You could not be blamed for ignoring ZombiU sight unseen. One, it's a launch title on a new Nintendo system from Ubisoft, a publisher that famously pulled a bait-and-switch on players with Red Steel, a game that promised one-to-one sword fighting with then-new motion controls (ironically, Red Steel 2 was actually pretty good). Two, it's called ZombiU, a truly awful name that suggests little more than a generic shooter, and does nothing to hint at the substantive, thoughtful, ridiculously difficult game that actually lies inside. Ubisoft Montpellier was assigned an unenviable task by Ubisoft and the studio knocked it out of the park. ZombiU would be special outside of its place in an otherwise uninspiring launch line-up, but if you're joining the early adopter crowd on Wii U, ZombiU is both an excellent example of what's possible with Nintendo's new GamePad controller and a provocative video game that will, on more than one occasion, have your heart racing.
London has been overrun by zombies. At least at the outset, it's unclear why or if the rest of the world is grappling with the same reality. You are wandering the streets aimlessly until a voice identifying himself as The Prepper calls out, and offers shelter in his safe house. The Prepper does not identify himself, but he does promise you a way to defend yourself and a place to call home. You will return to the safe house often to pick up a new mission from The Prepper, drop off spare equipment, upgrade weapons, save progress, and generally take a deep breath. The safe house is not zombie-proof, but it's one of the few reliably protected places in the whole game. Saving and upgrading can take place in remote safe houses, as well, and you'll unlock manholes that serve as fast travel shortcuts around London.
"You" is purposely vague in ZombieU, as "you" are a random survivor, and "you" will become another random survivor when you die--which you will. Often, actually, and it will totally suck every single time. Though ZombiU does assign a name and profession to each survivor, it's meaningless data, and no individual backstory is ever fleshed out. The only time you hear survivors speak is when they're screaming in terror. This is fine, since ZombiU's story is all about your actions as the player. Though ZombiU does tell a perfectly serviceable story with a memorable spin on the reason zombies showed up, the moments I was telling others about had nothing to do with it. Instead, I would describe the time I tried to lay down a landmine near a pack of zombies, alerting them in the process--and the mine went off in my face. Dead. Instead, I remembered when I was crossing rickety, thin wooden planks in the sewer, zombies spawning on both sides of me, and as I attempted to deal with them, I fell. Dead. Instead, I recall picking a lock on the GamePad, which pans the camera out on the TV to provide a look at what's happening around you, and watching as a zombie slowly fell out of a nearby vent. Not dead! I managed to pick the lock, and close the door behind me.
Death has consequence in ZombiU, borrowing inspiration from FromSoftware's notoriously difficult Souls games and bringing in at least some of its sense of permanence. After dying in ZombiU, you respawn as a new survivor in The Prepper's safe house. All of your equipment is gone, and any skill progression earned from firing guns has vanished. The game offers you one opportunity to return to where you died, kill your previous self, and loot that equipment. Die a second time, however, and that body, along with any hard-earned equipment, disappears forever. When you die because of careless movement and take too much fall damage, it's not the end of the world. Be cautious and calculated, and you'll get all that stuff back. When you die amidst a pack of zombies and you have now become an additional enemy, it's soul crushing. I had one survivor make it nearly three hours, but I never found his body. I gave up, moved on. Clearing out a room of zombies with nothing more than a cricket bat and a pistol with a few bullets can take the better part of an hour, and it's easy to mess up. There are a few stats that carry from survivor to survivor, though. Weapon upgrades are permanent, and you can modify weapons at workbenches found in the safe house and around the world. Early on, I piled all my upgrades into the base level pistol, since every new survivor is granted one, and handgun ammo is one of the more common items.
Other players may have an easier time than I did, since most of my playthrough happened before Wii U's day one patch, which introduced its suite of online services. In ZombiU, players on your friends list and randoms connected to the Internet will populate the world after dying in their game. You're not actually playing with these people at the same time, per se, but if they die in their Buckingham Palace, their infected body is now part of your Buckingham Palace. The same is true for you. Random zombies do not carry much on them, but survivors are likely to have much more of what you need: ammo, medkits, and guns. The game keeps track of these deaths on the GamePad, and if you find yourself low on equipment, it's easy enough to identify where a friend recently died and go searching for their corpse. Creepy? Sure. Invaluable? Hell yeah. You may also leave "messages" for others throughout the world, ala the Souls games, but you cannot leave written messages, and must communicate through confusing symbols that say very little. One imagines this is to avoid players just leaving keypad numbers in the environment (discovering the numbers is one of the few puzzles the game offers), but it hamstrings what could have been an interesting feature.
