A swing and a miss. My cricket bat whiffed harmlessly past the snarling zombie’s brainpan as he lurched forward, toppling me to the ground as he began his morbid meal. The loading screen floods the television with a mosaic of CCTV monitors, which give way to reveal my next avatar, a middle-aged woman with a bobbed haircut who lurches awake, only to spy a moribund reminder projected across the floor: ZombiU is survival horror.
Survival horror is a diluted phrase in 2012. Resident Evil has long since made the shift from the slow, ammo-sparing days of the original to white-hot action, and all of its contemporaries have followed suit, empowering players with high-powered weapons and a plentiful cache of ammo to fuel their monster-slaying rampages. ZombiU hearkens back to the gritty days of survival horror, with players managing a meager inventory as they face seemingly impossible odds. To many, this brutal level of difficulty may be considered unfair, but for me it was nostalgic.
The nostalgia of old-school survival horror is virtually the only nostalgic aspect of ZombiU, which uses the new technology of Nintendo’s Wii U console to give players a richer experience past its simple FPS mechanics. The Wii U’s GamePad, basically a tablet embedded in the middle of a controller, becomes a Swiss Army knife of tools to aid you in your quest to escape a zombie-plagued London. During most of the game, the GamePad screen shows an automap of your surroundings—a simple, yet unbelievably appreciated gesture—with a one-touch radar to scan the area for “blighters.” The radar has the obnoxious tendency to capture any movement, which leads to some nail biting tension until you find out that the red blip was little more than a false positive in the form of the game’s many rats.
Other functions are far less subtle. You can hold the GamePad up like a camera to scan your environment, use it to control in-game gun turrets (a maniacally fun moment), pick locks, ransack boxes for equipment, and hack security systems. All of these interactions, however, leave the game active and your character vulnerable. Trying to pick a lock on the GamePad while looking back up at your screen to make sure that no zombies have snuck up behind you adds a level of tension that would not normally be present in such a mundane task where, in other games, events around you all but shut down as you rotate tumblers. This vulnerability extends to inventory management as well, making the game seem oddly authentic…if that can really be a quality attributed to a game about the zombie apocalypse. This vulnerability will come to a head time and time again due to the game’s unique take on death. Death in the game takes a unique permanence, where your character will die if bitten. No amputation. No miracle cure. You get bitten, you die. The game then rolls you a new character to pick up where your previous character left off, albeit without whatever equipment they may have had. The solution? Hunting down your now-zombified predecessor and bashing in their brainpan in order to loot their backpack. It’s logical, but you never develop enough of an attachment to your short-lived avatars in the game for it to have any true impact or weight, reducing it to an amusing, cyclical exercise.
The other bit of inventiveness stems from the London setting, which should please (and depress) many an Anglophile. Setting the game in England allows for some novel ideas, like the omnipresent CCTV cameras providing eyes and ears to your faceless taskmaster who doles out the various missions, as well as a Shaun of the Dead-referencing cricket bat as your main melee weapon. Sadly, the game doesn’t see fit to include other British staples as weapons like exploding meat pies or sharpened Doctor Who DVDs. The British setting also allows for a more historical background for the plague, tying it into past figures and biblical prophecy.
There’s also a fun-as-hell local multiplayer mode called King of the Zombies, with one player acting as the “King of the Zombies” and using the GamePad to strategically drop blighters on a map to kill any other local players who are either trying to capture waypoints or simply try to stay alive. It’s more fun than it sounds as you can watch your hapless opponents react to the zombies you’re mercilessly dropping on the map, manipulating their fears and keeping tension high.
Being a launch title for the Wii U, ZombiU does fall prey to the curse of many a launch title: inability to really squeeze performance from the hardware. The graphics range from bleakly gorgeous, with snappy lighting effects and well-rendered zombies, to downright hideous, with some muddy and blurry textures seemingly on loan from the original Xbox. They aren’t a complete failure, but what the game’s visuals do right stands out in stark relief to what it does very, very wrong.
ZombiU may seem like little more than a tech demo for the Wii U and its promising GamePad technology (it is really, really cool), but it actually aspires to be more than that. For the most part, it succeeds, even if the campaign is woefully short (around 6 hours by my clock) and the novelty factor of the GamePad integration is so high. However, it’s still a simple, raucous romp through not-so-jolly Old England that could polish itself to near perfection in sequels.