I’m not sure exactly when zombies became so incredibly popular in film and video games. I feel like it almost happened overnight; we’ve had pop culture zombies for a long time, but they didn’t burst out in popularity until recently. Zombies are seen everywhere in pop culture at this point, from television shows like The Walking Dead to Treyarch’s multiplayer zombies in Call of Duty. In games, zombies have become more about action and mindless bloodshed than about survival horror (with the recent exception of DayZ). Even a classic survival horror series like Resident Evil has become more action oriented in its recent releases.
Where did the survival — and the horror — aspect go? Valve’s Left 4 Dead series is easily one one of the most played zombie games to come out in the last few years, yet it isn’t based on horror. Survival, certainly, as hordes of zombies sprint at the team of four players. But the part that makes a zombie apocalypse so frightening is the idea that a single bite will end everything for someone. That idea is not present in Left 4 Dead, or even Resident Evil.
I had grown weary of the zombie genre in gaming because of this. Using zombies in a game, especially in something like Call of Duty, just felt like an excuse to let players mindlessly mow down enemies. Zombies can be replaced by anything in Left 4 Dead — vampires, aliens, Gremlins — and the core gameplay will remain exactly the same. That’s why ZombiU piqued my interest when Ubisoft debuted it at last year’s E3. A zombie game that actually incorporates what makes zombies zombies?
ZombiU focuses heavily on survival and horror, something few survival horror games actually do. Instead of relying on cheap scare tactics, Ubisoft instead created a very atmospheric world that legitimately feels scary. Players will encounter a few characters here and there, but for the most part, they’re completely on their own. I’ve never felt this isolated in a game since playing Metroid Prime. The game’s world is broken into several different areas in London — a market, apartment complex, and the Tower of London, to name a few — with a hub center known as the safe house at the center. The world is seamed as opposed to seamless, with loading screens between each major area. There is a strange design choice I discovered: when going to a new area, players will always go through a busted wall in a subway, then climb up a ladder and exit through a door. It’s the same every single time, and I can only wonder why Ubisoft kept reusing the same exact transition between levels.
The campaign is mission based, with a remote NPC known as The Prepper giving instructions to the player character via radio chatter. The Prepper has his own distinct mannerisms, and doesn’t really like it when players go out of their way to help NPC survivors in the game, or try to evacuate with the Ravens of Dee, a group of survivors that knew the zombie plague was coming. Thankfully The Prepper isn’t always rambling away, and he even refuses to talk to the player at certain parts of the game.
ZombiU’s survival mechanics are somewhat hit and miss. The game handles inventory management in a unique and haunting way: the Wii U’s GamePad acts as the inventory screen allowing players to easily manage their inventory, but the game doesn’t pause during this process. The player character will be shown rummaging through their bag on the TV screen with zombies bearing down on them, as the player themselves stare at the Wii U’s controller to make their changes.
The GamePad also lets ZombiU do away with the HUD completely. The controller’s screen displays a radar that can detect nearby zombies as red dots (and will also detect rats and crows as red dots), six currently equipped items, and an icon that allows players to access their full inventory. Having to look down at the controller to check the map works well for ZombiU despite being an awful idea for a competitive shooter like Call of Duty. It really adds to the sense of desperation in the game — if this were real, survivors would be constantly checking their portable radar map for nearby zombies, and this concept is carried over amazingly well into the game.
What doesn’t really work, however, is the new survivor mechanic. One bite from a zombie will turn the player’s character into one of the undead (as will getting mobbed by zombies that attack with their hands or projectiles), and this aspect to the game is terrifying early on. Players can then take up a new survivor and track down their zombified previous survivor, kill them, and take their weapons back. I soon discovered that zombies don’t respawn even if it was a previous survivor that killed them. New survivors also start off with a pistol and six shots, so it’s sometimes beneficial to let a survivor die if they’re completely out of ammo. At one point I had an AK-47, double barrel shotgun, carbine, hunting crossbow, and a handgun — the only weapon that had ammunition was my crossbow. I let my survivor die and I came back as a new survivor, easily made it to my previous survivor since all the zombies were killed before, and got all of my weapons back. I feel like this mechanic is more useful when people on the player’s Wii U friend list die, since they show up as zombies in the player’s game.
