Game critics panning Zombi U with terrible reviews simply don’t get the point. Ignore them: they would probably also judge horror movies by character development, porn flicks by story line, and fast food restaurants based on dish presentation. Zombi U is far from perfect, but in order to objectively measure and rate its success, you have to understand what you’re getting yourself into.
Zombi U is classified as a “Survival Horror” game. Think of yourself as a character in “Saw” on a world like “I Am Legend” (without Will Smith). Resources are scarce. Humans are absent. And sure, there are guns, but unlike action films/games and first person shooters you’re not going to spray 8 million rounds and kill everything in sight while you’re somehow able to miraculously dodge enemy attack after enemy attack.
Survival horror is about suspense and in ZombiU, Ubisoft is able to capture that intensity by carefully limiting the user’s resources, offering them time sensitive opportunities in the face of death, and creating a set of circumstances that makes the player feel constantly vulnerable.
I highly suggest everyone begin in Survival Mode. This is a 1-player campaign mode where you’re afforded only one life. If you die, game over. Want to play again? You’ve even got to re-watch the entire opening video. This practice of understanding “when you’re dead, its all over” is an important distinction to make when playing ZombiU. Indeed, it’s ALL about survival.
The first couple times I played, I found myself eagerly confronting Zombies, anxious to bash their brains in, loot their inventory, and become the world’s greatest zombie killer. You’ll quickly find out this is NOT the best strategy. Once you’re brought back to reality, and understand the gravity of dying, move back to “Normal Mode” which offers a more forgiving and seamless gameplay experience.
You start the game in an underground “Safe House”: it’s where you sleep, save, restart, and get mission briefs. Your missions are narrated by “The Prepper”, a mysterious voice with computer access to your facilities. He’s your only friend and a lifeline while you’re on the move (so long as you’re above ground). Beyond the prepper’s advice… you’re alone.
Who are you? The main character. Who is that? It changes each and every time you play. When you die, your character becomes a zombie and your next life is a brand new human soul attempting to survive. You’re story line is limited to a name, an occupation, an appearance, and different sounds of horror, violence, and nervousness as you fend for your life. The lack of story line and character development is an asset rather than a burden; in addition to flowing with the infected zombie theme, it gives you just enough information to make you feel like they’re a real person, but little enough so that you’re able to fill in the blanks with your own imagination.
The controls for ZombiU are simple and straight forward, allowing players of all skill levels equal access to the game’s suspense. The heart of ZombiU’s experience is the use of Nintendo’s Wii U GamePad, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Like most games, the left joystick moves your character around while the right joystick changes their visual perspective. If you push in the left stick while moving it, your character will run. It can sometimes be difficult to initiate, and your character gets tired quite quickly, adding to the anxiety as zombies hunt you down.
The X button is the main action button, allowing you to pick up objects, jump onto ledges, crawl under things, open doors, and more. The simplicity is relieving, once again allowing you to focus on the tasks at hand: escaping the zombies, or killing them if you find your self cornered. Assuming combat is necessary, you’ll hold down ZL to prepare/aim your weapon and pull ZR to strike. If you’ve got a gun, same deal, only Y lets you reload. Chances are you won’t be reloading often as ammo is quite scarce, and for safety’s sake, you may want to keep your attack on the ready just in case.
Other important controls include nightvision goggles (L), doing a quick 180 degree turnabout (R), and switching weapons (B). Using the game’s main controls quickly becomes a breeze; the Wii U GamePad’s screen is where most of the action takes place.
The first thing you’ll learn to do is turn your flashlight on and off. Seems simple enough, but the complexities of the flashlight run parallel to the game’s entire proposition. If you want to turn on your flashlight, you’ve got to divert your attention to the GamePad, leaving you vulnerable for a split second.
In a dark world, you’ll need your flashlight often to navigate. Unfortunately zombies are attracted to light so you’re simultaneously inviting their attention whenever you use it. Keep your flashlight on too long and it’ll run out of batteries, potentially leaving you in a dark and precarious position when you most need it. Managing your flashlight is a minute detail that, when combined with all the other options of the GamePad, create a one-of-a-kind gaming experience.
What ARE all those “other options” of the GamePad?
With the help of “The Prepper”, a narrative voice with computer access to your Safe House, you’re often able to download maps of your surroundings. They’re complete blueprints that show both the outline of rooms and the location of doors. While traveling in nearly pitch black conditions, not knowing what’s around the next corner, it helps to have a map guiding you to your destination. But it’s a bit like texting and driving (read: dangerous), spend too long fumbling with your mobile screen without looking where you’re going? You’ll wind up dead.
