By Greg Newbegin
If there's one thing I've always loved -- apart from video games, of course -- it's horror. Whether it's the sci-fi horror of the Aliens series, the surreal horror of Hellraiser, or the kitschy appeal of George Romero's Dead series, I love it all. In recent times, there's been a surge in the popularity of both vampires and zombies, and while there are those that claim to be tired of "all the zombie games/TV shows/movies," I hunger for more. ZombiU has arrived to fill part of that need, and I knew I had to play it as soon as it was announced.
Strangely, though, the game doesn't put players into the shoes of a single character, and follow their story along a fixed arc (it kid of does, but more on that later). There IS an arc, don't get me wrong, but famously, the standard play mode of this title resurrects players as a new identity should they come up against insurmountable odds.
This mechanic is both wonderful and confusing at the same time. It is wonderful in that players are forced to hunt down their zombified former self in order to retrieve collected items from their "Bug Out Bag" (BOB, for short - it's just a backpack in everyday vernacular), and it's this sense of permadeath that really adds heightened tension. However, the story just makes no sense, considering it's happening to multiple individuals.
On first loading the game, you will wake as (whoever) aged (whatever), who is a (some profession) -- the game provides this information, perhaps to humanise the character, and it does work (at least for me). A disembodied voice coming from the GamePad (known as "the Prepper" because he's always prepared) will guide you along the game's somewhat linear path. This is not a bad thing at all -- in fact, hearing the voice coming only from the GamePad is a great little touch - more on the GamePad later. The weird thing, though, is that rebirth as a new character (following death by zombie bite of whatever the case may be) results in... continuation of the story as if nothing happened. You wake in the same bed that your last character occupied. Alone. For the most part, it was easy to shake this off and continue on my merry way, but it annoyed me every time I died... and I died fairly often (I'm impatient, you see).
The beauty of ZombiU lies partly in what I've already outlined, but also in the way in which the GamePad is utilised. Throughout the game, it acts as several things - primarily as a motion scanner, which will show you the location of moving things nearby (be they animals of zombies), but also - with a single downward swipe - it will show you the contents of your backpack. This is a terrific decision by the developers, as it forces players to take their eyes off the screen in order to manage their inventory, and zombies do take advantage of this. Realistically, it forced me to search an area to make sure it was safe before I did anything time consuming.
Further, the left shoulder button turns the GamePad into a different kind of scanner - the touchscreen will show what can be seen through the "camera" as it shines a black light on the environment. This will allow certain kinds of paint to show up that wasn't evident before, but will also highlight items in the environment that can be interacted with. It is fairly crucial at times, particularly as it is a requirement if you are interested in area maps (which need to be downloaded once you connect the device to the in-game network). It's a little unrealistic, but it's a measure to assist players to quickly locate items in an occasionally cluttered environment.
Beyond this, the GamePad can be used as a machine gun turret, to open locked doors via keypad, and also as a scope for the sniper rifle, among other uses. It really demonstrates the capabilities of the system, and never felt like a gimmick.
New characters will always start with two particular items - a pistol with 6 bullets, and a cricket bat. The cricket bat is invincible, and is the go-to weapon for smashing zombie heads. The pistol (and other weapons found during the game) can also be upgraded with item upgrades strewn throughout levels, providing a basic RPG-element to the game. Individual characters can also level-up their skills through the use of weapons, however, this does not apply to the cricket bat.
Incidentally, this leads me to one of the most controversial aspects of ZombiU, and I find people are in one of two camps. On one hand, the frustration of using the cricket bat (it can be slow to wind up, and can take many hits to take out a zombie) as well as the relatively dodgy controls can be seen as poor game design. On the other, it could be seen as an exercise in realism, as these are normal people who may or may not have experience with these weapons. I fall in the latter category, and feel that the need to struggle with the controls and plan ahead accordingly adds a measure of tension to the gameplay - not unlike the Resident Evil series. You may differ in your appraisal.
Graphically, ZombiU is charming. Dark, gritty, and cluttered, this FEELS like London after the zombie apocalypse. Environments are varied, vistas are awe inspiring, water is realistic (and occasionally coated with an oily residue) - it looks great. Word of warning, though, don't turn up the brightness too much. This game is MEANT to be difficult to make out. Turning up the brightness actually makes the game look terrible, as it clarifies some of the techniques used to create the unique perspective.
One issue with the game lies around the number of environments. There are 4 or 5 main zones, each divided into subsections, and players will return to each throughout the game in order to track down certain information. Some pathways are blocked until players find C4 later in the game, which I felt was a little too convenient. However - the environments look so damned good I never complained.
There is a separate single-player mode -- Survival Mode. Here, players are given ONE life to complete the game, essentially making this mode the real goal of the developers (but this would have been a difficult pill for players to swallow had it been the only choice). This is one challenge I intend to undertake at some point, but I doubt I have the patience (nor the intestinal fortitude).
Multiplayer is local only -- a huge oversight considering I don't invite friends over to play games as much as I used to. However, the idea behind it is fantastic. One player takes on the role of the survivor, and -- using the Pro controller -- endeavours to make their way through a level. The other player -- using the GamePad -- places zombies at their leisure from a top-down view, essentially making them what the game refers to as the "King of Zombies". It's certainly interesting, and definitely fun, but I wasn't able to test this enough to determine if it was something I would return to. Still -- I'm very disappointed I can't play this mode with friends over the Nintendo Network.
Personally, I would count ZombiU as one of the best games I've played in a long time, but I need to remove my personal bias when applying a score as it will certainly not suit everyone. It is frustrating to control at times, slow-paced, the story makes little sense, and - if you're impatient like me - it's difficult... And let's not gloss over the fact that death will send you back to your safehouse, meaning you need to make your way back through to where you were previously, which is more frustrating than it seems (what with loading times between areas). Still, it's the first game that has really made me FEEL like I was trying to survive in a zombie apocalypse, and it had exactly the right amount of tension and jump scares to make me happy for a long time to come.