ZombiU promises a return to horror’s heyday of survival and scares. VG247’s Dave Cook sees if Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title really does deliver.
“From the moment you first leave the safe room, you are surrounded by darkness and a sense of isolation. Even with your flashlight on you can only see a few feet in front of your face, which really helps to ramp up the tension.”
I once called ZombiU the ‘Dark Souls of zombie games’ on this site. That was at the game’s early preview stage, and after playing the full, finished code for a week now, I’m absolutely standing behind that description. But that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll like it.
It’s reminiscent of the slow, considered takes on horror that the console market used to deliver, which have now given away to gunfire, bravado and the blockbuster pressures of the almighty dollar. It’s uncanny, but you can almost map the genre’s decline by the increased swelling of Chris Redfield’s impossible biceps.
Look now to the PC market, which – while still dependent on money to survive – doesn’t feel the same pressures as the triple-a console world. There are no focus-tested committees running the show, no money men throwing wads of cash at visuals alone, and no Metacritic barometers to fear.
Instead, gameplay and atmosphere often take precedent over swagger and sheen, and that is why classic horror games like Amnesia and DayZ are allowed to exist on the PC format. If those games are so celebrated, what is it then, that the big console publishers are afraid of when approaching the survival horror genre?
One thing is clear, Ubisoft Montpellier has identified this broadening gap in the market, and through ZombiU, it has filled it well. It’s not perfect, but it does deliver the essence of what makes the true survival horror genre so endearing.
The game takes place in London, some time after a zombie outbreak has turned most of the populace into mindless brain-chompers. The infection was first witnessed in the 1500’s by Elizabeth I’s personal consultant John Dee. The Great Fire of London stopped it from spreading back then, but here in 2012 we’re not so lucky.
As a survivor of the madness, you find yourself holed up in an impenetrable safe room built by a mysterious figure known as ‘The Prepper’. He contacts you by radio and helps you travel the decaying city to follow Dee’s teachings and search for a cure to the infection. It’s a simple premise, but it works.
From the moment you first leave the safe room, you are surrounded by darkness and a sense of isolation. Even with your flashlight on you can only see a few feet in front of your face, which really helps to ramp up the tension and forces your mind to wander whenever a zombie roars from some unknown location.
“You give every battle your full, undivided attention, because if you don’t, you die. It’s as simple as that. Even if you die, you still learn a valuable lesson, much like in Dark Souls.”
Thankfully, your survivor also has a ‘Prepper Pad’ device, which has a number of in-built functions you can activate using your Wii U GamePad. You can use the device’s sonar ping to highlight nearby movement, but even this is unreliable as it also tracks rats and other wildlife scurrying around in the shadows.
The sonar feature is a good analogy for ZombiU’s sense of balance. Everything comes with a downside – even the cricket bat – which is your trusty default weapon. It never breaks and doesn’t use up any of your ten precious inventory slots, but it does take five or six swings to topple one zombie.
It should only ever be used as a last resort, or if you are absolutely confident that you’ve isolated a zombie, and that none of its buddies are nearby to hear the sound once you start swinging. Sound is, after all, one of your biggest enemies in ZombiU.
Fire off a pistol or rifle, and it’s open season on your survivor, as every infected within earshot descends on your position for feeding time. Even if you can behead zombies with one well-placed round, the reload time is so slow, that the zombie behind him will grab you and kill you instantly.
It makes every single enemy encounter tense, and dripping with immediacy. You give every battle your full, undivided attention, because if you don’t, you die. It’s as simple as that. Even if you die, you still learn a valuable lesson, much like in Dark Souls.
Everything you do furthers your understanding of the game and its rules, helping you proceed a little further each time you respawn. However, some of these unspoken rules actually do need to be spoken, and communicated in a way that doesn’t feel unfair.
For example, most zombies will simply lash out at you if you get close, knocking off some of your health, while others will – without warning – lunge at your survivor, making them fall to the floor. This counts as an instant game over.
“Although the game’s visuals are on par with what we currently see from PS3 and Xbox 360, Ubisoft has been smart in using darkness and other tricks to enhance certain elements of ZombiU’s world.”
Without being able to properly predict when, or why this happens, you aren’t really able to learn anything from your defeat. Whereas every time you die in Dark Souls it really is down to your own fault and lack of caution.
It might sound like a small gripe, but whenever you die in ZombiU, you will respawn as a different survivor, and it is possible to locate your now-zombified predecessor and kill them to reclaim your inventory. Fail, and it’s gone for good.