The two most valuable uses of your radar are pinpointing your destination and locating zombies. While looking at your map, the yellow circle shows where you want to go next, giving you some direction while viewing the map.
In the lower right hand corner you can “ping” the map with radar, uncovering the location of surrounding zombies with a red dot on the map; it briefly blinks when life is identified nearby. It’s an invaluable asset that you’ll use (at least you should) throughout the game. But you have to use it with caution: the radar can also mistake crows, mice, or other animals for zombies, and sometimes zombies sitting very still will go untracked by your radar. It’s a handy tool, but by no means a bible, and once again… put too much time, faith, and attention in your radar and you’ll find yourself infected.
This may be one of the most powerful visual connections with the world of survival horror entertainment. Although you have “quick access” to 6-items, located on the top left and right of your touchscreen, your backpack holds everything else you collect along your journey. If you want to get something out of your backpack, you had better be darn sure you’re in a safe location. As soon as you open your backpack, by pulling down the “backpack” text from the menu screen, your character goes into a kneeling position on the TV and you’re restricted to seeing only them kneeling. If zombies are on the prowl, you’ll have no way of knowing.
For this reason, you’ve got to act quickly while accessing your backpack. Get what you need, drop what you don’t, use what you should, move things from your sack to your hands… whatever, but do it quickly. Every second you spend sifting through your inventory is a second your focus is diverted and your life is in danger.
While I love FPS games where you can jog over a sniper rifle here, pick up some rocket launcher ammo over there, and jump in a tank and start running over people somewhere else, this “shootem’ up” style has no place in ZombiU. The majority of the game you’ll be using a cricket back as your primary weapon, beating the sense out of your attackers with a blunt wood object until they cease breathing.
There aren’t a lot of other weapons, but you will run across some. When you do run across them, you’ll have a hard time finding ample ammo. While that might irritate trigger happy gamers, I couldn’t be more happy with the choice. Horror entertainment does a much better job at horrifying when you the circumstances seem dire and the situation realistically dismal. Zombies are approaching and you’ve got a big wooden stick and a handgun with 8 bullets: which do you use? If you run out of bullets before killing them, will you have time to switch to your stick before getting tackled?
Decisions, decisions. By limiting the quantity and quality of weapons, ZombiU forces you to make split decisions with limited resources that could mean the difference between life and death.
Feeling safe? Want to scour for resources or find your way around? Your nightvision goggles light up the room like your flashlight on steroids, helping you see every fine detail of the world around you. It also offers an augmented reality perspective that identifies valuable objects to loot, doorways or pathways to enter, and sometimes electronics that can be remotely disabled/enabled or hacked with help from the Prepper. But once again, make sure you’re not in close proximity to danger or you’ll regret you ever whipped those googles out.
The Cumulative Effect (on Gameplay)
When watching a horror movie, how often do you find the character making some time consuming decision like nervously rummaging through their pocketbook for a key or nervously trying to load up a gun full of bullets, hands shaking, while the killer is on their tail? Meanwhile you’re thinking (and sometimes even shouting) directions for the character. What they should be doing.
“RUN!” or “Get the gun from the drawer you idiot!” or “Hide under the bed!” It’s easier said than done… and now you’re forced to find out the hard way.
The game offers a constant struggle and love/hate relationship between television screen and GamePad, for the benefit of the game play. Constantly throughout the game, you’re inclined to toggle your flashlight, loot bodies and cabinets, consult your map for directions, ping your radar to identify nearby zombies, rearrange your inventory to optimize your weapons, dig in your backpack for supplies, and much, much more. Every time you involve yourself with a GamePad task, your focus is taken away from the television. It’s no coincidence that the television requires your undivided attention during survival moments.
That constant struggle between addressing the TV or GamePad creates lifelike scenarios where you’ve got to analyze, prioritize, and act quickly to save your neck- all in a matter of seconds. In places the games can be slow, but the pace coaxes you into a false sense of security and then BOOM. You’re dead. The combination of the gameplay and gamepad keeps you on your toes at all times, making for an exciting and suspenseful experience.
Multi-Player Modes (Kill Box & Assault)
The “Normal” and “Survival” versions of Campaign Mode aren’t the only options in this game. I was excited to see that ZombiU offers two multi-player modes: Kill Box and Assault.
Right out of the gate, Kill Box became hands-down my favorite part of ZombiU. I’m a sucker for battling my friends in head-to-head action, and KillBox offers a unique option that gives each player two totally different roles. One player is the Zombie King, using the GamePad to position and reposition a growing army of various zombies to attack the lone human. The opposing player is the human, running for survival while trying to accumulate the most kills.