There is a more difficult game mode, though, that does perma-kill players if their survivor dies. The developers have championed its difficulty, and announced recently that one gamer was able to complete it without a single death.
For everything that ZombiU does differently from other “survival horror” games, it does share one thing in common with games like Resident Evil: dodgy controls. The controls feel slow and generally a little unresponsive, and they really stand out considering how slow paced and almost repetitive the combat is. Players are forced to aim down their sights in order to fire — no running and gunning here. Ammo is a commodity, so most of the time players will be using their cricket bat to fend off zombies. Cricket bats aren’t sharp weapons — they’re basically a 2 by 4. It takes a good amount of wailing away at a zombie to kill it with the cricket bat. Two zombies are manageable, but three are nearly impossible to kill with the cricket bat alone. Tapping on a weapon’s icon on the GamePad will have the character switch to it, which takes a good two seconds to accomplish. It’s best to plan out skirmishes before taking zombies on, and this is where I feel ZombiU‘s combat really excels despite being a little muddy. It almost reminds me of Batman: Arkham City, where every encounter is like a puzzle where the player has to decide very specific actions to take before engaging groups of enemies. Taking on mobs of zombies in ZombiU is a little bit like that: at one point, there are four or five zombies standing around in a club, blocking the hallway that players have to reach. I had a few shots available with my shotgun, roughly eight arrows, and a flare. Instead of running and gunning Left 4 Dead style, I took out one of the zombies with my crossbow, tossed a flare into the center of the room to distract the remaining zombies, and proceeded to blow off their heads with my shotgun.
What bothers me most about the game’s controls is that players are forced to use the GamePad to aim the crossbow and sniper rifle. It can be done either with the GamePad’s motion controls or with the analog stick, but in both instances, the controller has to be held up at the TV screen. There’s about a two second delay between the time the controller is held up and when the scope actually appears on screen, making it a little frustrating to line up shots at times.
Most of the game is slow, methodical, and generally scary, but there was one specific moment in the game that stood out to me as being very different from the status quo. Players will have the opportunity to take on a mission that involves infiltrating the Tower of London in order to evacuate the area. The parts leading up to it were more of the same — dark areas, taking on a few zombies at once in crowded hallways — but everything changed once players reach the Tower itself. The mood of the game warps completely during this segment, as a frantic score plays in the background and a sniper helps the player pick off zombies as they sprint to the top of the tower. It was an exciting mixture of run and gun gameplay, but not to the mindless extent found in Left 4 Dead. It was still scary, yet was able to make me completely disregard my constant observing of the area. I wish there was more of this in the game, along with the puzzle-like elements I detailed above.
Multiplayer is, by far, the most enjoyable part of ZombiU. One player take control of the King of Zombies on the Wii U GamePad and is able to place different types of zombies all over the map, while another player using either a Wii Remote and Nunchuck or Wii U Pro Controller must capture different flags. The player on the GamePad experiences an RTS-like game, as the different types of zombies require a certain number of points which build up as time passes. The King of Zombies must also capture flags, but only grunt zombies have the capability of doing so. The other zombie types have their specific advantages — one type can sprint at the player, another can spit projectiles, and another is wearing riot gear. The mode feels very balanced overall, combining both the strategic run and gun seen in the Tower of London mission along with an RTS on the GamePad.
- Genuinely scary atmosphere, no cheap scares.
- One bite from a zombie infects the player.
- Some encounters require careful planning.
- Multiplayer is tons of fun.
- … Not enough puzzle-like zombie encounters.
- Combat is a little repetitive and sluggish.
- Aiming with the crossbow and sniper rifle is frustrating.
- The new survivor mechanic doesn’t punish death as much as it should.