Time to start over, indeed…
Leading up to the Wii U’s mid-November release, ZombiU easily established itself as my most anticipated game of the launch window. Ubisoft billed the experience as a creepy, adult-themed survival-horror game hell-bent on making more of the console’s capabilities than a slew of multiplayer contrivances and a few GamePad gimmicks, so I was ready to surrender my soul to this fight for life against an onslaught of undead in an eerily rendered United Kingdom.
Instead, I ended up with a game that lent way too much credence to the old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” than I would have ever feared, abruptly alerting me to the fact that there are scarier things out there than flesh-eating zombies.
And what’s so spooky that I’d rather face the brain-munching horde with a cricket bat and a smile, you ask?
Simply put, that moment when you realize that—for all their goodwill and clever notions—the team at Ubisoft Montpellier couldn’t quite nail that balance between solid ideas and enviable execution, leaving us with a ZombiU experience that’s a shambling, aimless shell of the original concept.
You see, the hallmarks of the idea are still there, but as much as they resemble the horror I once imagined, there’s always something to unsettle the illusion.
The first thing you’ll notice is that this game is frickin’ hard. The main reason is ZombiU’s reliance on a permadeath mechanic, where each zombie bite results in restarting as a new survivor who has to loot his or her now-undead predecessor to regain precious supplies. It makes for tough going, and I enjoyed the random slices of citizenry I inhabited, but why does the mysterious Prepper—a survivor trying to guide other humans to salvation—always talk to me like we’ve been friends for years? Why do I always start with the same equipment? And why the f*** does my old zombie self disappear after I die two times in a row? Does the survivor with hours’ worth of goods just magically decide he’s going on vacation? It makes no sense, and it ends up breaking the narrative as much as it adds to the difficulty.
The same could be said for the visuals, in fact. Aesthetically, I couldn’t help but admire the post-outbreak chaos of an utterly infested London—looted, soiled, and shattered in a stunning visual reflected of horrors both past and present. But why are my eyeballs incessantly covered in a weird grimy film? Why is my flashlight a glorified laser-pointer with an utterly unnecessary 90-second battery life? Why do all the zombies seem to use the same two to three angry idle animations, often doing a better job of reenacting the Thriller video by growling in unison than scaring the s*** out of me?
Sure, I understand that some of those elements were implemented to make the game creepy or to add tension, but ultimately, they just don’t make a ton of sense. What’s more, they make you stop and ask why you’re even dealing with them in the first place, reminding you that this is a game—which makes a definite dent in ZombiU’s fear factor.
Then you’ve got the game’s core mechanics, many of which attempt to make use of the GamePad tablet controller. On some levels, they succeed: the risk-reward of delving into your “bug-out bag” amidst the constant threat of some crafty zombie crawling up to take a bite out of you adds a ton of tension, as does making use of the GamePad to scan for zombies and loot items. It comes off as a clever use for modern tablets in the wake of a zombie infestation, and I even enjoyed using the built-in gyroscope to take aim at undead uglies via heavy artillery.
Why do I have to look into my bug-out bag to reload? Other shooters have managed to just let me slap a clip into my gun when I’m empty. I get the need for tension, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t find a better place to put my bullets when the fleshsacks came a-callin’. And as cool as the Aliens-inspired radar is, it’s hard not to notice that it frequently misses zombies waiting in the obvious scare spots—a clear plot to avoid ruining the “BOO!” moments. As a result, this makes checking the radar with any regularity start to matter less and less. And then there’s the aforementioned need to turn off and magically recharge your flashlight. I’m not sure who manufactured this 1.5-minute wonder, but honestly, don’t most industrial flashlights pack enough power to last a few hours?
And, look, I get that the idea here is to build tension while making use of the Wii U’s feature set with respect to basic design principles, but most of the ideas here just come off as a cheap scare tactics—and, frankly, I think the developers could’ve done better.
Speaking of an area where they should’ve stepped it up, let’s talk about combat. ZombiU focuses on two primary methods of monster-mashing: firearms and melee combat via an apparently indestructible cricket bat. The guns are serviceable and satisfying for the most part, but with ammo in such short supply and headshots being a bit less effective than you’d hope, you’ll quickly find yourself running like hell and battening down the hatches or turning to face the music with your wooden buddy in hand. And that, my friends, is when I really lost my patience.
Calling melee combat clunky in ZombiU is sort of like labeling a sack race between a horde of drunken toddlers a bit of a debacle. Regardless of what some folks who love the game’s pacing may tell you, this s*** just does. Not. Work. Each swing takes a ridiculous amount of time, your base zombie takes a good five-to-seven whacks to the noggin to set up for a fatality, and for some reason, you have to ready your bat with one trigger and swing with another. This ends up making even the most basic enemy a chore—and a group of them a fun-hating vortex of methodical mush that gets real old, real fast. Considering that games like Dead Island and Condemned managed to make first-person melee work, I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a better way to make combat seem tense.
And that’s the thing about ZombiU. For all of its shortcomings, it does a great job of seeming like a game I’d like. In its best moments, it can be tense, terrifying, and downright difficult. As a longtime fan of the survival-horror genre, I was happy to see someone take a swing at a game that wasn’t loud, lightning-fast, or quick to pander to the weaksauce gamers in the community. But there’s a difference between solid concepts and throwing a bunch of ideas to a wall and hoping they stick. Like so many battered brains on the wall of Buckingham Palace, ZombiU is most certainly the latter.
SUMMARY: As much as I’d love to heap praise on ZombiU for a smashing debut on a console that needed a good proof-of-concept, it ultimately comes off as a game that tried to get there the easy way—and failed. I applaud Ubisoft’s desire to bring fear back to the genre while leveraging the Wii U’s unique capabilities, but I wish they could’ve found a way to do so that didn’t require so much needless pandering.
- THE GOOD: Finally, a game that puts the “horror” back in survival-horror.
- THE BAD: GamePad mechanics simply for the sake of it.
- THE UGLY: Zombies that don’t have the good sense to die. Again.
ZombiU is a Wii U exclusive.