August 11, 2013

I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling the Wii U’s software launch is fairly lukewarm. Amidst a slew of recent-to-late third party ports, most of which already have homes on other platforms, sit Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land. Next to these is Ubisoft’s ZombiU. The former two cut a slice of gaming catering to obvious tastes: here’s your mini-game collection showcasing the GamePad, and here’s your classic side scrolling Mario in flashy 720p. But what of ZombiU? The major concern was that Ubisoft’s launch offering would fall victim to Red Steel-itis, or find itself positioned as the token generic Wii U launch first person shooter. And to be honest, a part of me expected ZombiU to succumb to one of these fates.

Thankfully I was wrong.

Booting up my Wii U on launch day, the order in which I sampled my trio of software resembles their introduction in this review. First Mario, then Nintendo Land, and finally ZombiU. And despite Mario retaining his addictive core platforming formula the series is well known for, and Nintendo Land surprising with delightful mini-games that manage to hold themselves up even while playing alone, it was ZombiU that I found myself wanting to play more of. Yep, Ubisoft’s survival horror managed to outshine Mario and Nintendo’s digital theme-park, and even in the context of an uninspired launch that’s saying something.

And “survival horror” is exactly ZombiU in every essence, more-so than any game I can think of in recent memory, and perhaps going as far as the entire previous generation. Every component of ZombiU‘s design falls back on the concept of survivability: scarce ammo and equipment, infected people deal a vicious amount of damage whenever they fail to instantly kill you, and the oppressive atmosphere forces you into an uncomfortable zone where all you want to do is sit in a corner and cry. The simple act of crossing the road is lathered in intensity and paranoia, and never lets up.

ZombiU is so true to the foundations of “survival horror” that I’m certain such directive will actively work against the title for many players. This is a game that values survival in its purest form, the act of simply lasting for as long as possible, rewarding the careful player who plans their approach and paces themselves throughout the Metroidvanialike level hubs, while severely punishing the careless. ZombiU is best played from the perspective of a legitimate survivor, trying your absolute best to fend off the hoards. This playstyle feeds off the game’s “one death and you’re out” life design, developing a brilliant self sustained loop where longer lasting survivors, and thus better players, are ironically likely to experience an even more intense and soul crushing adventure.

My ascent through the Tower of London is probably the best example of this. Early on my first unwitting survivor (in other words me getting used to the mechanics) fell victim to a crawling infected near the local supermarket. The second survivor, a thirty-three year old housewife of no notable fame or fortune, picked up where Survivor #1 left off. Dispatching Survivor #1′s now animated corpse net two rewards: some ammo for my pistol, and a harsh lesson in survivability. Survivor #2 was sure to play more carefully, conserve ammunition, and take absolutely no unnecessary risks. She would live, of that I would make sure.

Enter the Tower of London, a newly unlocked area some eight hours after Survivor #2′s introduction into this hostile world. This housewife was now a force to be reckoned with, armed with a sniper rifle, crossbow, double barrel shotgun, upgraded pistol, and newly acquired AK47. “I’ve got this in the bag!”, I thought to myself. Alas, an unexpected rush from the hoard coupled with my own arrogance lead to Survivor #2 backed in a corner with ammo depleted and swarmed by the undead. She was gone, along with eight hours of survival. Just like that.

And so was born Survivor #3, a nobody ex-cop ready to pick up where Survivor #2 left off. But before doing anything, he had a plan: hunt down Survivor #2′s infected body, kill “it”, and retrieve her collected goodies. And though he’d make the rude discovery that Survivor #2 had transformed into a super infected type (likely due to the long survivability and thus high score), he did manage to put her down for good (with the help of a grenade) and acquire the goods. Sniper rifle, check. Shotgun, check. AK47, check. It was all there, and now his, for as long as he could hold on.

Survivor #3 didn’t make it to the end game. He perished in some catacombs. A silly mistake really, forgetting to scan the ground for corpses and removing their heads, ensuring no infected would unexpectedly animate. One little mistake and he too was gone. But that’s ZombiU for you.

I almost want to believe that the success of ZombiU as survival horror is a consequence of the typical woes associated with titles fumbling with new hardware and rushed to meet a launch date set by someone else. The expected jank is there. For example, there’s not much of a narrative to speak of, instead simplistic radio commands from mostly unseen figures directing you towards simple fetch-quest style objectives through areas. Yet this works in the game’s favour, as the absence of plentiful cut-scenes, over-scripting, and lengthy dialogue ensure that almost 100% of your play time takes place first person and in complete control. Obviously limited in production due to the launch window, the Metroidvania stages really only draw upon the latter titles in how they loop around with short-cuts.  You won’t find many alternate paths, and most environments are limited to rooms and halls. But again, this ‘flaw’ results in a positive influence on the design, making for hauntingly claustrophobic locals and a real sense of planning and methodical play to the game world. You know when the game is getting ‘gamey’. You know when you have to jump down a ledge, and you’ll be stuck down there until you work your way around. You know there’s no alternate path through that room of zombies. And because the game almost never forces you forward, it’s still up to you when you wish to progress and with what equipment. Backtrack if you’d like to hunt down supplies, then push forward. Bottleneck infected through those linear halls to an archway rigged with land mines. It’s not entirely freedom of play in level design, this is not a sandbox game after all, but there is freedom of play in how you approach each hub world, and how you’ll make your way through the various semi-randomised encounters. The key is player agency, and ZombiU retains a similar degree of player involvement and freedom in actions and behaviour to the likes of Far Cry 2.