Getting to those corpses will require extreme patience, a virtue ZombiU asks for often. This is not a fast paced game, and playing it that way is a great way to get killed. ZombiU punishes overzealousness. Its not-so-great shooting mechanics will rub some the wrong way, but it felt thematically consistent with the amateurish nature of the survivors themselves. Once you learn how the system works, you adjust. It's a jarring transition, but give it time--it will click.
There are two constants in ZombiU: your flashlight and cricket bat. Ammo will disappear, medkits will be applied, and flares will burn out, but your flashlight and cricket bat remain. The flashlight drains as it's used, but flipping it off will bring the battery back to full in seconds. There are no other melee weapons in ZombiU, and it would be easy to groan at the lack of variety, but like many design decisions in ZombiU, it's one with purpose. You cannot just wind up a swing with the cricket bat in perpetuity until a zombie approaches. Each swing must be deliberate, and perfectly timed. In some cases, enemies will have helmets that render them invulnerable until you've knocked it off. To that end, only having access to the cricket bat ensures you become intimately familiar with the timing of an individual swing, how long it takes before you can pull off another one, and work to establish rhythm of swinging, then moving, then swinging to employ proper crowd control. Over the dozen or so hours you spend with ZombiU, its reliability becomes a comfort. Conserving equipment is vital to longterm survival in ZombiU, and that means ample use of the cricket bat whenever possible.
To get this far without mentioning ZombiU's use of Nintendo's GamePad controller says much about how well it's implemented. Besides having you flip it up in order to activate gyroscope-based sniping (also controllable using the analog sticks, thankfully), it's good. It's largely used for inventory management, and at the start of the game, you have precious few slots to manage. (You gain more slots if you manage to find larger backpacks.) There are six quick use items, and the rest are stored in your backpack. The lack of an iPad-level touch screen with multitouch means you have to be very careful and deliberate with your finger presses on the GamePad, but in a funny way, that falls perfectly in line with the rest of the game. When you do something, don't do it half-assed. Opening the backpack does not pause the game, leaving you extremely vulnerable, and unable to attack enemies. If you're mucking around in your backpack in the middle of a fight, though, you fucked up, and blaming the touch screen's finickiness is just placing the blame somewhere other than yourself.
When not moving items around, the center of the screen is home to an invaluable radar system that's upgraded throughout the game. At first, when a button is pressed on the screen, it cans the area and blips red (think Aliens) if zombies are nearby and moving. An upgrade makes that pinging automatic. This radar is both your friend and enemy, as it is not always telling the truth. Crows and rats will show up, too, making a room appear to have somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 zombies…when there's really only one. Not funny, game! Pressing a trigger, however, prompts the survivor to hold up the device in the world, and it becomes a scanner on the GamePad's screen. The scanner can identify if zombies are carrying items, differentiate between a crow and a zombie, and save you the headache of scavenging through every part of the world for equipment. It'd easy to imagine how the radar could have just become a mini-map in the corner of the TV screen, but there is something to the idea of actually diverting your eyes from the TV to gain additional information from the radar. Doing so in the middle of a fight with several zombies is terrifying but important, especially if you're trying to survive with only the cricket bat, but the moments where I looked away and screwed up my swing are burned into my mind. The radar becomes an X factor, and how often you invite the risks of looking at it will largely depend on the play style you establish.
There's multiplayer in ZombiU, as well, but it's more interesting than it is enjoyable. The main mode finds the GamePad user becoming Left 4 Dead's AI Director, dropping zombies into the world for the survivors controlled by other players to fight. In single-player, the shaky shooting controls and slow melee combat work just fine, but it doesn't translate to multiplayer very well. It's also one-on-one, and would benefit from supporting more players. It's just not much fun with just two players.
All of these words later, and I've somehow said nothing about how damn scary ZombiU is. I played Amnesia: The Dark Descent this year, and ZombiU gave that one a run for its money. You feel alone in ZombiU, often fighting and scavenging in total darkness. Your flashlight provides little useful illumination, and the moments where it runs out, forcing you to recharge while a zombie shuffles towards you, are paralyzing. The 30 minutes I spent in a nursery are some of the most memorable time I've spent with a horror game or movie, punctuated by a jump scare that literally took my breath away. Survival horror fans disenchanted with the direction Capcom's taken the Resident Evil series will find much to love in ZombiU, and anybody looking for a quality launch title with deep, rewarding mechanics are encouraged to see what Ubisoft--yes, Ubisoft-has created.