Sunday, February 8, 2015
Released on the Wii U, November 18, 2012, by Ubisoft Montpellier
Metacritic Average Score: 77/100
Wii U Game Reviews Score: 9/10
Expectation can play a large role in how a game is perceived. A game can be excellent, but if it is not what players thought it would be, it might still be panned. Such was the case immediately after ZombiU's release. Some early reviews were tepid. Even stalwarts like IGN seemed to completely miss the point.
A Different Kind of Game: Resident Evil IV is one of the greatest video games ever made, and generally considered among the best of all time. It completely changed the course of the Resident Evil franchise. Where previous games in the Resident Evil series are strict survival horror, dropping players in hopeless situations with only a small amount of ammunition, Resident Evil IV is all about action. While still containing quite a few scares, the focus is loading up on ammo and blowing multitudes of foes away. It worked wonderfully in that game, a landmark in the genre. However, Resident Evil IV's gameplay also changed gamers' expectations. After REIV's success, less straight horror games were released, while many action games with a touch of horror, often involving zombies, filled the shelves. Players now associated zombies with intense fire fights and blood-pumping action. ZombiU is not that type of game. It is a throwback to a time when video game designers simply wanted to make the player pee their pants.
The game begins by forcing you to run down a London alley, unarmed, for your life, as zombies come alive all around you. You are eventually taken in by a grizzled old survivor who goes by the title "Prepper." Prepper gives you a safe place to sleep (and consequently, save your game), a backpack, a "Prepper Pad," a cricket bat, a pistol loaded with only six bullets, and a number of tasks to accomplish. Other survivors give more tasks along the way, taking the player to such exotic locales as Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London.
Throughout the game, the player will encounter a limited amount of guns, ammo, and explosives, but as many of these items have been used up in the current zombie apocalypse, they are hard to come by. Instead, one must strategize...survive.
Graphics: Outside of a few random low-res textures, ZombiU is a very beautiful game. The environments are gorgeously designed, and as mentioned above, designed to scare. Lighting effects cast shadows, often moving, everywhere. Of particular note is a container storage yard during an intense, midnight downpour, zombies possibly around every corner. The zombies themselves look quite terrifying, and take damage believably as the player bashes and blows bit and pieces of them everywhere. The limited amount of facial and body designs stick out at times, but the player is often too busy fighting for their lives to notice. Overall, Zombi U's look is heavy on atmosphere, evocative of the nightmare apocalyptic scenario it presents, but also of Britain itself.
Sound: Just as the graphics, ZombiU's audio is designed to scare, and the sound is even more effective than the visuals. Wind blows, crows caw. Zombie noises send chills up and down the spine. Those walking corpses have of a way of sounding like they are directly in your ear. The music often goes from non-existent to frantic, particularly when a zombie is approaching and the player's character is frightened. Speaking of the PC, the player's character's breathing goes loud and frantic when they fight off a zombie attack, and they will often begin to scream when a battle gets particularly intense. On the other hand, sound effects for discoveries and item pickups are quite satisfying, and music for safe houses and safe places is appropriately soothing. The Prepper's voice-acting in particular is quite well done, but all of ZombiU's in-game speech is well performed.
Gameplay: I started off my ZombiU campaign by running directly into danger. I started off my ZombiU campaign by dying...often. ZombiU defies a major trend in today's video-gaming world: when you die in ZombiU, your character is actually dead...forever. The game saves the moment your fate is decided, then you wake-up on a cot in the Prepper's hideout...as another character the Prepper has saved off the street. You are then tasked with taking out your now zombified former character, so that you can take back the belongings (health, ammo, other weaponry) you lost. Of course, if you did something stupid, like attempt to throw a grenade through a closed window (guilty as charged), you can re-visit your former character's scattered remains to take back your old stuff, as well. The has quite a jarring effect, particularly if you've grown fond of the character you were using, and now have to bash your own brains in.
Brain-bashing is a vital component of ZombiU, as the cricket bat is your only unlimited weapon. Realistically, the characters you inhabit are just average Joes and Joettes. Not only does it take several swings of the bat to splatter a zombies brains, but your character will start to sway and panic as their horror grows. Panic is actually a major enhancer of ZombiU's difficultly. I don't mean your character's in-game panic, either. In my own case, most of my deaths, even when I had a good handle on ZombiU's gameplay, came from me freaking out and losing my cool. The sounds of approaching zombies would grow too loud, and the music would get too intense, and instead of following through on meticulously made plans, or even making plans, I would bolt and run, only to get swamped and devoured. If the player wants to hold on to their character and not have to backtrack to pick up lost items, avoiding this type of behavior is a must. ZombiU does not allow multiple game files, so you can't just make several copies of your file to return to if you die. You have to start back in the Prepper's hideaway as a new character. To stay alive, the player must remain calm and always be adequately prepared for every situation.
Having to think is not always something video gamers enjoy. Those who can and want to spend 20 hours thoughtlessly blasting away will be immensely disappointed with ZombiU's premise. However, for those who want a unique experience, ZombiU satisfies. It is one of the few games that actually allows a player to size up their apocalypse-surviving abilities. Turns out I would die 51 times.
Finally, I should note the benefit of the Wii U Gamepad to ZombiU's gameplay, or as the Gamepad is called in-game, "The Prepper Pad." The touchscreen acts as an upgradeable map. The player can tap into London's CCTV security cameras to map out areas, and eventually receives a sort of zombie sonar. Zombie positions appear red, and flash on the screen. This helps for better strategies, as it gives a better idea of what's around the corner...unless it's a flock of crows that have only been placed there to scare the crap out of you. The sound of a ping without a return (which would signal a nearby zombie) is as comforting as hot mashed-potatoes and fried chicken. The Gamepad is also used to hack doors or pick locks. Overall, the Wii U Gampad's ZombiU utilization is quite innovative and enjoyable, and it enhances gameplay greatly.
Lasting Value: ZombiU's adventure lasts between 15-20 hours. I haven't returned to it yet, but I have such fond memories of prowling around post-apocalyptic London, I might. The game also includes a "Survivor Mode," where one death means game over...instead of waking up as a new character in the Prepper's hideout, one does not wake up at all. There are also two fun multiplayer modes. There's a capture the flag mode where player one must strategize on the Wii U Gamepad, sending zombies to capture the flags and devour player two (use a Wii Remote or the Wii Pro Controller), who is also trying to capture the flags, but is human. A second mode similarly pits players one and two against each other, to see how long player two can survive player ones zombie onslaught. These modes feature several arenas, and are good fun, though they pale in comparison to the game's single player mode. A final bonus is a filter for the Wii U Gamepad's camera, which makes "zombified" photographs of anyone in front of the lens.