Review: ZombiU

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I'll be the first to admit that Nintendo's newest console - the WiiU - was mostly a spontaneous purchase. I knew all along that I would own the console sooner or later; it just turned out to be sooner rather than later. I've never been a Nintendo fanboy so many of the WiiU release titles were of no interest to me. Those 3rd party games that were of interest (Batman Arkham City, Mass Effect 3, Darksiders 2) I already own on either the PS3 or 360. Still, there was one title that I knew was right up my alley.

After experiencing ZombiU I've come to realize it's a game that is both remarkable and unremarkable at the same time. It's unremarkable in terms of story and presentation:

  • It's the zombie apocalypse - deal with it
  • You're a lone survivor - sucks to be you
  • The visuals are adequate but moody
  • Zombies die from repeated hits/shots to the head - duh

I've played a great many zombie games over the years and none of the above list makes ZombiU any better or worse than the likes of The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, Dead Island, or Left 4 Dead. If you've played 1 zombie game you've pretty much played them all . . . it is what it is.

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Where ZombiU is remarkable starts with its grass roots flashback to good 'ole fashioned survival horror. Supplies are extremely limited, the odds are constantly stacked against you, and you're better off running to safety than standing your ground when faced with even a handful of zombies. It was a welcome style of gameplay after my recent playthrough of Resident Evil 6 where high action set-pieces were replaced exclusively with a slower-paced, tension-filled experience.

The real highlight of ZombiU is with the creative integration of the WiiU's gamepad. Much more than a simple controller, the gamepad consistently displays a navigational mini-map while including a sonar-type "ping" that lights up a variety of movement in the immediate area. Whether that movement is rat or infected is up to you to determine, either way it gives you an idea of what may lay in wait around every corner.

The gamepad also seamlessly transitions to your item management when ransacking various suitcases, dumpsters, and crates. Space is limited and quickly rearranging what you carry and equip is a great addition that further immerses you into the world of ZombiU.

Even more important than the biggest, baddest aresenal (which I guarantee you will NOT find) is the ZombiU scanner. It's the one item that you are given very early on in the game that will undoubtedly save you again and again from those typical zombie game mistakes that inevitably end in tragedy. With the press of the left bumper you are able to scan (think of it as a form of xray) the room in front of you to quickly identify potential items of interest. Those same items are then displayed on your minimap and help you to decide if that dead-end corridor is worth investigating and putting your life at risk for. Use the scanner and use it often, it may be the difference between life and death.

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And speaking of death, be prepared to die . . . a lot. It's what ZombiU is about and another remarkable aspect of the game. When your character dies, they are dead and gone. There's no checkpoint start over and you don't get a 2nd chance. Quite the contrary, after suffering a losing battle with the undead the character you play as - whether a construction worker, DJ, housewife, etc. - becomes an infected; and with it all the supplies you were carrying in your backpack. The game begins over, from the starting safe house, and you've now stepped into the shoes of a new playable character. Gone are the supplies your last character scavenged and once again you begin this tale of survival with a mere cricket bat, scanner, and pistol (limited ammunition).

But this is the fun part. You know the general location of your now infected former character. You remember the vital resources they carry on their back. And you understand the importance of getting those items back. Therein lies the devious twist. Although you may successfully fight your way back to where your last character perished (only to bash them in the head - hope you weren't too attached), there is that chance that your current player will suffer a similar fate along the way. What happens then, you ask? Simple, if that disaster occurs, all supplies you've obtained and were desperately trying to reclaim will be scattered to the wind - gone. Too bad, so sad. Good luck finding replacements.

Although this may sound like a rinse and repeat type of game, it really isn't. You may find yourself traversing the same path but locating manhole covers scattered throughout London will unlock fast travel to help you track down your former shell of a man or woman that much quicker. Additionally, because the environment is so dark, gloomy, and foreboding, you won't mind so much repeating a similar course of travel. The level of tension, when combined with exceptional surround sound, constantly places your nerves on end. 

Multiplayer

ZombiU continues to push the level of creativity with the multiplayer offering. Although survival and capture the flag modes may not sound like much at first glance, the method by which they are played is what really make this multiplayer component worth a second look.

The player that utilizes the Wii U's gamepad plays the part of The King of the Zombies, a title that comes with the power to create and strategically place the zombie horde at will. The map that is selected to play on - rooftop, city, metro, etc - is presented as a top down view on the gamepad and can be easily moved and rotated with the use of a stylus. On the gamepad you see the Survivor (player 2) icon and location on the map. If you are playing capture the flag mode you'll also see where those flags appear.

It's up to you, King of the Zombies, to infect that map with a variety of zombie types: hunters race toward the survivor, grunts are more of the shambling type of zombie, spitters . . . um . . . spit, you get the idea. Although the odds are most certainly in your favor if you play as the King of the Zombies, there are still some restrictions that help even out the gameplay. Most importantly, you cannot spawn zombies directly on top of the survivor; there is a radius around him that prevents you from doing so. Also, the King of Zombies can typically only spawn 10 zombies at a time. In addition, there is an energy meter along the left side of the gamepad that counts down to when the next set of zombies become available.

Playing as the survivor is fairly straight forward and nothing really new from any other 1st person zombie multiplayer game you may have played in the past. It is nice though, when playing this form of couch multiplayer, that you are able to have the entire TV screen to yourself - no split screen inconvenience here. Managing the game as The King of the Zombies is immensely satisfying and a great addition to an already exciting gaming experience. Spawning a variety of zombies across the map from the gamepad, and then looking up at your television to watch them unleash their hell upon the lonely survivor, is satisfying beyond words and I expect this will be a a game mode my son and I continue to play for many months to come.

The below trailer is a mix of live action goofiness and in-game play mechanics. It provides a nice look at the benefits of the gamepad while playing ZombiU multiplayer:

Fans of survival horror and owners of Nintendo's newest gaming console need look no further than ZombiU. The single player campaign is a truly frightening experience and and the couch multiplayer is an option you'll find yourself going back to again and again. The controls add a deep level of ingenuity and creativity, and help to immerse you even further into the experience. Although ZombiU is a fun game, it's not a reason to rush out and buy a brand new console. I'm just a sucker for new consoles and zombie games.