- Format: Wii U
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
- Players: 1-2 (offline only)
- Site: http://zombiu.ubi.com/zombi/en-gb/home/index.aspx
It’s easy to argue that zombies have been overused in movies and games alike, especially over the last decade or so. Even as a launch title for a new console with an utterly unique controller, Zombi U needs to be something truly special to stand out. And it is… for most of its 11-14 hour running time.
With talk of infamous Elizabethan spy John Dee, and a prophecy that essentially paints the plague as a modern-day apocalyptic flood, the plot has admirably lofty ambitions for a zombie ‘em up. It’s unfortunate then that the story never really goes anywhere. Not even the yorkshireman squaddie who often talks at you through the gamepad helps plump the plot up, as every time he starts painting in the background he stops talking just as things get interesting.
Said yorkshireman names himself only as ‘The Prepper’. He saves your life at the very beginning of the game, calling you to the safe house in a nearby London underground station which becomes your base of operations. You quickly pick up a multi-purpose device he has somehow magically constructed himself, and the extent to which the gamepad is utilised is slowly revealed to you. It houses a radar for instance, which you initially have to ‘ping’ manually until you receive an auto upgrade. It then becomes an Aliens-style motion tracker in your hands; rats and birds can set it off just as easily as zombies, but it never hurts to be overcautious.
It does hurt to be overconfident, though. This is not, strictly speaking, an FPS. Fighting as many as three zombies at a time is unusual in Zombi U, but death comes all too easily. You start with just a pistol and six bullets; it will usually take at least two headshots (on the harder difficulty) to kill a zombie, and ammo is scarce. On top of that, any zombified police in full riot gear you come across are impervious to bullets until you knock their helmets off.
Thankfully, you have a jolly useful cricket bat. It will knock off a helmet with a few hits, and will obliterate any unprotected zombie head – eventually. You’re usually looking at 4-6 swipes per enemy unless you get lucky. Swing at a zombie a little too early or a little too late, and you leave yourself wide open to attack. As you’re a terrified civilian rather than an army vet, you have to make sure you actually aim when attacking with any weapon. The brilliantly designed result is that survival comes down to staying calm under pressure and planning your next move; neither of which come easily on the rare occasions you’re presented with a horde.
There are other tools for DIY solutions to sticky situations, such as flares (which attract the undead), planks for barricading doors, grenades, landmines and so on. The whole point is that you don’t know what’s around the next darkened corner. When will you find your next precious explosive? Where will the next deadly grouping of zombies come from? You value your belongings and your life in a way that very few games encourage. This is partly because when you die, you respawn at the safe house as a completely new survivor with just a pistol, a bat, and anything you were wise enough to store. You then need to return to find and kill the last survivor, so you can loot the items back. Die before you do this, and they’re gone.
The Prepper’s device can be used to scope an area out, if you’re confident the light won’t attract unwanted attention. Holding and moving the gamepad like a camera (or using the right stick) you can identify & mark enemies, items and doors; and as it’s upgraded, hack locks and find hidden messages. You’re encouraged to hack CCTV boxes, which allows you to check the rough location of items such as ammo and med kits from the safe house. This becomes much more important near the end of the game, when you need to finish collecting certain items from previously visited locations (not as tedious as it sounds).
The gamepad’s use means that everything happens in real-time (but yes, you can pause). You’ll find yourself double checking the coast is clear before you dare check a corpse for items, or enter a door’s keycode. Concentrating on the pad when you hear a telltale groan from the TV is panic-inducing.
Deviations from the ‘normal’ zombie model are rare, but (one brilliant idea aside) mildly annoying. Borderline unfair are ‘bombers’, which explode at the slightest provocation. Being blown up in this way is the only death likely to make you believe failure was not the result of panic or bad decision making on your part.
Sadly, the last two hours or so ignore much of what makes Zombi U great. There’s a lot of compulsory retreading of old ground, with most shortcuts frustratingly and inexplicably cut off. Worse than that though is the misguided emphasis on combat, with regular unavoidable zombie fights – sometimes without warning. If you think this means a tidal wave of new weapons and ammo, think again.
Sadomasochists will enjoy the option of Survival, the same as Normal except you get just one character. Make a stupid mistake, and bang – the credits roll, and that session is over forever. The Souls games have nothing on this. There’s also a tower defence style multiplayer mode, where one player sets legions of zombies on another. It’s good fun, but a lack of online play limits its appeal.
So the story is where it’s at, and ‘it’ is – for the most part – involving, challenging, atmospheric fun that you’ll never forget. If only Ubisoft had the confidence in the core ideas to resist dropping in different zombie types and an anticlimactic endgame, this would have been an essential purchase. Hopefully we’ll see a sequel; this is more than enough until then.