At launch, there were only really two Wii U exclusive titles worth getting excited about: New Super Mario Bros U and ZombiU. The latter we have been playing for a good while now, with Mario now safely completed and put to bed.
ZombiU has left us torn. On the one hand we love it for its innovation, challenge and showcase of the Wii U’s potential. On the other we hate it for its repetition, glitches and the way it undersells itself. but there is plenty more to say about ZombiU...
ZombiU has a fairly unusual approach to the way the story plays-out, but at its core it is basically a standard zombie flick.
It is set in London, the city overrun with a zombie outbreak in the wake of something called the "black prophecy". An apocalypse predicted 400 years before the game by John Dee, a secret society hunts through Dee’s prophecies to find the answer to the plague.
All the while this is going on, a mystery cure, the Panacea, is being hunted for, while you take on the zombies with the help of an ex-military chap called ‘the Prepper’.
In reality the story is pretty throwaway and more just an excuse to move the game world on and fill London with zombies. What is more interesting, is that the story becomes more irrelevant simply because of the way the game plays.
And that's the much-discussed central gimmick, namely, every time you die in ZombiU, your character transforms into a zombie. You then wake up as a new character back at base camp under the Prepper’s watchful eye. In order to move on, you need to find your previous zombified self, kill them and take back your items.
It is a clever idea but one that prevents you from every really getting attached to the lead character of the game, as it doesn’t really have one. The Prepper being simply a voice and more a presence via CCTV also further adds to the empty feeling of the game.
That said, it does make you feel incredibly vulnerable, especially when you first wander out into the street of London, knowing you can so easily die and be replaced with another character. PC gamers might have played the DayZ Mod, which has a similar approach.
We have already mentioned the core philosophy behind ZombiU’s gameplay. Constant character switching and hunting for previous zombified corpses is going to be done a lot. Why? Because you will die in this game, many, many, many times.
ZombiU is about taking your time at just the right speed. Do things too fast and you will easily run into trouble. Too slow and you will likely find yourself cornered, only to have your brains munched by a crowd of zombies you might not have spotted. Occasionally the game will throw overloading numbers of zombies at you and your own hope is to just run.
Bizarrely, we like these instances best. You feel utterly hopeless and as the deaths become more frequent, it becomes a real challenge trying to get past zombie-heavy areas.
The reason we like the running away elements of ZombiU best is simply that the rest of the time, its combat is fairly flawed. Ammo is scarce, so you rely heavily on melee fighting. In order to remove predictability, certain zombies will take more or less whacks with a cricket bat.
The problem is, that while it gets rid of predictability, you also experience plenty of cheap deaths. Not knowing how many hits it will take to dispatch a zombie means you can underestimate how long they will take to go down, by which time more zombies might have arrived and you end up overpowered.
It feels random enough, unfair at times, and makes the game incredibly tough. As for guns, they aren’t accurate. This is a minor irritation however and makes every single bullet feel important. If you miss, it is genuinely disheartening, especially if a large group of zombies is headed towards you.
Some elements of the environment are obviously placed to slow you down when being chased. Ducking and jumping over them usually gives the zombie horde enough time to catch up with you, without it being overly challenging. The result is a great bit of gameplay tension.
Finally there is the Wii U gamepad and its integration into the game. For the most part, it becomes a really valuable asset, cleverly taking your eyes away from the screen while you scramble to sort out the contents of your zombie fighting rucksack.
Where it doesn’t work, is as a scanner for your surroundings. Holding the left shoulder button of the Wii U gamepad and then moving the screen around, you can see parts of your environment as well as notes and items, lit up in infra-red. Doing so leaves you stranded so you have to get into the habit of switching your eyes back and forth from screen to tablet.
For the most part, you can avoid using it. This then starts to transform ZombiU into more a game in which you just walk about bashing zombies over the head with the same move set. The male and female character’s grunts start to get repetitive and before long you have a gameplay experience that feels far less fresh than the first half hour you experienced it.
In fact after a while, most of ZombiU starts to feel like a nice concept that was never taken far enough. We die, we find ourselves again, we push forward a bit more. Why not go the whole hog and go for Dark Souls levels of difficulty?
The gamepad integration is definitely the best we have seen so far, but still doesn’t quite feel necessary to the core gameplay experience. At no point did we find ourselves thinking, "We couldn’t have done that without the gamepad".
It would have been nice to see our hand forced slightly more, making us take our eyes away from the screen and leading to more deaths.
ZombiU is a bit rough around the edges, but it definitely shows that the Wii U can fight its corner against current games consoles. Environments are, as you would expect, very dark. Your torch provides just enough light for zombies to be made out in the distance, but also helps them spot you sooner.
The dark helps cover up some of the lower-res textures around the game world as well as the occasional repetition of in game items. London does however look great and the lighting in the Zombi U, particularly the way light sources show up dust and dirt on the camera, is fun.
Zombies are a touch disappointing, simply because they lack the high-resolution character models that you see in some other games on the Xbox or PS3 now. We can’t fault them for design and look, more that they just don’t appear quite as crisp and sharp as game characters in other titles.
As for bugs, most aren’t graphical and are more related to AI. You can easily walk up on zombies at times entirely unnoticed, whereas at other points they will spot you from miles away. Another irritation, is that there is talk of quest order becoming messed up, requiring a reset. We however haven’t encountered this bug although can see it as being incredibly annoying.
ZombiU definitely tries hard. It doesn’t quite follow through on some concepts that could elevate it above the rest of the WiiU’s launch titles. Game breaking bugs aren’t really forgivable, although we haven’t encountered them personally.
But is is an exciting and very different take on the zombie genre. That same sense of excitement and desperation is there that you find in games like Left 4 Dead.
This might not be a must-have for your newly purchased Wii U, but if you were thinking of going for the premium pack, save the cash, go for the basic model and splash out on this, it is a much better game than Nintendo Land and shows off the Wii U’s capabilities in a much more interesting way.