Review By ChadDrake @ 12:42pm 20/11/12
Whilst the (not so) recent spattered events in the media, the onslaught of zombie survival guides and the “end” of the Mayan calendar have taught me the impending zombie apocalypse is nigh, the ability to train successfully and experience this oft explored genre have tended to rely on powerful protagonists, over-developed zombies with mutated extremities and an overtly speedy, zealous lust for human blood.
Zombi U takes the classic approach, shunning the faster, manic zombie types for the classic, lurching zombie archetype that started it all (think George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead rather than 28 days later). With tense pacing and a main character that is your good ol’ clueless layman, our survivors lack of initial knowledge provides us with a familiarity of sorts -- a chance to feel like we really have been sashayed into the depth of the chaos. More than a simple zombie sledge-fest, Zombi U is more like a training tool for would be zombie-survivalists, if Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide is the bible, Zombi U is the training simulator.
Setting the stage for the niceties to come, we launch, in typical style, awakening with little knowledge of where we are. It appears to be a safe house of sorts, situated in the London Underground. Introduced to our current situation and environment by a yet-unknown-to-us gentlemen, we are given basic instructions giving us the rundown of recent events, directing us to a few essential survival items and eventually leading us out as an apparent lonesome survivor, permeating the now unfamiliar and barren streets of London’s infamous Brick Lane.
Now, since survival-horror really relies on that sense of the unknown, I think I’ll stop revealing locations and story there as giving you any more would ruin the surprise, now wouldn’t it.
As remnants of the not-too-distant past -- familiarities, if you will -- are scattered haphazardly, we find environmental touches that remind us of the humanity that once was. Mattresses crumpled against a wall, a pair of discarded Converse, police tape sanctioning off areas, open suitcases, their scattered contents and an abandoned, ransacked apartment smeared in blood shows signs of a struggle. All are elements of a recent past, transforming a seemingly recognisable environment into a new apocalyptic world, filled with fear and dread.
If Bear Grylls was in a living dead-ridden world he’d tell us something along the lines of “Quality planning is what survival is all about” and for once, he’d be right. Planning is what this game is all about. Dispelling the myth that avoiding slow moving flesh eaters is a simple run the gauntlet event, those slow moving, cumbersome corpses are surprisingly effective in packs. If you run in guns or bats-a-blazing, you will be overrun. Clearing your path with a solid push of your baseball bat helps, but this leaves you open to attacks from every other direction.
You will learn quite quickly that the essence of your survival involves scanning your surroundings, taking note of any zombies and paths on offer for you before you run through the crowd, and this is where we start to see the immersive experience the Wii U GamePad is attempting to offer. Holding down the left bumper opens up your scanner which is displayed on your Wii U GamePad screen. Using the motion sensitive GamePad you are given a full 360-degree real-time view. Focusing on and scanning any highlighted items whether they be foe or item adds them to your on-screen view and gives you an insight into the content of various containers and dead bodies. Although the secret messages, some of which can be added by you and other gamers online, are only visible on your scanning device.
Accessing your Bug-Out-Bag (BOB) and opening your GamePad screen with a quick swipe down on the touchscreen provides you with maps, information, mission guidelines and a select number of slots with which to store your weapons and items with quick access slots provided on the left and right sides for quick and easy thumb access to a much needed health pack or a flare to distract the dumbfounded lurchers ahead (or behind). Your BOB slots will fill up quickly requiring an unfortunate and most likely risky detour back to your safehouse to store ammo for your yet to be acquired guns and anything you would like to leave for the next survivor, should you get infected, in your trusty cache.
This contextual experience is enhanced as your on-screen view switches from first to third-person allowing you to see your vulnerable state as your lack of focus on your surroundings allows the biters to sneak up and have a snack on your brains, so attention on both screens is essential. In fact, everything in this game leaves you vulnerable, whether it be rearranging your BOB, scanning CCTV cameras, or even picking locks. Anything that requires your focus takes time and requires you to utilise your Wii U GamePad, and even though the gamer in me fears it may become a victim stored in the annals of time with the dreaded Wii Waggle it continues to feel more contextual than a gimmick.
Having a handy medkit is essential in this environment but unfortunately they are difficult to come by, what with all the looting and such. If you're desperate, however, and you can't find any food to replenish that sickness, look no further than some of the lovely, local London wildlife. There’s plenty of tasty rats and birds around, but be careful, if they’re rotten you're going to lose more HP than you would’ve gained so you need to weigh up the odds before you waste precious ammo just to munch on that crow croissant.
