A more-than-worthy first outing from Ubisoft on Nintendo Wii U
Whenever a new console launches, there are usually three types of launch games that coincide with its release: first party titles based on existing franchise, third party ports of games released on other hardware, and unique new IPs that attempt to show off the technical capabilities of the system.
Typically, the first party launch titles are the ones hardcore gamers go for, as they tend to be the safest options. Such is the case of Nintendo, which has chosen to christen the Wii U with a Mario game at launch (a tradition their last two systems failed to uphold). Though New Super Mario Bros U has become an ironically-named series at this point, it is still the safest bet in light of the numerous third party ports with questionable performance issues (especially in the case of Batman: Arkham City and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, both titles reported to suffer significant framerate issues not present in other consoles).
And yet, there is always hope that the new IPs are the ones that end up the best; when purchasing a brand new system, gamers typically want to see what graphical and gameplay improvements their pricey new investment can dish out. Unfortunately, history has proven that as launch titles, such games fail to grasp all the intricacies of the new hardware, instead serving as an experiment for developers to work with until they’ve become more familiar with the new hardware. No company is as guilty of this as Ubisoft, who began their Wii career making grand promises about the then-revolutionary motion controls of Red Steel, only to release a shoddy product that is still regarded with disappointment today.
For the Wii U, Ubisoft is back at the front lines once again promising innovation and quality with their debut title, ZombiU. Though zombies may be all the rage now thanks to The Walking Dead TV series, zombie games have remained as commonplace as First Person Shooters, and just as tiresome. With a clichéd premise and a couple of poorly scored early reviews, the odds did not seem to favor ZombiU as the Wii U’s first “killer app”. However, this now puts the game in the unique position of being one of the biggest surprises of the year, as this review is poised to counter-argue.
The story of ZombiU takes place in London following a zombie outbreak that has decimated the local populace. Prophesized centuries ago by (real) astronomer John Dee, the (not real) Black Prophecy foretells of an apocalypse that will engulf the world in 2012. For some, the prophecy is a warning for people to prepare and stock up for the coming storm; for others, the prophecy has yet to be fully realized, causing others to decode the ancient texts in order to prevent the true catastrophe from happening.
Players will witness the events from both sides, but mainly follow the guidance of The Prepper, and unseen voice behind a security camera that assists survivors who stumble onto his safe house. Communicating through a portable device, The Prepper guides players through the zombie infested streets and sewers of London in an attempt to gather as many supplies necessary to survive the zombie outbreak. These dangerous scavenger hunts inevitably lead players to other surviving NPCs, including the Ravens of Dee as well as the last surviving doctor of Buckingham Palace. The story is straightforward and is more of a means to guide players from one scary location to the next, but what it lacks in substance it also thankfully keeps from being intrusive. Despite The Prepper’s occasional words of wisdom, the majority of the game focuses on solitude, where players must keep their eyes open to the terrors lurking in the shadows and their ears to the distant wails of the undead.
As Ubisoft’s debut Wii U title, ZombiU is the first of the system’s launch titles to demonstrate the capabilities of the revolutionary gamepad; the primary use of the touchscreen is to display an on-screen map showing your current position at all times via a player icon. Other icons appear on the virtual map as well, such as your current objective, but others require some manual input by the player: for example, hitting the corresponding button will sound out a ping around the area, displaying all nearby movement through red dots. These dots will typically represent zombies, though birds and rats can be picked up through the ping as well. Another feature of the map is displaying scanned items: hitting the left shoulder button puts the gamepad in “scan mode”, where players drag their gamepad around to scan nearby drawers, tables and corpses for possible items, or doors and other pathways to determine whether they can be accessed or require an additional means of entering (keycards, lock picks, etc).
The gamepad also functions as the primary means of managing inventory. Players can equip up to six items at a time, while all remaining items are stored inside the limited space of their backpack. Moving items around is as simple as dragging them from the backpack and into one of the six slots, and can also be used to trash unwanted items in order to make space or to drag spare ammunition to their corresponding weapons. Other touchscreen features include using the screen as a scope for sniper rifles, tapping on wooden barricades in order to break through them or looting through various compartments and corpses for items, but for anyone who has played a DS or iOS game, they are all solid yet derivative features that you have experienced elsewhere.
