How long will you survive? That is the question that ZombiU asks, and the answer, if you are not prepared, isn’t long at all. After years of devolving into mutilated cannon fodder the zombie is strong once again. It’s up to you to survive in the ruins of London with little more than a low-powered flashlight and a cricket bat. And these zombies are hardly the weak shuffling masses in games like Dead Rising or Dead Island. They’ve been empowered by your inability to fight them off. This game is a throwback to the glory days of the survival horror genre, and if that’s enough to get you excited, then I’m certain you’ll merrily bash aside its flaws.
The story puts you in the shoes of a random survivor, a he/she that possesses a face, a name and a previous career path. From the safehouse, your base of operations in this world gone dark, you embark to cut a bloody swath through zombie territory, fetching the newest, most critical item. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. The voice of the Prepper will follow you about London while shouting advice, orders and history lessons via the GamePad.
Your primary method of holding off the approaching horde comes in the form of the cricket bat. It doesn’t do much damage, requiring a good 5 to 7 thwacks to the noggin to kill an average zombie. Available ammunition is scarce leaving you with little other options. There’s something delightfully visceral about the actual swinging of the bat. It’s the way the zombie reels back with each blow and the way their skulls fracture. It’s also the sounds your character makes as they pummel away, starting off with mere grunts and building up to blood curdling screams that seem to blend fear and desperation into one.
While there’s little ammo to find, there’s still a small arsenal of weapons to gather. Pistols give way to shotguns, rifles, both hunting and assault. Alternative solutions to curing the zombie plague include explosives such as grenades and mines. For the silent but deadly types there’s a crossbow complete with scope. A single shot to the head with that and most zombies will be eating dirt instead of brains.
“How long will you survive?”
There’s a sort of narrative that drives this whole process. Years ago a man named John Dee predicted the zombie plague, and now it’s real. The goal in the story mirrors that of the game: to survive. So for the most part you’ll be spending your time looking for supplies, but every once in a while you’ll find yourself breaking away from that to do other, escape related tasks. Regardless of what you’re fetching for whom, the simplistic mission structure exists only to give reason to why you’re wandering around in the dark.
And the game is very, very dark. At its suggested brightness settings, your pathetic little flashlight barely lights what’s in front of you, especially in any of the indoor environments. It makes searching for things such as ammo and health packs a little tricky as they don’t exactly stand out in the darkness. That’s where the GamePad comes in handy. You can use it to scan the room, projecting a significantly brighter light on things. The use of it gets the attention of nearby zombies, however, so it’s best to ensure your safety before scanning for items.
The GamePad is also your inventory screen, your map and your radar. The radar allows you to ping the map for movement. Your inventory is accessed by a simple swipe, bringing the backpack open over your map, leaving your onscreen character vulnerable to attack. Luckily you can map out six quick select buttons to easily switch weapons and use items.
Outside of the story there’s a local multiplayer attached to the game and it makes for a pleasant distraction. One player, using a Wiimote and Wii U Pro controller/nunchuck, fights off the zombies with a much more comfortable selection of guns and ammo than the single player game ever provided. The other uses the GamePad, as the King of Zombies, to spawn zombies onto the playing field. It’s fun, but honestly, the time spent developing could have better been used fixing the main campaign.
ZombiU isn’t as developed as it should have been. On one hand weapons can be upgraded, but these are all passive upgrades. The damage they do, the ammo they hold, their accuracy and firing speed can all be upgraded, but only once per gun. It would seem, in this kind of game, it would make more sense to force the player to gamble on where the upgrades are spent. Sure, your pistol is all powerful now, but you have no ammo.
Also, on the note of weapon upgrades, it would have been nice to be able to upgrade your flashlight. Or perhaps have a secondary, brighter mode, that burned through the battery faster and alerted zombies from farther away, except now you can see what you’re looking at. There could have also been a wider selection of melee weapons beyond the grand total of one. At least to inject some much needed variety to the lengthy process of beat zombies faces off.
Whenever you die, assuming you were killed by a zombie and didn’t blow yourself up, you respawn at the safehouse as a new survivor. In order to get your stuff back you have to go out, find your previous survivor, kill and then loot. This take on permadeath makes for a clever gimmick, but after a few deaths I found it to be more annoying than scary. Even worse, during the games abhorrent finale, dying creates holes in the narrative.
A large amount of the game has you wandering around in the dark but there are more scripted moments to be found. At times things get hectic and you’re forced to run into danger. These scenes are exciting and frantic and they work to offset the balance against the typical slow pace. The final parts of the game just break down all around their good intentions. Unnecessary backtracking pads this section, adding length to the end where a separate endgame would have made more sense.
And then there are the bugs. Over the course of the game I personally noticed only a few bugs but it was during the end that everything decomposed.
The mission waypoint sent me in the wrong direction. A zombie, a quite dangerous one that explodes when tapped by a cricket bat, decided to run into a wall. I shot at it, nothing happened. A couple zombies chased me out of a hallway. I turned to shoot at them, only to discover they’d frozen in place. When I managed to navigate the maze of corridors I’d forgotten, made even worse by the games constant darkness, the ending just didn’t load. So much for survival.
It’s the kind of thing that leaves a terrible aftertaste, making it difficult to look back upon the whole experience and wonder if it was any good at all. And you know what, there were amazing times to be had. ZombiU is an atmospheric game that can be very tense and even sometimes scary. You just have to be willing to over look its flaws.