Pros: Great use of the gamepad, atmospheric.
Cons: Several game-breaking glitches, forces you through series of load times on death.
Should a zombie apocalypse be fun? Should it be a fast-paced roller coaster ride through a crumbling fun house? Or should it be a tense, terrifying slog through a sewer of rotting corpses, where every step you take may be your last?
Your answer will determine how much you’re likely to enjoy ZombiU, an intense, frustrating, slow-paced, strategic, absorbing, exhausting, thrilling horror-survival game that plays you as much as you play it.
Developed and Published by: Ubisoft
Genre: Horror Survival
For ages: 17 and up
Platform: Wii U (exclusive)
Release Date: November 18, 2012
The Basics: Fighting Zombies and Playing with the Gamepad
The story is little more than a bunch of fetch quests, the game’s true focus being the minute-to-minute experience of trying to survive. Zombies shamble towards you, groaning, then lunch at you when they’re near. If you have a gun you can shoot them, but bullets are scarce - scavenging a room might only get you a couple - and gunshots can call every nearby zombie to you, so generally you have to beat them to re-death with a cricket bat. This is very time consuming; the first or second blow will take the top of a zombie’s head off, but it will take another half dozen blows to kill one.
Few games have embraced the Wii U gamepad with the enthusiasm of ZombiU. The touchscreen functions as an inventory interface, a scanner that allows you investigate objects from a distance, a sniper rifle scope (you hold it up in front of your TV and zoom in, which is really cool), and a map with a heat detector that tells you where zombies are. The detector also reads crows and rats, so at times you will enter an area expecting to be overwhelmed with zombies only to find a murder of crows. The game's use of the touchscreen makes the game an essential Wii U purchase.
The Downside: Death With Too Much Sting
The process of dying and getting back to where you need to be is incredibly aggravating. You die, wait 10 or 15 seconds for the safe house to load, walk to the fast access manhole cover to reach a place near where you died (assuming you’ve unlocked the corresponding manhole), wait through another long load time, then walk quite a ways, often encountering doors that trigger more long loads.
And sometimes, as you arrive at your destination, you will be killed, either by the thing that killed you last time or by your former self, and you will have to do it all again.
Early on I began to really regret playing the game in normal difficulty rather than in “chicken” mode. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the challenge, it was simply that I could tell the game was going to take me forever to complete.
I died, and I died, and I died. And then I caught on.
The Gameplay: Slow Down and Think. Or Run.
As with Thief, I soon realized that I wasn’t playing ZombiU the way it was meant to be played. This is purposefully old-school horror-survival along the lines of the original Resident Evil games. Those were slow, atmospheric, and grindingly difficult, never giving players quite enough ammo or health items to survive. I realized that the question that greets players upon starting the ZombiU, “how long will you survive?” is not just a tagline but rather a pithy summation of the game’s concept.
I started moving oh so slowly, luring a single zombie with my flashlight and quietly bludgeoning it when it was away from its peers, then luring the next. I was ecstatic when I kept an avatar alive for a full 40 minutes, but soon two hours was not uncommon. Those terrible load times and ridiculous limitations had retrained me. I would still die, especially when I was surrounded, but I died much less.
The Verdict: Annoying and Buggy, Enthralling and Just a Little Bit Brilliant
While I deeply admire ZombiU’s adherence to its slow-paced, horror aesthetic, I cannot fully embrace it. The truth is, I found the game utterly exhausting. I started following a rule of never playing for more than a couple of hours at a time, because those two hours would leave me drained and jittery.
That is, of course, what a zombie apocalypse would be like. It would not be me blasting through the hordes Resident Evil 5 style, but rather me desperately trying to make it to someplace safe, sometimes thinking I would rather be dead than to continue this tortured existence.
I’m okay with less realism. After finishing most of the game (the last half-hour was kept from me by a game-breaking glitch triggered by dying at the wrong time), I discovered that I much prefered playing in “chicken” mode. There were still tense, exciting moments, and I certainly would have died a few times if I hadn’t already spent 20 hours honing my ZombiU skills, but Zombies could be beaten to death in three wallops, removing some of the harder mode’s terror but also all of its tedium.
The game was just more fun that way, an action-packed romp through an apocalyptic hell scape. And when it comes right down to it, when I’m surrounded by zombies, their flesh rotting on their faces as they try to tear out my throat, I just want it to be fun.