In truth, ZombiU’s uniqueness does not come from its utilization of new technology, but for its placement of oldschool survivor horror mechanics. Ammunition and supplies are drastically limited, requiring conservation of the most effective weapons for the hairiest of skirmishes. Zombies are also significantly more dangerous and difficult to dispatch then seen in recent games, requiring either strategic shots to the head (which is easier said than done, considering the limited lighting and moving targets) or relentless blows to the body with a cricket bat (an obvious nod to Shaun of the Dead, but sadly stands as the game’s only melee weapon). When it appears that the zombies are outnumbering you, a hasty retreat to the nearest door is the best option, as well as utilizing wooden planks to barricade the hungry hoard.
Even against a single zombie, the fear of death is always present, for should a zombie manage to land a single bite, the player will die instantly. With death also comes some harsh penalties: players will lose the character once they are killed, though they do not lose their progress in the game’s story. Instead, you wake up back at the safe house controlling a new character as a replacement, though all of your items and weapons are left in the previous survivor’s backpack and must be retrieved. Though the retrieval is only mandatory should the backpack house any key items, it is still recommended to take back all the lost weapons and supplies, even if it means putting an end to your now-zombified avatar.
This process of retrieving items from your own corpse is unique in itself, but the game takes it further by introducing an online component, where the infected survivors of other players can randomly invade one another’s game. Coming across a player’s corpse can serve as a potential undead gold mine, since whatever gear they had on them also carries over. There is also the amusement factor in running into and killing (or being killed by) a Wii U friend’s zombie. When early previews compared ZombiU to Dark Souls, this was undoubtedly the source of the comparison. Also taking a page from Dark Souls is the ability for players to leave behind in-game messages that can either help (or intentionally hinder) players in the form of graffiti icons. These icons are self explanatory, typically consisting of directional arrows, icons determining a nearby shortcut or item, or a warning about zombies, but ultimately they don’t prove as useful as the player messages from Dark Souls; for one, items and enemies tend to respawn, and while the areas are open enough to contain several paths that require a certain item to come back to later (such as keycards or explosives), there aren’t nearly as many hidden nooks and crannies as there are in From Software’s deviously difficult series.
Nevertheless, the game does evoke the same feelings of tension and precaution, as one wrong step can result in instant death for players. Survivors are ranked through scores indicating how long they’ve lasted, and for the truly fearless, there is a Survival difficulty mode that gives you only one life to complete the entire campaign. Even your progress is restricted to manual saves, with dirty beds serving as checkpoints. The safe house serves as the primary headquarters to retreat back to, and each area has a manhole that serves as an instant shortcut to-and-from the safe house, though there are also additional save points to find in the world. These places also have a workbench nearby that lets players improve their firearms, so long as they have the necessary parts for upgrades. Progressing through the story also unlocks upgrades for your map, including an instant ping to always let you know when danger is nearby, ala Alien. Unfortunately, the relentless sound effect echoing from your gamepad may prove quite annoying, especially as muting the gamepad itself will cause the noise to transmit from your TV’s volume (or worse yet, your headphones).
With its restrictions on ammunition and saving, as well as the difficulty in dispatching zombies, ZombiU owes more to the original Resident Evil than any other franchise. The brilliant use of sound effects and dimly lit settings also evoke memories of the earlier Silent Hill games, resulting in a game that feels delightfully oldschool for longtime fans of Survival Horror, and is an all-around terrifying experience for veterans and newcomers alike. Simply put, they don’t make zombie games like this anymore, and it is for that reason alone that ZombiU manages to take older gaming concepts and utilize them in order to breathe some new life into a genre plagued by mainstream enhancements. Though slightly rough around the edges and lacking in gameplay variety (such as more weapons and a multiplayer mode restricted to local play only), Ubisoft has managed to create a compelling new IP that demonstrates the Wii U’s new features. But more importantly, they’ve made zombie games terrifying again. We can only hope that future entries stick to the classic Survival Horror trappings, instead of falling into the same Hollywood-pandering fates of Resident Evil and Silent Hill.