Whilst you’re rearranging your BOB with a simple drag-and-drop touch screen interface, and contemplating that medkit you’ll return to a character that feels ever so slightly cumbersome. Not so cumbersome that you’re swearing at the screen or blaming the devs at Ubi but more like a regular Joe’s reaction times would be compared to say, a Navy Seal. It’s this regular movement speed of your characters actions and attacking that create a slow, looming and tense sense of fear, truly appropriate to our protagonist’s personal character. A generic survivor with no extreme army training, no knowledge of how to really survive in a barren, overrun environment devoid of (normal) human life.
The lack of a jump button whilst providing a contextual jump or climb option for others is a frustration point for me. Sure it enables easier direction of the gameplay, but it’s annoying that I can’t climb over that one metre barrier and have to travel all the way around, but I can easily jump that one and a half metre table. I don't think this shouldn’t be happening in a game like this anymore. In my opinion, if you don’t want us to travel there, make it a higher barrier or fence -- contextualise your environmental walls. And while I’m on my tirade, jumping down two metres instead of using a ladder (again a contextual button press to start climbing is required) results in losing more health than a zombie attack would. Unless my character has paper mache legs, I’d bet my small intestine no health loss, or very little, should occur.
Although you're playing as a “normal” ol’ gent (or lady), luckily you're a quick learner as leveling-up with weapons is well-balanced with the lack of ammunition occurring at a relatively fast pace. However, conserving ammo is at all times of the utmost importance -- the way it used to be in Resident Evil games of old, because aside from being scarce, your guns are noisy. So much so that they will alert other zombies of your location and since they aren’t too clever they are easily distracted, so keeping out-of-sight, keeping your rechargeable light off, keeping the noise down and using blunt weapons are your best chance of survival.
Once the hordes sink their teeth into your skull, you’d think it’s all over. Time to respawn at the last checkpoint right? Not the case with Zombi U here, as you will respawn as a new survivor in your safe house, but your game progress remains concurrent. The twist here, however, is if you want all the goodies you have collected you’ll need to traverse back to where you died, risking life and limb (literally) to kill your previous zombified character and reclaim the BOB and all your earnestly collected stash.
Falling easily into the trap of providing gamers with simple retrieve and return missions is a real danger with a game like this, but Zombii U never really seems to be repeating itself much. Sure, traversing the same environment is required at times, but generally I didn’t come across any overzealous zombie respawning in areas I’d cleared and when they did return in smaller numbers the variation was enough to sate a zombie enthusiast. I even encountered plenty of post-death Lads (kaos pouches intact), lumbering around, providing some enjoyable cannon fodder.
The environments and game-world seem simultaneously huge and constricted and with missions structured to slowly open up new locations in an orderly fashion, you still feel like you do have freedom to head wherever you like. If areas are blocked it seems like there's a genuine reason. The game feels huge, just like London. Arriving to a location with copious amounts of enemies obviously means it’s time to take a step back, rescan and rethink your situation and approach from a different angle, which the game provides in balanced measure.
Welcome contextual elements such as foreboding thunderstorms right on cue, add to the wonderful lighting effects coming from the new Wii U hardware. With lighting effects being integral to create the necessary suspense an awesome 35mm lens flare effect is found all throughout the game, obscuring vision, highlighting the grime, dirt and all round filthiness reflecting on the screen and adding that nostalgic nod to classic 80s zombie films.
Looking like a very solid 360 or PS3 title, the game is realistic in tone and there’s plenty of exploding zombie heads to be found when battering their brains out, although more variation in the gore would’ve been warmly welcome.
The challenge here though, is always to survive as even respawning means risking your life again to retrieve your gear and with two difficulty settings there’s no “Extreme” mode, so to speak. However, there is a nasty little morsel titled Survival Mode. This is for those that want the true zombie experience. Die, and that’s it. If you're willing and you put 12 hours in and then die, bad luck, it’s time for you to start over, making you less likely to take risks and plan your method of attack. It’s probably the closest you can get to encountering the true zombie apocalypse thus far on a gaming system outside of the successful multiplayer mod, DayZ.
Whilst not being one of the coveted Ninty iconic characters in a launch title that fanboys are hungry for, it looks like this will satiate the hordes with its gritty realism (as much as it possibly can be in a title about fictional zombies), tense environments and an immersive control set-up thanks to Wii U’s GamePad. So, as it turns out Zombie U is more than just a blunt tool with which to bludgeon the heads of your zombified friends -- it’s to a wannabe zombie survivalist what a flight simulator is to a pilot in training.