You’d think that in a game involving zombies, it would be the monsters who were slow-witted shamblers. Nope. In ZombiU, it’s you – the player – who can be easily snuck up on and who has trouble moving around.
For all the neat second-screen tricks ZombiU tries to pack in courtesy of the Wii U’s GamePad controller there’s no getting around it: the game plays is fundamentally difficult, repetitive and boring. Playing it makes you feel like one of the zombies you’re constantly whomping upside the head with a cricket bat. It’s so frustrating at times, you almost wish you could take that bat to your own head.
The tale begins with a zombie outbreak in London, as prophesied by the Queen’s doctor/alchemist John Dee four centuries ago. The player wakes up in a darkened basement, to discover he or she is one of the last survivors. Another survivor who calls himself the Prepper pipes in over an intercom system to say he wants to help, and so he guides you through this new hell.
After arming yourself with said bat, a BOB (bug-out bag, which is the game’s fancy term for a backpack) and a tablet-like device that suspiciously resembles the Wii U GamePad, the Prepper sends you off on missions in the zombie-infested ruins of London.
You’ll discover weapons along the way – rifles, shotguns, Molotov cocktails – but they never seem to help much against the monstrous hordes, since they seem to pop out at the weirdest times. If you enter a completely deserted courtyard, you can be sure a zombie or two will appear out of nowhere to chomp on you just when you get down to prying a board off the door you need to enter.
Ammo is sparse, as it is in many horror survival games, but even the bullets you do find don’t seem to do much. Dead-on headshots, which according to Zombie 101 is supposed to instantly drop them, don’t guarantee they’ll stay down for the count. Inevitably, out comes the cricket bat.
Melee combat with this particular instrument couldn’t be more dull. The left trigger winds up and the right trigger swings. Pulling only the right trigger results in a bunt of sorts, which pushes the zombies back temporarily so that you can haul off with a proper swing again. That’s about it. Over and over again.
The zombies themselves are inordinately tough, and they seem to take a random number of wallops to go down. And once they’re on the ground, you need to stomp on them to permanently put them out. That’s all fine and dandy if there’s just one of them, but that’s rare. Taking on any more than two zombies at a time usually results in (your) brains for dinner.
When you die – and die you will – you’ll respawn as a new, randomly named Londoner back in the same darkened basement. The previous character is now part of the horde outside and if you want all that stuff you gathered in your BOB, you’ll have to kill him or her for it. Just look for the zombie wearing a spiffy new backpack.
The idea of permanent character death is kind of neat, even if its implementation makes no logical sense. If there’s an unlimited number of survivors, couldn’t they have banded together in the first place and taken on the zombies en masse? Come to think of it, the idea of a zombie plague survivor running around London with a tablet doesn’t make much sense either. Where is the Internet connection coming from? Are cellular networks still working? Is there an app for that?
Logic appears to have taken a back seat to Ubisoft’s attempts to exploit Wii U’s second-screen whiz-bangs. The GamePad serves a number of purposes, including spending most of the game as your map. When you loot zombies for ammo and other goodies, the controller also doubles as a backpack inventory screen. Throughout the game, it also acts as a sonar, hacking device, keypad for entering codes and sniper rifle scope, among others.
Some of these uses are okay – having a map on your lap rather than having to surf through pause screens is handy – but most bring up one simple question: why? As in, why can’t such actions be accomplished with buttons instead?
Perhaps the best example is removing manhole covers or boards on doors, which is done by mundanely tapping on the GamePad screen. It almost makes you want to say, “Ooh, look at me – I’m tapping on a touch screen instead of on a button. Isn’t technological progress amazing?”
The multiplayer mode, available only locally for two players on the Wii U, is actually considerably better than the single-player. One player, the Zombie King, uses the GamePad to drop monsters onto a map. The second player, using a regular Wiimote or Pro controller, has to survive or capture flags against this onslaught. It’s a fun option that could have been even better if it had been opened up online. As such it’s pretty limited.
In all modes, the developers’ efforts might also have been better spent on the graphics. Although they’re not terrible, the environments and zombies themselves look a little muddy, dark and unremarkable.
If ZombiU is the title that was supposed to showcase the Wii U as a console that core gamers could be happy with, more resources should have been devoted to the basics rather than on the gimmicks. It’s an odd sort of survival horror game that struggles to be scary, never mind enjoyable.