The Invisible Gamer concept is what drew me to this site, as both a visitor and a writer. Within gaming, there are certain opinions that tend to be shouted down by the major gaming media outlets, while huge numbers of fans see their collective opinions go without expression. In this age of Metacritic, our voices should matter, but theirs too often seem to “matter” so much more. Case in point: ZombiU. If you are a longtime survival horror fan like me, then you will love the experience provided by ZombiU. Unfortunately, early reviews from major outlets bashed the game to the point where it is thought of by the uninformed (and supposedly-informed) as a failure that has marred the Wii U’s launch lineup. Nothing could be further from the truth in the eyes of a survival horror fan who wants some real survival horror, rather than a third person shooter using jump-scares in pale imitation of true tension.
The Wii U’s first few months of life have not been particularly good for the system. Games to be released for the system have been canceled (though in the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines, that might be a good thing), formerly exclusive games have been announced as multiplatform (Rayman, I’m looking at you), and many games have just been glorified ports (Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Injustice: Gods Among Us) – often very playable ports with nifty new features, but sometimes lacking in functions that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 crowds take for granted.
ZombiU, however, is one of those exclusive titles that provides a solid reason to own a Wii U: these killer zombies make for a killer app.
Real Survival Horror
In a genre that has transformed from the true scares and tension of the original Resident Evil games, the first Dead Space, and their brethren into a genre filled with solid shooters like Resident Evil 4 – 6, Dead Space 2 – 3, and their ilk, “survival horror” has come to mean “survive wave after wave of bullet-sponge enemies that just happen to look like horror movie creatures.” When Call of Duty has a zombie-fighting mode and begins to call that mode “survival horror,” you know that the genre no longer lives up to its moniker.
Enter ZombiU, a true survival horror game that puts the tension and fear back into the genre, while providing innovations along the way.
ZombiU puts players in London in the wake of a “zombie apocalypse.” You play as a survivor, who is drawn into the safehouse of the Prepper, who provides you with your mission goals and advice as you travel in the growing, somewhat open world of London. Your missions will take you into the streets, sewers, military facilities, and even Buckingham Palace. All the while, you must face increasingly difficult enemies, some slow, some fast, and some who even teleport. (Yes, I know teleporting zombies sounds odd, but can be truly terrifying in confined spaces.)
In the game’s earliest moments, you find yourself wielding a cricket bat (London, remember?), then a small pistol. By the end of the game, you may eventually find yourself using quite a few different weapons, divided into pistols, shotguns, rifles, and the like. I say “may” because these are not “gifts” for completing levels or automatic pickups to progress the story as in many games. When you find a new weapon, it is generally a fortuitous find (or discovered through use of strategy guides that are, frankly, a necessity to get the most out of ZombiU). You could very well reach the end of the game having experienced only a few weapons. Either way, you will find ammo scarce enough that you will often resort to your bat, which can be used to push away zombies or to bash them to a second death.
As in many survival horror games, your inventory space is limited, though it does expand if you find larger backpacks during your travels. Fortunately, you do have a container back at the safehouse where you can put items you do not wish to carry at that moment. In general, you carry whatever you can fit in your pack, along with up to six items that can be placed into quick-access inventory slots in the top corners of the Gamepad screen. (You will usually want to have at least your cricket bat, one or two firearms, a grenade or Molotov cocktail, and at least one health item in those slots at all times.)
Controls are typical of a first person shooter, barring using the Gamepad’s inventory slots with quick thumb presses to switch items quickly. However, the use of the Gamepad shines (and provides extra tension) when dealing with your “Prepper Pad” and inventory management. The Gamepad (Prepper Pad in the game) can be held up and titled around to look for points of interest in the environment. You can then scan them for more information about their contents, the hidden meanings of certain glyphs, to add the locations of enemies to your map, and the like. When searching your inventory for an item, or when looting a body or cabinet to find supplies, you will also look down to the Gamepad to move those items via a touch-based menu into your own inventory. In these cases, your character on the TV screen will use his Prepper Pad or Bug Out Bag (backpack), while you are looking at the Gamepad. You must remain vigilant, however. As in the trend started with Dead Space that does not stop the action around you when accessing menus, you can still be attacked when doing these things, which forces you to keep glancing between Gamepad and television, heightening the tension.
