinging radar it lets you know not only where you’re going, but also lets you know if anything’s moving nearby. It’s a sneaky, tricksy thing though ; Animals, crows and rats are picked up as red blips on your radar and on more than one occasion, with my heart located somewhere in or about my throat, I slowly snuck up on a large group of blips, prepped and ready to incinerate the undead, only to have my ambush thwarted as a murder of crows cawed away. Dead still zombies aren’t detected either, and you’ll probably be ambushed by something you thought was dead. And then you’ll be dead, which is why I spent an inordinate amount of time smashing everything. Y’know, just in case.
The GamePad is also your inventory screen, and it works in real-time. You’ll have to look away from the TV to access it, possibly opening yourself up to undead ambush. Like just about everything else in the game, it only adds to the tension. That slow-to-reload double-barrelled shotgun you’ve got in your backpack would probably be handy right now, but you’ll have to put some distance between yourself and the zombies right in front of you to use it if it isn’t equipped in one of your quick slots. It’s all about preparation and planning, as that disembodied Prepper keeps saying. His frequent radio transmissions – mostly telling you what a numpty you are - also come through on the pad’s speakers, adding to the atmosphere and immersion.
The GamePad’s also used as a sort of virtual, augmented reality viewer. You can stand up and scan an entire room looking around at your surroundings, looking for zombies or equipment, and use its integrated black light scanner to find hidden messages and clues. The pad is also screen also the viewfinder for scoped weapons, adjusting and fine-tuning your shots through tilting. You can just use the analogue sticks for that purpose, so you needn’t stand up and walk around, looking like a twit in your own lounge if you don’t want to. There are a few other activities that use the pad, such as lock-picking and entering codes in to keypads, reading documents and the like, all of which increase immersion – but they’re also accompanied by a few tapping minigames, for things like opening manhole covers and removing barricades that just seem out of place.
The gamepad augments and enhances the ZombiU experience, but doesn’t quite define it. the whole thing could probably be replicated on the other consoles but it would lose much of its charm. As it is right now, it’s easily one of the best showcase games for the system, and quite an achievement for Ubisoft; a 3rd party studio making the definitive core experience on new Nintendo hardware, ahead of Nintendo themselves? Madness!
It’s got a pretty neat multiplayer mode that’s more proof-of-concept than anything real. Like many current Wii U games, the multiplayer is the couch-based asymmetrical sort. One player, using the pad, becomes The King of Zombies; deploying the undead with an overview, much like an RTS. The other player, using the Wiimote-nunchuck combo or Wii U pro controller plays as a survivor, trying to control capture points. It’s actually rather fun, but lacks longevity.
And though it’s a remarkable game, there are a few issues. Inventory management can be a pain. The touch screen’s tapping minigames are wholly unnecessary and out of place and there are few bugs with quest markers going awry and some floaty zombie physics. The narrative also falls apart towards, and the fact that living NPC’s treat you as the same person even when you’re playing as a new survivor destroys much of the immersion that Ubisoft’s worked so hard to achieve. Towards the end, there’s perhaps a little too much backtracking and the less said about the ending – no matter which of the three you end up with – the better.
Mostly minor niggles aside, it’s an exhilarating thrill-ride, injecting new life in to the survival horror genre. So tense and atmospheric, in fact – that it took me forever to finish. Call me a sissypants, but I struggled to play this game for longer than an hour or two at a go; my nerves just couldn’t handle it.
Until I developed that drinking habit.