There will be no overt spoilers in this review, however, I do discuss the game in general, so if you 100% plan on playing ZombiU, you may wish to avoid reading to maintain your own objectivity.
I picked up ZombiU on launch day along with Nintendoland and New Super Mario Bros U.
Of these 3 titles, ZombiU contains the most ‘hardcore’ appeal including graphic, skull-busting violence, a noticeably high level of challenge, and a brave, legitimate return to the true Survival Horror genre of yesteryear. For what it’s worth, ZU has also received my highest amount of playtime for any of my 3 launch titles (campaign completed yesterday with approx. 22 hours, plus perhaps 5 additional hours spent in the single-life ‘Survivor’ mode).
It’s no secret that the game has gotten a wide variety of review scores. Personally, I find it a little unusual that the IGN review was authored by a non-Nintendo editor, possibly explaining the middling (6.3) score. I suspect the editor was mentally comparing ZU to a different style of zombie game (more on that below), giving rise to mistaken expectations and ‘incorrect’ scoring…at least in my own opinion.
My own score for this game would be much higher….something around an 8.5 or even 9.0. I find ZombiU to be a brilliant, unique take on survival horror, and something DEFINITELY worth considering for your own Wii U library. Read on for details.
As you’ve probably heard, ZU is NOT a FPS or a modern Resident Evil. The game is atmospheric (i.e. spooky as all get-out) and paced at a slower tempo than many current ‘zombie’ games—you’ll often wander for minutes at a time, encountering nothing but stray rats and birds (each of which will scare the hell out of you as they skitter across your radar). Be advised: ZU’s spartan atmosphere is intentional—you should NOT purchase ZU expecting to be firing your shotgun with abandon, or respawning every few seconds. ZU is a completely different kind of game—this is a post-apocalypse world where every bullet counts, where your supplies are always in danger of running out (including healthpacks, grenades, even the battery in your flashlight), where save-spots are few and far between. A skilled player can ‘level up’ your character’s weapon attributes, but the game includes permadeath for all avatars—and autosaves INSTANTLY when you’ve been killed—meaning that in order to level up, you’ll need to be VERY good, a little lucky, and supremely cautious.
An enormous part of the game’s appeal is how frackin’ SCARY the whole thing feels. Ubisoft—lest we forget, an incredible game-making studio– is well aware of other zombie games that include 1000-corpse body counts and nigh-unlimited ammunition. This is not the route they chose for this particular title. Instead, success in ZU is measured in how long you can survive on ONE LIFE . . . a clever device that raises the tension beyond almost any game I’ve ever played. You are NOT supposed to throw away lives here—the characters in ZU are ‘real’ people with names and former lives . . .victims of an apocalypse just struggling to survive another few hours. Every time you lose a character, it’s meant to feel like a REAL loss—your invaluable items remain on the battlefield, and your own former avatar (now an infected corpse) will haunt the game until you return to reclaim your loadout (and bash the skull of your former self).
Like many creative, unique games–ZU is not a game for everyone. If you buy this title expecting a COD Zombie-mauling clone, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is fine—different games for different players. Instead, ZU is a slow survival game with a ton of fear-factor and slick presentation . . . but no, you won’t be shooting everything that moves. ZU encourages thoughtful preparation for each mission (limited loadout slots require careful planning), is BRUTALLY unforgiving (a single zombie bite can be lethal . . . even right until the final scenes of the game), includes some highly clever puzzles involving the Wii U pad (brilliantly incorporated throughout the whole game), and forces a player to REALLY THINK about their every move.
Panic is often your own worst enemy—even though I finished the game with a very respectable 16 lives on my first time through, I’d say that at least a third of those lives were lost in a moment of genuine, blind panic . . . it’s tough to describe how freakishly frightening the game feels when you’ve spent a week upgrading a single avatar, painstakingly preparing for every encounter and making sure nothing is lurking behind you . . . and then you accidentally stumble into a warren of 5 fast-moving zombies (some of them perhaps on fire or spitting acid) . . . . FREAK OUT. For perspective, in ZU, encountering more than 2 zombies at a time is always a dangerous proposition, and when you face even a small horde of 5 or 6, your typical option is ONLY to RUN, and DON’T look back. The zombies don’t always shuffle here—they’ll be slashing at your back even as you scramble up that ladder or down the nearest manhole.
My only real complaints about ZU are a few software bugs. Twice (in 22+ hours), my avatar got “stuck” in a wall or doorway and I was forced to reboot the game to free the character (there’s no other option—which means you lose all progress since your last save). There were a couple buggy moments when my pad “forgot” how to scan cryptograph messages, and I had to return (twice) to the place where your pad gets upgraded to “fix” it. There are also a few moments of confusing plot development that involve conflicting instructions from your Prepper (the guy who speaks to you through the Pad) and the apparent in-game missions. Some of these are intentionally confusing (part of the story), while one or two moments made me feel like “that just seems like a needlessly convoluted part of the game”. These are NOT deal breakers, but just things to be noted.
Summary: I loved ZombiU. I need to play it again because I suspect there are various endings based on performance (please, no spoilers). I’d recommend it to anyone with a true interest in classic survival-style horror. The implementation of the Wii U gamepad is brilliant, the game looks awesome and sounds appropriately horrific, includes an interesting plot without beating you over the head, and overall, is, in my opinion, a stellar launch-day entry by Ubisoft.
Thoughts welcome. I love getting reader comments and questions.