Light also plays a fundamental part in ZombiU. While there are several types of zombies to encounter, they are all attracted to light. This allows you to use a flare to lure zombies into an area and blow them up with a mine, grenade, or Molotov cocktail, but it also means that your own light (with limited power that must be turned off periodically to recharge) will draw zombies to you. You can use this to your advantage, however, grabbing the attention of one zombie at a time from a large area of infected to better your odds of survival.
Permadeath, Zombie Friends, and Asymmetrical Multiplayer
If the Gamepad wasn’t enough, two more truly unique aspects emerge with ZombiU: permadeath and its unusual takes on interacting with other players.
Within the game, you play as a survivor, who is given very little characterization and no spoken dialogue, putting you into the role more deeply, so that their eyes feel like your own more than when playing as a heavily-developed protagonist. When taken by surprise from behind, attacked at a low health level, or unable to respond quickly enough, a zombie will grab and bite you (an attack that can only be evaded by use of a Virucide shot that you receive midway through the game that is good for one use and can be refilled from drawing the substance into a syringe from special zombies that scanning with the Prepper Pad can identify). Once bitten (or killed by fire or a fall), your current survivor dies, permanently. If bitten by a zombie, that survivor becomes a zombie and inhabits the area in which you were killed. What makes this important is that this dead survivor is wearing your backpack with all of the gear you had loaded into it! You then wake up as a new survivor, and you must not only pick up where the “dead you” left off, but also hunt down the zombie version of your former self, so that you can kill him and take back your gear. To do this, you have only a bat, pistol, and whatever you have left in the container back at the safehouse, which makes it a particularly bad idea to carry all of your weapons at once. Moreover, if your new survivor dies before reclaiming your gear, then everything he was carrying is redistributed throughout the game’s various locations, and you must either do without or follow indications on CCTV cameras in the safehouse to find the items all over again. In this survival horror scenario, death actually matters and adds significantly to the game’s tension and scares.
If this wasn’t enough to add tension, players can try Survival Mode, a run through the normal single-player mode with one catch: if you die, the game ends completely. You will not wake as another survivor, but instead have to start over from scratch. This is truly for the hardcore survival horror gamer. Think of it as permadeath taken to an even higher level.
The game’s interaction with other players also heightens the experience, but those looking for the typical Call of Duty-esque multiplayer modes will find themselves disappointed. The game makes use of social components in two primary ways. First, if you have friends via your Nintendo ID who are also playing ZombiU, then when those friends die and become zombies, they do not just appear in their game to let them retrieve gear. They also appear in your game, so that you can kill them and loot items from them. This adds some unpredictability and social dynamics to this mostly solo experience, while not affecting your friends’ ability to get their gear back (via the incarnation of their zombie self in their game, which is not affected by their zombie appearance in yours).
The game also includes two asymmetrical multiplayer modes (or three, thanks to Ubisoft’s Uplay, which must be downloaded via the Wii U eShop to access any of its unlockable goodies). The key term here is asymmetrical: players are not all doing the same thing. The three modes include traditional capture and hold, kill-to-get-points, and see-how-long-you-survive variants. One player uses the Gamepad to be the “King of Zombies,” sending out zombies in a fashion similar to a real-time strategy (RTS) or tower defense game, gaining zombie types and numbers as the match progresses. The other player(s) play in a first person mode similar to the main game, fighting off the waves of zombies that are unleashed by the Gamepad player. (With the Gamepad already utilized, these other players will use a Wii Remote and Nunchuk or the Wii U Pro Controller.) While there is no progression system from match to match, and all multiplayer modes are local-only (no online multiplayer whatsoever), these multiplayer modes are highly enjoyable and can become quite addictive.
The great local multiplayer experience is just the icing on the cake for a single player experience that truly deserves the “survival horror” label. The game starts slow, as you wade into the world and very slowly gain new gear, but by the end, this is an experience that should not be missed, including a final sequence that literally left me shaking for half an hour after the credits had rolled.
Survival horror fans owe it to themselves to check out ZombiU. It just might be the best true survival horror game since Dead Space.