Though ZombiU has been widely reviewed, its Miiverse channel is still being bombarded with people asking “should I buy this game?” Seriously – just about every other post is someone new asking if it’s worth a buy. The reviews, meanwhile, are lined up across one of the widest chasms I’ve seen in the biz (I would get on my soapbox about why I find scored reviews patently ridiculous, but that’s for an opinion column on another day), with one camp calling it brilliant and another calling it deeply disappointing. Moreover, zombie fans already have a fantastic game to chew through in The Walking Dead.
So I write this for those of you still wondering. The details are after the jump, but the crib notes are thus: It may be the most superior survival horror game I’ve played in a long, long time.
To address first what seems to be most divisive about the game: ZombiU, hewing closely to old-school survival horror games, is hard – often brutally hard and, as a result, relentlessly scary. Death is painful in this game, much more than a jump back to the last checkpoint. I spent much of the game in a state of giddy terror, running from sequence to sequence, my sympathetic nervous system in a state of near collapse (seriously; I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to take a lot of potty breaks).
So I suppose one of the biggest deciding factors in your enjoyment of ZombiU may be based on how much of a challenge you’re up for.
ZombiU feels like the dictatorial, reclusive master teacher of so many old kung-fu movies; it will beat the hell out of you to make you better. There’s no hand-holding here. It won’t help out with auto-targeting; it won’t let you run and shoot at the same time and still stand a decent chance of killing anything; screwing up can be deeply painful. And that’s not to say I think there’s anything wrong with auto-targeting, strafing (okay, I’ll admit that being able to move, shoot, and hit targets at the same time breaks my suspension of disbelief in many games – and many movies, for that matter), or games that allow do-overs. But I cannot believe that those things are left out of ZombiU by accident or sloppiness. They’re purposeful design choices. Whether that kind of challenge is attractive is the choice of the consumer, and I guess if you thought that the developers were just doing it wrong you might be disappointed in ZombiU.
Perhaps if you play it on the “Chicken” setting it’s a bit easier, but on other settings it takes lessons from the essence of what made games like the first few Resident Evils and Silent Hills so scary. You don’t have a lot of ammo. You don’t have a lot of health. You are not a skilled fighter. You’re average, at best, with a gun. Surviving – not killing everything in sight – is your goal. In this way, it feels decidedly old-school.
And it also feels a wee bit like the last game I felt compelled to review – and the last game that had me terrified of dying in the dark – Minecraft. In Minecraft‘s Survival Mode, your first day is a scramble to live through your first night. You have to get tools, materials, and shelter so that you can hole up after the sun sets and the monsters take over the surface. If you get stuck outside at night (especially before Mojang introduced moon light), you were in big trouble. You would probably die, everything you’d hoarded in your inventory would be scattered on the ground, and you would respawn in darkness. That might happen repeatedly before the sun rose, depending on your spawn point, and at dawn you would have to make a mad dash to get your things.
ZombiU relies on a very similar mechanic as part of its core design – if you die, you respawn in your safe house as a new survivor – putting huge importance on keeping your character alive. Yet while dying hurts, there’s an undeniable thrill to running through the ruins of Buckingham Palace, locating your now-undead former self, beating its head in with a cricket bat, and stealing back everything you lost. There’s great reward to be had in ZombiU in rectifying your own mistakes, in not just beating but mastering its challenges – more than enough that the risks are worth it.
The story takes notes from action and suspense cinema (and old-school video games), keeping the story about the objectives and the objectives straightforward. Set in a London devastated by a zombie plague, you’re a survivor doing the will of a man, the Prepper, whom you only hear over the intercom. He seems to know a lot more about what’s going on than you. In the beginning, you do what he tells you and go on the resource-scavenging missions he sends you on. In an echo of Shawn of the Dead (the game is good at inserting humour where you don’t expect it), you’re at first armed with the aforementioned cricket bat and not much else. You slowly start building up supplies, tapping into CCTV feeds, and opening up underground short-cuts so you move about more quickly. This stuff – finding a new manhole to the underground, getting the map of a new area, finding a cross-bow – feels all the better because of how harsh the game is.
