ZombiU Review: Judging A Book By Its Cover

ZombiU probably isn’t the game you think it is.

I predict this for a number of reasons. It’s a launch title for a new system, and one developed by Ubisoft, a developer with a pretty spotty launch title record (Red Steel, anyone?). Every piece of information regarding the game before release has naturally focused on the Wii U’s GamePad, which could easily be read as a warning sign about the game itself. Also, the name of this goddamn game is ZombiU, like we’re living in some odd, Nintendo 64-esque era where such a title is acceptable. The whole thing reeks of a kind of disaster.

In reality, ZombiU is anything but. It’s a smart, scary, slow game marred by some predictable launch window woes.

ZombiU has no pretensions regarding story, and that’s largely okay. You wake up as one of many random survivors in a rundown London Underground station. Your objective is clear: survive. There’s a guy named the Prepper who talks to you over a radio sometimes, but that’s about it. You have to learn by doing rather than listening. This is all well and good, except for one really bothersome footnote; one of the game’s features is a permanent death system, so when a survivor dies, they’re dead for good. That in itself is fine, even great in context, but the game fumbles up a lot of promise. When you die, you wake up in the exact same safe house with a different character model. This character for some reason knows the Prepper, and knows what they should be doing, even though in the universe of the game they couldn’t possibly know either of those things. It’s a distracting blight on an otherwise unobtrusive story.

Luckily, that permanent death system leads to some very interesting gameplay consequences. After a character dies, you are essentially tasked with performing an old MMO-style corpse run to get back all your equipment. The dead character may even be shambling around as a zombie, and you’ll have to put him/her down yourself to grab your supplies. If you die on the way back to getting these supplies, they’re gone for good. It’s a concept that games like Dark Souls have fooled around with, but I think it works better here than in any previous incarnation.

To call ZombiU an open-world game is a little misleading. It’s really just a series of levels accessible through a fast travel system, with a rather long load slotted between each. In a really odd decision, some doors take 10-30 seconds to load, and the game doesn’t pause while it takes place. This led to a couple instances where zombies that were chasing me caught up because of that real-time load. The game also has its fair share of repeated architecture and clipping: standard fare for a launch title.

ZombiU ultimately succeeds because it has enough great ideas to make those inevitable technical issues less noticeable and damaging to the overall experience. This is my favorite kind of horror game, one that is atmospheric, paranoid, and tense. Death is always a moment away, and the penalty for screwing up badly is severe. Each zombie is an ordeal on its own, and 90 percent of the time when you fight more than one, it’s a disaster.

These obstacles are nothing that can’t be overcome with some careful planning and scavenging. There are CCTV junction boxes throughout the world that you can hack into, and back at your safe house, they can be used to scout for items in specific locations. Should I proceed with the mission at hand or risk going to a different area on a supply run? Such a question is often mentally proposed.

When you’re outfitted well enough, another layer of strategy is revealed. Example: I once ran into a park with five or six zombies in it. There were mines littering the ground, so it was hard to move quickly. I decided I’d hang back for a second and come up with a plan. I took out a flare (which, when thrown, all zombies run towards) and threw it into the middle of the park. When the zombies bunched together, I threw a Molotov cocktail, lighting them all on fire. The zombies scattered, and as they did, set off every single mine. My methods were indirect, and I didn’t take any damage.

If I wasn’t paying attention, a number of things could have gone wrong. I could have ran out into the park and stepped on a mine. I could have focused on one zombie with my cricket bat (the only melee weapon in the game) while the others tore me to shreds. I could have dispatched all the zombies with my pistol or shotgun, and burned up all the ammo I spent so long saving and collecting. These situations gone awry, they happen all the time. When I executed the plan with the flare and the mines, I was experienced through my failures. That sort of tough love is the mark of a game that’s brilliant in its difficulty.

ZombiU also might be the most encouraging use of the GamePad in the Wii U’s entire launch lineup. Your inventory is located on the bottom screen, adding an extra layer of risk/reward to swapping items or weapons. There’s a  map with a radar that should be invaluable to careful players. Holding the L trigger allows you to scan the environment with the GamePad, which marks health items and weapons, as well as locating enemies and solving puzzles. The interplay between the two screens takes some getting used to, but it only adds to the immersion and tension of a game that’s plenty immersive and tense as it is.

This isn’t a perfect game, but it’s exactly what I’m looking for in a launch title. It makes great use of the new hardware, and has a wealth of interesting ideas. A lot of people are tired of zombies in games, but I’m not really one of them, probably because I’ve found most portrayals to be unsatisfactory. ZombiU is damn close to my kind of zombie game, where you’re weak and outnumbered and low on just about everything, but you still somehow figure out a way to succeed. It’s as unforgiving and stressful as any game I’ve played this year.

But yeah, ZombiU is a terrible name for a video game.