Originally designed as a quirky, fast-paced shooter set during an alien invasion, Ubisoft's Wii U launch title morphed into the standout ZombiU, a slower but well-paced zombie adventure set in modern London. It is also one of the few Wii U launch titles to make true use of the console's gamepad as an integrated gameplay accessory, rather than just as an alternate (and smaller) screen on which you can play the game.
- Excellent gamepad integration
- Proper zombie apocalyptic tension
- Wicked multiplayer
- Rough melee combat
- Clunky environment interaction
Ubisoft seems to have approached ZombiU with a sensible formula: introduce the relatively unique properties of the Wii U gamepad and present them in the context of a very accessible and appealing zombie apocalypse. In doing so, Ubisoft, no stranger to third-party launch titles, has stepped it up a notch to deliver one of the few worthwhile original Wii U titles out of the gate.
There's something eerily familiar about the outbreak imagined in ZombiU's London setting. Granted, dark and desolate urban areas are hardly original settings in undead nightmares, but this combined with the guitar-driven score made me wonder just how much Ubisoft drew particular influence from 28 Days Later. Here, however, the fast-moving zombies don't show up until later. If you classify zombie entertainment two-pronged, as either isolated incidents that survivors can overcome or end-of-the-world events that survivors can endure, you'll find ZombiU falling into the latter category.
ZombiU is played in the first person, always an efficiently immersive approach in the zombie survival mode. Your go-to melee weapon is the setting-appropriate English cricket bat, which while durable, isn't the easiest weapon to wield, and is one of the reasons I relied more on the limited firearms or in some sections just avoided zombies altogether. Moving around worked well enough, though the same can't be said for object interaction. Whether it's going through doors or looting the undead, it can be a challenge precisely centering your camera for the needed button prompt to appear.
Of the many Wii U launch and launch window titles out now, ZombiU is on that short list of games not allowing you to make a full playthrough on the console's unique new gamepad. That's not much of a detractor here, with the secondary gamepad screen acting as a special makeshift device that allows you to detect objects and signs not visible on your primary screen. It's also what you'll refer to for inventory management, making for extremely tense situations that force your attention from the primary screen even when zombies are in the midst.
Of the many terms that surfaced during the gaming year that was 2012, "permadeath" could be the one most oft repeated. Thanks to the success of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, gamers rediscovered what it feels like to emotionally invest in playable characters without the assistance of high-production cinematics or even deep character development. ZombiU works off this concept of permadeath, but, unlike XCOM's concern for an entire squad, has you focusing your protection onto one character at a time. This creates a great sense of caution and with the first character you control almost paranoia, until that faint hope you can beat the game without dying flitters away upon first death. But die you (probably) will in ZombiU, and once you get over it you'll find it's not the end of the world. Though it can be difficult if you had stored in your backpack all ammo and items at the time of your demise. You'll have to track down and kill this last character you played, now one of the walking undead, for any chance at recovering those items. If on the way to recover these items your new character gets infected, then those items are gone for good. This leads to judgment calls on what items you ought to bring with you and what you should save in the storage container in the safehouse.
In trying to keep your survivor alive, the game provides a number of avenues beyond the standard up close and personal approach. The outdoor areas of London can be especially roomy in providing non-confrontational routes to sneak past zombies and focus on your immediate missions. These missions include anything from activating closed circuit cameras to recovering key items.
Next to Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and New Super Mario Bros. U, ZombiU ranks as one of the best local multiplayer games for the Wii U. Much like the adversarial forms of multiplayer in Nintendo Land, the asymmetrical set up of pitting players against someone with the Wii U gamepad provides a level of entertainment you wouldn't get from a regular match on traditional controllers. In ZombiU, there are the player-controlled survivors, while the player with the gamepad takes on the role of zombie summoner. In the gamepad user's eyes, it's sort of a form of "tower offense" as you're able to send a number of zombies to stop the other players.
Taking a page from the classic multiplayer conquest mode, ZombiU pits survivors against zombies in a competition to take over capture points. I was pleased with how fair and balanced the challenges were from both the zombie and the survivor perspective. One zombie type is designed to capture points while the rest are designed to torment the survivors. The latter group is an utter joy to disperse out into the field and make things hard for your friends. There's nothing like the sadistic glee of overwhelming others with fast moving joggers and spitters.
ZombiU should also be recognized as one of those rare launch titles that doesn't have the classic earmarks of a launch title that's been rushed out the door. The melee combat is a little rough, but that's compensated for by the other tools available in the game. Moreover, ZombiU's levels are developed well enough that your wits become a useful asset. The full integration of the gamepad and how it forces your gaze away from the television creates a special kind of suspense you couldn't get in other zombie games.