Add in a dash of Metroid Prime-style scanning thanks to the Prepper Pad – the game’s clever integration of the Game Pad that lets you manage items and menus, scan areas for zombies, items and hidden messages, documents (which, also like Metroid Prime, flesh out the story and the backgrounds of the main characters, should you choose to read them), and solve puzzles – and you have the basics of the gameplay covered.
It’s lean like a UFC fighter, barely an ounce of fat on it. This is not a sprawling sandbox game. You have a purpose, and you are in a harsh world where exploration will just as likely kill you as reward you. The longer you play as one survivor, the more-equipped and better-able to handle weapons that survivor gets. Veer too far off script and you put yourself in danger – and risk losing precious skills and supplies.
And the zombies… The things look and act like Romero movie zombies. One of them’s not too dangerous. Two mean trouble. Three, and it’s time to get creative or run. If they notice you, they will swarm you. Some know how to climb ladders, and some are persistent enough to break down doors. Some can sprint, some only shamble, some just crawl. Some are plain-clothed, while undead riot cops wear full body armour, and others have been weaponized, cruelly strapped with explosives. They’re entranced by bright lights, which you can use to your advantage (for a good time, try tossing a flare, watching a hoard crowd around it, and then showering them with molotov cocktails), but they’re also attracted to noise. This means that guns can be as dangerous to you as they are to the undead.
ZombiU also manages to (mostly) eschew one of the things that I like least about many other zombie games: To ratchet up the difficulty, some games introduce giant mutant monster zombies that kill the “we’re setting this in a realistic place” effect that is often carefully crafted elsewhere in games of the genre. While Ubisoft takes some licence with the traditional zombie (there are meaner red ones, reminiscent of those out of the REmake, and some gross venom spitters that freak me out), the teleporting zombies veer too far from Romero country into monster movie territory, if you ask me. Otherwise, ZombiU makes clever use of level design, non-playable human characters (some of whom are only trying to help, and some of whom are despicable), zombie behaviour, and your own nerves to crank up the challenge as the game goes on. Those who’ve played through the nursery and the carnival will know what I mean.
Ultimately, I think what’s best about ZombiU is that it’s a smart game, and it expects you to be smart too. When I died – and I died a lot – it was almost always because of something I did wrong. I did something I knew was risky, or I panicked, or I started running without looking at my map.
Now, I’ve done a lot of lauding of the game, which lays bare one of the main difficulties I have with reviews in general: When you interact with a game, you like it, or you don’t like it, or it wasn’t interesting enough for you to form an opinion (which is, in its own way, not liking it). It’s basic psychology that you can’t be objective at all with something you like or dislike, something you have emotions about (the reason why those of us in my chosen profession – games journalism is a side project – are not allowed to ply our trade with people we know ). Games are meant to be enjoyed, after all, and I know that if I like a game, I’ll overlook its flaws. I happen to think that ZombiU‘s flaws are either minor, or are indicative of room for growth in ZombiU 2. For example: A few small environments are re-used in different locations. I don’t know why – perhaps to get the game out on time for the Wii U’s release? – but I don’t find it a big deal; the vast majority of the game is unique and full of character. The survivors may look different, but they all have the same abilities. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the cop survivors could shoot better off-the-bat, and the doctor could get the most out of the medical packs?
So I liked it. A lot. It scared the hell out of me, it was challenging, and while I played it I forgot about how bored I am of shooting bad guys – no mean feat, since I’ve been playing first-person shooters since Doom and Hexen. In fact, ZombiU feels a lot like a spiritual sequel to Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2, and it’s one of the best survival horror games I’ve played since.
P.S. ZombiU‘s apartment rave scene may be some of the cheekiest undead social commentary since Romero had zombies pushing shopping carts through the mall in Dawn of the Dead.
(Edited on 19 January 2013 to delete some duplicated words that I should have caught while proof-reading the article. No content was altered. -Hal)