When that failure comes as a result of something that truly feels cheap and unfair, you can’t help but feel like your soul has just been stamped on from a great height. It rarely happened to me admittedly, but I did lose a lot of gear when it did.
I’ve also seen some reviews complaining that ZombiU’s combat and movment is clunky. Well, of course it is, it’s the attempt at a proper survival horror experience many people have been waiting for. I don’t want to feel like I’m ice skating on a floor waxed with kitchen oil. I want to feel clumsy, slow and vulnerable.
This is exactly the vibe Ubisoft has nailed, delivering a really slow approach to first-person platforming and combat that never makes you feel too powerful. The GamePad has other uses that tip the scales slightly, like scanning the environment to map items, infected and doorways, but largely you’re flying blind.
Although the game’s visuals are on par with what we currently see from PS3 and Xbox 360, Ubisoft has been smart in using darkness and other tricks to enhance certain elements of ZombiU’s world. Typically, these tricks are used to frighten you further.
One particular scene sees your survivor navigating a tight maze of freight containers during a heavy storm. It looks brilliant, but feels restrictive and rather dull. Once you reach the end, you’re confronted by a wide open area full of zombies that you can hear but – thanks to the dense storm – you can’t see.
“I get why people fear using tablet-based controllers in tandem with consoles that traditionally use pads, but once you get going, it feels more intuitive.”
It’s a genius moment that’s so simple in its execution, but serves to really play on your fear. You can use the scanner if you want, but there are crows perched everywhere, so you never know which of your radar blips is an infected, or a harmless bird.
So you have to simply plod on through the storm slowly, checking all your angles and your sonar frequently to get across the area alive. Moments like this really play into our fear of the unknown, and serve to genuinely put you at unease.
I’ve spent a lot of time in this piece talking about ZombiU’s scare factor, and while it really is a good showcase of how to craft a genuinely unsettling experience, it comes at a price. As I said, the visuals aren’t anything spectacular, but it’s more the dank, depressing style that impresses.
The lack of inventory space will be welcomed by fans of classic Resident Evil, but when fast travel points – which are depicted by manhole covers in ZombiU – are often spread far, it can sometimes make ferrying objects feel like a chore.
Zombie’s don’t respawn that often – if at all – when you die or naturally over time, so the world does start to feel under-populated as you progress, leaving it empty and unexciting. Fans of Metroid’s barren worlds will like this fact however, as the eerie silence often cuts through you like a knife.
I would have liked some more melee weapons as well. The cricket bat is useful for the silent approach, but engaging zombies with it starts to feel more like a repetitive chore as you strike, take a step back, strike, take another step back, strike, and so on. Where my katana Ubisoft?
For all of the flack it gets, I really enjoyed using the Wii U’s GamePad to perform sonar sweeps, shoot enemies with scoped weapons, scan the environment and even simple things like inventory management, or applying weapon upgrades.
I get why people fear using tablet-based controllers in tandem with consoles that traditionally use pads, but once you get going, it feels more intuitive. You already know how the GamePad works if you have a smartphone, so why should this feel any less natural?
That’s just what I think of course, but I have to hand it to Ubisoft for using the controller in so many ways that further the experience. Whenever you’re close to death and need to equip a health item, it’s no longer as simple as tapping a button or calling up a radial.
“So is ZombiU really the Dark Souls of zombie games? Absolutely, but it still has much to learn about risk-reward and fairness before it can be considered in the same league.”
Instead you have to run from the horde with the sliver of health you have left in search of a safe spot to set your bag down to use a health pack, or eat some food. That’s not clunky at all, that’s incredibly smart design that leaves you open and vulnerable to attack.
So is ZombiU really the Dark Souls of zombie games? Absolutely, but it still has much to learn about risk-reward and fairness before it can be considered in the same league. I’d like to see a sequel that improves and expands the format, because although it technically is open world, it’s still a maze of corridors with one clear goal.
In some ways that is better than the open world of Dark Souls which intimidated with literally no signposting whatsoever. As such ZombiU is less of a slog, but if you do want that elusive, positively over-bearing and unnerving horror experience that the console market is too afraid to make any more, then yes, this is the game you’ve been waiting for.
For some, the days of purposely clunky survival experiences has come and gone now. The medium has moved on now, its patrons largely engrossed in fluidity and visual prowess to want to take a step back to the days of Silent Hill 2 or Resident Evil. They’re fun games to reminisce about, but going back to them may spoil the memory.
With that in mind, you should already know if you’re willing to give ZombiU the benefit of the doubt or not. Let me know what you think below.
- To assist in writing this article, Dave was sent a copy of ZombiU on Wii U. No review event was attended and no additional merchandise received.