ZombiU hands-on: the Dark Souls of zombie games

By Patrick Garratt, Tuesday, 18 September 2012 16:37 GMT

Wii U was always going to get unwarranted flack among gamers for being a casual console. VG247’s Dave Cook plays the punishing ZombiU to find out why they’re dead wrong.

If you’re still not convinced that ZombiU is a ‘hardcore’ game for ‘hardcore’ people, then you should at least check the game out through a friend’s purchase. To all Dark Souls fans, you absolutely need to play this game. It’s that simple.

‘ZombiU is the Dark Souls of zombie games’. You’re going to hear a lot of people say that after the Wii U launches in November. It’s absolutely true, as the game is brutally difficult, and makes no attempt to coddle players as they wade miserably through post apocalyptic London.

One of the magic ingredients that makes a good survival horror game even better is making the player feel dangerously under-resourced, pathetically weak, and continually on the backfoot at all times. If this stresses you out, then ZombiU is not the game for you.

It has been absolutely engineered with hardcore gamers in mind, mixing the continuous dread of games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent with unforgiving trial and error format of Dark Souls. You will die a lot, but with each death you will learn what not to do next time.

Best of all, when you die, it’s entirely your fault and – sorry to put this bluntly readers – down to your own foolish haste and stupidity. It’s not that you’ aren’t smart enough to overcome Ubisoft Montpellier’s sadistic challenge, it just takes a lot of practice.

That’s part of the problem. Wii U does have casual players who may take a punt on ZombiU – because, zombies – and that could lead to a lot of copies being traded in shortly after launch.

Our hands-on session starts with a dreary slog through London’s sewer network, and up into the Tower of London’s hidden catacombs. We’ve got a cricket bat – the game’s default, unbreakable melee weapon – and a shotgun with only 30 bullets.

There’s also a flashlight that runs down mercilessly fast, and it takes ages to recharge. Once it’s off, the sewers are seriously pitch black, which is why the Wii U GamePad’s radar screen is helpful for spotting movement in the dark.

Slow movement is the key, as your cricket bat will only down a zombie in about six heavy hits. That’s a lot of attacking needed for just one enemy, so you have to avoid confronting packs of the buggers if you hope to survive long.

You could of course hit them with your firearms – but wouldn’t you know it – gunfire attracts the horde to your location with every single shot, so that’s not a dependable tactic either.

Drawing out zombies one by one using flares does help thin out groups if you have to kill a few of them, or you could lay mines in a tight bottleneck, fire a few shots, and stand back as they rush towards the sound and blow up in meaty, bloody chunks.

There are many ways to play ZombiU, but several truths remain throughout: never ignore your radar and make sure you’re alone before using your inventory. Opening your backpack is activated by simply swiping down on the touch screen, but it renders you immobilised.

You can then drag your favourite items to the hot bar and organise loot gathered from corpses. You only have so many slots, so resource management is yet another problem facing your survivor.

This is where both the respawn and safehouse mechanics come into play. Safehouses do exactly what they suggest – they are respawn zones that play home to crafting benches and lockers that can be used to stash precious loot.

Lockers are crucial, because when you die and respawn as a different survivor, you lose everything – save for your cricket bat, flashlight and a pistol with just six rounds. Back at your point of death, your previous survivor reanimates as a zombie carrying all of your gear.

ZombiU’s gamescom trailer.

They aren’t painted on the map either, so say they’re holding that super-upgraded firearm that you spent ages crafting, chances are you will never find them again and the weapon is lost.

This poses a tough choice when faced with an area swarming with the undead. Do you avoid potentially dying and losing your favourite gun – by trudging all the way back to your last safehouse in order to stash it away – or do you rush in hoping that you’ll make it through alive?

You have to constantly make these difficult decisions every step of the way. You’ll ask yourself, ‘Do I walk blindly through the dark undetected, or use my flashlight to see threats even if it leaves me exposed?’

There are times when you may even think, ‘Do I take the long, dangerous, but silent melee route, or do I risk detection by shooting those zombies to create an easy path?’ Everything must be considered. Even travelling through water is a risk.

When wading through water, your survivor lifts their backpack overhead to keep it dry, leaving you utterly defenceless and unable to attack. Rushing through the ravaged streets of London is a recipe for disaster and should be avoided at all cost.

Every inch of the game smacks of Dark Souls, and this comparison is highlighted further by ZombiU’s messaging system, which lets you walk up to walls and leave graffiti tag messages for other players online.

These aren’t actual words, but symbols. So you could select the ‘stairs’ icon and a ‘thumbs down’ – to basically say ‘don’t go downstairs’. There are many symbol combinations geared towards highlighting hazards or killer loot, so it will be interesting to see how these are used – or abused – once servers go live.

Finally – and this is a stroke of genius on Ubisoft Montpellier’s part – once one of your survivors dies and then reanimates as a zombie, there’s a chance they will also spawn into your friends’ game too.

So you can hop on Miiverse and say, ‘hey I died at this location holding a brilliant weapon. Go find me to claim it’, and vice-versa. It’s a neat way of sharing weapons and collaborating with other players to beat the game.

It’s hard to step back from comparing ZombiU to Dark Souls, but the parallels are blatant. This isn’t a bad thing however, because survival horror games are supposed to make surviving a struggle, and this is one of those rare games that actually delivers that feeling.

If you’re still not convinced that ZombiU is a ‘hardcore’ game for ‘hardcore’ people, then you should at least check the game out through a friend’s purchase. To all Dark Souls fans, you absolutely need to play this game. It’s that simple.

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