See PixlBit's Review Policies
On 01/09/2013 at 12:00 PM by Jon Lewis
The definition of survival horror.
For fans of survival horror games, rouge-likes, or anyone looking for a great Wii U title.
Take this how you will, but I am scared of playing ZombiU. Every time I pick up the Wii U Gamepad to start playing, I get a feeling of dread, and worry. Before I start, I carefully consider my last outing in the game, and identify what it is I have to do in order to survive as long as possible. This is a feeling that no horror game has brought up in a long time. While my fear of ZombiU can be seen as a positive or a negative depending on the context of the question, there is no doubt that ZombiU is an achievement in the survival horror genre.
ZombiU interested me right off the bat with its premise. The game takes place in London after the devastating 2012 zombie apocalypse. You play as a survivor who, guided by a mysterious character known as “The Watcher” finds shelter in an area known as the safe house. The survivor, though oddly named, is only a device to help the player keep moving. Players have to take care while moving through the zombie infested world. If you die, you die. If you get bitten, you get turned into a zombie. Instead of retrying, you are spawned as a new survivor and have to find the zombified corpse of the old survivor in order to get your supplies back. If that sounds interesting to you, then you should know that in practice, it really is. The permanence of death makes you feel the danger around every corner. It spikes up the tension, and makes a couple of zombies as terrifying as a mob of them in your average zombie shooter.
The plot doesn’t get too complex, but it centers on finding out what caused the outbreak and finding a cure to the disease. Unfortunately, the characters don’t get too interesting. Aside from “The Watcher” himself, none of the characters in the game are very memorable. If anything, you become attached to the survivor(s) but solely because of the gameplay investment that you are making, not because of the writing. That said, a lot of the interesting plot points are told through the lore that you can pick up in the form of newspapers and journals.
At its core, ZombiU is less about the plot, and more about the gameplay. This is where ZombiU shines. At first glance, it appears to be a by-the-numbers first person shooter, and while the game is a shooter, the gameplay is largely based on survival rather than shooting. Players who try to run and gun through hordes of zombies will probably end up not having fun. Conserving ammo, managing resources and being cautious are the big themes here. Because of this, there are many ways to tackle the enemies at hand. One could try to sneak past as many zombies as possible by taking a high route. If a player desires, they can use that high ground to take out each zombie one by one from the safest position possible. However, if you have the firepower, guns become a valid option, though it will likely prove to be much more challenging. Players can also use items, like flares to lure zombies away and avoid a fight all together. It all depends on your resources and the current situation.
The Wii U Gamepad is your biggest tool while making these decisions,which acts as a survival kit in some respect. On it you have a map, a motion tracker which picks up movement in the area, your bag which contains items, as well as your stats information. The Gamepad is also used to unlock doors, solve combinations and pick locks. All in all, it's an integral part of the experience, but it can also get you into trouble. While you can pause the game like normal with the pause button, going into your Gamepad functions does not pause the game. That means looking at the Gamepad puts you in danger as you could be attacked while using it. This creates extra tension, as you are constantly making sure that you are safe before you do anything. Being prepared is a must, and not having the proper items selected at a given moment could prove troublesome if you are not careful.
All of these factors come together to create an incredibly terrifying experience at times. For example, upon losing a survivor at one point in my game, I traveled back to find my lost items. When I got there, more zombies that heard the gunfire from my previous encounter crowded around the old survivor, who was now a zombie with a bag that contained some essential healing and offensive weaponry. With only a flashlight and a pistol with 6 shots in it, I felt a sense of hopelessness. I knew that this game was the real deal when it not only delivered on jump scares, which there are plenty, but the psychological scares as well.
The scares that ZombiU delivers on are amplified by its great use of sound. The game is eerily quiet at times. You hear the sounds of your character breathing, and your own footsteps, but the second you begin to hear the growl of a zombie, the tension steps it up. The motion tracker also plays a huge part in this. The ping it sets off once it picks up something in your radius is unsettling, and you never know what could be in the area. It could be a zombie around the corner, or just some animal like a rat or crow that set off the tracker. Either way, it builds up the sense of tension well, so when you actually do encounter a zombie, emotions tend to flare. This is also represented in the music, which often gets louder during these encounters.
Despite all of the praise, ZombiU is not without fault. In fact, one of its most jarring faults comes in its premise. Though I understand and appreciate the premise of ZombiU, it almost makes this game hard to keep going back to. When you are on a roll with a survivor, gameplay is addictive. However after losing a survivor that was alive for 3 hours, and decked out with amazing weaponry, it gets really discouraging. I lost a survivor in one spot that was unsafe to return to, and ended up losing some really important weaponry. That loss made me not want to play the game for a long stretch of time. Though I did retain a bulk of those items (most items respawn randomly throughout the world) the zombies got to me. This stress and worry may cause some players to hate the game. It becomes scary and less fun because you are constantly worried. While that is the aim of the game, it still might cause people to put the game down for long stretches of time out of frustration. Others, who don’t have an issue with fear or stress, might have an easier time jumping back in. Players with experience with games like Demon Souls or Dark Souls will likely be able to roll with this pretty easily.
Another issue lies in the gunplay. It's adequate, but not nearly as smooth as your average shooter. Whether that was intentional or not, this is still something that could be improved upon. Some guns come off as unresponsive, or lack the impact that you would expect. Even though that is a factor, it doesn’t really matter because most encounters will rely on your handy Cricket Bat. Over half of the encounters that you have in ZombiU will come down to whacking a zombie over the head with that bat a number of times. This wouldn’t be an issue if each zombie didn’t take numerous strikes to go down. Every now and then one will fall in about 3 hits, but on average you will have to strike a zombie about 5 to 7 times in order to finish it off. It gets repetitive and isn’t very fun in the grand scheme of things. More variety in the melee department could have done wonders for the overall fun factor.
Something that did surprise in the fun department was the multiplayer. While I feel like online was a missed opportunity for the “King of Zombies” mode, it does provide a much more engaging couch-based competitive experience than I expected. The player with the Gamepad is the “King of Zombies” and has dominion over different enemy types from the game. The other player controls a survivor with the Wii Remote and tries to defend himself from the zombie onslaught. Assault has players trying to capture points on a map. Killing Box is a more action packed mode, based on how many zombies the human player can kill before dying. More modes can be unlocked upon completion of the game, but I found that Assault was the most fun. Managing the different zombie types is pretty fun, and fending them off is just as satisfying. The only issue I have is that the fun is short lived, and after a few rounds it gets stale.
Overall, I consider ZombiU an achievement. This game is true survival horror, providing physical and psychological forms of horror. It encourages player interaction by letting players leave messages for each other, and even spawning zombies from other people's games in your own. It makes excellent use of the Wii U hardware and demonstrates how the Gamepad can create an engaging and unique experience. All of the little quirks and minor technical issues aside, and you have one of the Wii U’s best games on display with ZombiU.