I was slightly obsessed with the strategic battle until we found a little Kill Box cheat that ruined all the fun.
If you’re playing at home, come to an agreement that “X”ing out your zombies is illegal and banned, or it will be no fun. Hopefully Ubisoft removes this feature in a GamePlay update.
You can liken this version of ZombiU multi-player to capture the flag. Once again, as in Kill Box, one player is the zombies and the other is the human. Each is trying to acquire as many flags as possible, which you earn by standing in close proximity to the flag for a set period of time.
The Zombie King is offered various types of zombies but only one particular type can collect flag points and they accumulate at a much slower pace than the human player. As the game goes on, the Zombie King is offered upgraded units and capabilities for his army. Whichever team collects 4 or 5 flags first (option in settings) wins the match. Of course if you die as the human, you simply respawn after a few seconds.
There is no online multi-player version of ZombiU which I think is a shame. Kill Box and Assault offer the perfect opportunity for an exciting head-to-head experience (once the trick/cheat is patched). Online gameplay isn’t something you can easily just update in such a prominent release, but I’m hoping for the success of this game, including a sequel that features online gameplay.
ZombiU is by no means perfect. There are certain areas that need improvement and several things I would alter if I could, but nothing so glaring that it takes away from the overall enjoyment of the game. I’ll share a few of what I think are flaws in the game.
At the game’s introduction, you’ll notice the opening video stutters a bit in places. It’s a bit jumpy. This immediately concerned me and I was worried actual gameplay could be suspect. That was not the case. Gameplay was smooth and enjoyable, albeit there are sometimes long load times, nothing hampered gameplay enough to be a true irritant.
The game’s graphics were good but not great, which somehow I absolutely don’t mind. In fact, I think the murkiness of the pictures sometimes aids the game’s experience (and is perhaps purposeful) because it offers a more dirty and gritty atmosphere.
Many other people complained about weapons. I totally disagree with most of the criticisms: adding lots of weapon options and ample ammo would have absolutely ruined the experience that Ubisoft crafted. However, I would have liked to see a bigger arsenal of organic/homemade weapons. Why not throw in a sledgehammer that you also use to bust open doors? How about a shovel? Maybe even let people pick up trash cans and cabinets to hurl at the biters. I didn’t want bigger and better weapons, I just wanted more random crappy weapons. And to be honest, in a real survival situation, you’ll grab anything nearby in your defense so this could have greatly heightened the gameplay experience.
Another big complaint I disagree with was the lack of discoveries when “looting”. The entire earth is infected and devastated- how much useful stuff do you expect to find? If you get bored looting, so be it, but you’ll be going into battle a little less prepared. If you spend a bunch of time looting it might take awhile, but perhaps you’ll find the objects that end up saving your life. In my opinion, this continues Ubisoft’s insistance on staying true to their experience.
ZombiU shines on the Wii U because of its GamePad integration. Anyone can port over an existing game title to play on the Wii U, but the promise of the console is to offer a new and unique gaming experience, and ZombiU does this better than any of Nintendo’s other launch titles. The Ubisoft team designed a beautiful balance between the TV and GamePad that not only recreates the suspense of a horror movie, but forces you to divide your attention, distract your focus, and make decisions as the main character.
I won’t give ZombiU a star rating or letter grade: at this point, with so many divisively pitiful and stellar grades, the task seems pointless. Nothing in this world is one size fits all. Some people will love the game and some people will hate the game, the important part is understanding the purpose/type of game and trying to determine which of those categories you fall into.
Personally, I love the game. I also love horror movies, enjoy the energy of being scared/anxious, like the adrenaline rush of making buzzer beater type decisions, and all-in-all the game’s concept appeals to me. If you’re obsessed with first person shooters and require fast paced games with high powered guns and infinite amounts of ammo, this game might not be for you.
But what I fail to understand is how even people who don’t personally enjoy the game fail to understand the art in what Ubisoft has created. They’ve taken Nintendo’s Wii U concept, architected a way to extend and enrich the user experience in ways previously unimagined, and the result is nothing short of a gem.
Picture the girl in the horror movie, sprinting from the chainsaw killer and crashing into a locked door. But she has the key. It’s in her purse! With rattling hands and a chainsaw screaming in the background, she rummages for the key in a desperate attempt to save her life. THIS is the feeling Zombi U is able to emulate through the delicate balance of television screen and GamePad screen. Taking your eyes off one is risking the other. And that risk could be your life.