These production inadequacies extend through to the presentation. Though I was impressed with the aesthetics of the game, channelling a British horror film vibe of muted colours and grain filtering not unlike 28 Days Later, with the exception of a fairly impressive lighting engine the actual technology powering the game is quite poor. Geometry is low detail, textures range from average to muddy, weak texturing filtering blurs imagery quickly, and so on. This isn’t an outstanding looking game in technology, not by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, again, the developers have used these limitations to their favour. Muddy textures? Minimise lighting, keep your environments small, and the resulting dimly lit tunnel vision shifts the focus from flashy visuals and bombastic production to careful attention to freaky audio cues and silhouetted, nightmarish figures down halls. Had environments been bigger and more detailed, I’m not sure the same degree of too-cl0se-for-comfort horror would have been realised.

Only one section of the game, towards the end, put a damper on the survival horror experience. Without spoiling, this sequence feels severely disconnected from the philosophy driving the title up until that point (and then after), devaluing the element of survival in favour of cheap, difficult kills and trial-and-error design. It baffled me how something so dumb could wind up in an otherwise intelligently designed survival horror, as it truly feels like something that would have been proposed then cut early in development. Alas, if any major mistake was made with ZombiU, this one section was it.

More than an isolated survival horror title, Ubisoft has pushed ZombiU to be a landmark of creativity with Nintendo’s GamePad. In short, it’s very much like playing a DS/3DS, and I mean this in a good way as the advantages of split screen design on a portable are just as valid on a console. Stripping the main screen of HUD icons is simple yet extremely effective way to clean up the display, making it all the more easier to immerse yourself in the experience. Touch screen backpack management works like a charm, the simple drag-and-drop inventory management far more tactile than fiddling with sticks and buttons. Meanwhile lock picking and barrier breaking mini-games are little more than simplistic tapping and dragging, though the split screen terror camera, giving you a perspective of the real world action while you try to break down a door, adds to the tension. No matter whether you’re fiddling with your backpack or interacting with the game world, ZombiU will never pause, leaving you perpetually vulnerable.

The other GamePad use is as a separate perspective whenever using your environment/item scanner (think Resident Evil: Revelations) or aiming down the sights with a scoped weapon. Using either the gyroscope or analogue stick you aim through the pad, and fire/scan at your own leisure. It does nothing to harm the experience, though is a little more gimmicky than touch pad interfaces, as there’s no real reason these functions couldn’t be replicated on the main screen. Still, some players may enjoy the bridge of the GamePad to the game world, given ZombiU somewhat breaks the fourth wall by giving survivors a “survival kit”, used for scanning, that looks identical to the pad in your hands.

Nintendo’s prominent Miiverse feature is not used in the same way New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land use it, though you’ll still be able to post screenshots and share content with users via the service itself (as with all games). ZombiU does however employ Ubisoft’s own content sharing, which keeps players informed of friend progress and leaderboards. Without a doubt my favourite feature is the networked infected, which occasionally populates your game with fallen survivors from friends games, along with all the gear they had on them at that point in time. It actually works as a favourable game mechanic, as spotting a friend’s infected survivor in your own world (complete with name and score) is sure to net you bountiful rewards should you manage to kill them. On more than one occasion I found myself starved for ammo, ultimately restocking via the corpse of a fallen survivor from my friend list. Neat little social networking mechanics that were heavily pushed in the likes of Demon’s/Dark Souls fit brilliantly into the ZombiU experience.

ZombiU also offers a singular multiplayer mode, local play only, that pits one character on the main screen against waves of spawned zombies controlled by whoever has the GamePad. As one player attempts to capture points in a traditional first person perspective, the other player controls the map not unlike a strategy game, spawning different types of zombies in strategic positions. The battle of strategy, survivor versus zombie king, works surprisingly well and has recipe for some hilarious local multiplayer. Longevity is called into question though, as limited content and the absence of online do give the impression it was added in later in development.

Most players will gravitate towards ZombiU for the survival horror single player, and rightly so. There’s plenty of room for Ubisoft to improve the formula, much of which would come naturally via a longer, less deadline pressured development cycle. But the strides made for the genre are evident from the moment you start playing. Even ignoring the GamePad functionality, this isn’t a gimmicky hand-out for the Wii U launch window. ZombiU could be on any platform and its bold, determined focus on survival gameplay would shine just as bright, as a unique and memorable title in any system’s library. And for taking those risks, for creating what could be the most accurate survival horror since the original Resident Evil, I have nothing short of utmost respect for the development team.

I’m wary if ZombiU has the makings to appeal to a wide audience, and during a launch window, where attractive, mass market titles are more valuable than ever, ZombiU could very well be the wrong title at the wrong time. The demanding, punishing gameplay, and the slow methodical progression won’t be for everyone. But as a stand alone horror experience it really doesn’t get much better than this. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go through it all again in Survivor mode, which gives me only one survivor to make it to end game. And if they fall, I start again. This time I’ll make sure to stock up before heading to the Tower of London.


Legitimate survival horror | Oppressive atmosphere | Good GamePad use


Rough around the edges | Poor rendering technology | Definitively niche?

Overall Score: