ZombiU is the most unlikely of high profile launch titles.
Originally starting life as a much different, goofier game, ZombiU is deadly serious, no pun intended. It's bleak and violent and dark. It's not triumphant or slick. It's not about spectacle, and it's not a technological tour de force.
Instead, ZombiU is a slow, methodical, scary experiment. While developer Ubisoft has a spotty history of launch software — especially on Nintendo hardware with games like Red Steel — ZombiU uses the new hardware for a game that pulls from a number of genres to do something great.
Death is everywhere in ZombiU
ZombiU takes place in the chronologically nebulous aftermath of an apocalyptic outbreak of disease in London. In case the name didn't give it away, this isn't your standard flu — a sort of super rabies-cum-bubonic plague has turned the afflicted into ravenous death machines, all while a mysterious secret society attempts to unravel the prophecy that predicted it hundreds of years before.
Death is everywhere in ZombiU. It's not just in the carcass of a burning, plague-riddled London, or in the bodies of dead victims of the new black death. Death is your companion as player, as you search the streets and markets and old buildings of the city in search of weapons, food and an answer to the nightmare that's taken hold of the city, and for all you know, the world.
You play as a civilian who stumbles onto a safe room kept by the mysterious "Prepper," a survivalist who knows more than he initially lets on about just what's happening at the end of the world. But there's no guarantee that the disembodied voice will keep you alive.
ZombiU looks like a zombie-oriented first-person shooter, but it's really something much different. It most closely resembles the era of first-person PC RPGs. You find weapons and mods for them. You have a limited carrying capacity that you can upgrade. You even level up your weapon abilities. But ZombiU's main gameplay conceit is permanent character death.
This isn't Resident Evil or Left 4 Dead — one bite from an infected carrier in ZombiU means a very ambulatory form of death. There's no coming back, no checkpointing as you expect in modern games. If you're bitten, you're one of them. You start the game as one person, and if that character dies, you wake up in the aptly-named safehouse as someone else.
You wake up without the supplies you carried as your former self, without the weapons and gear, and if you want that hoard back, you'll need to find your past life and — unless death came at the hands of a fall, or an explosion, or some non-infected-related mishap — put them to rest for good. If you manage to off your last mistake, you can quickly retrieve the contents of your bug-out bag, or BOB, though any levels you earned in various weapons reset.
This retrieval process is aided by ZombiU's structure. As you explore London, you'll unlock shortcuts back to the main safehouse enabling you to travel more quickly from point to point, even if one of those points is your animated dead body. As the game progresses, you'll also get new equipment to unlock new areas in previously explored locations.
Mechanically, ZombiU lacks the fluidity of a shooter. The melee combat — using the world's most resilient cricket bat — is jerky and rough and missing a swing leaves you exposed. Running is disorienting. Climbing onto crates is cumbersome and it's hard not to panic struggling with ZombiU with infected moving at somewhere between a lurch and a run right behind you. Shooting guns is often cumbersome and lacks the bombast of proper shooters.
Here's the thing: it all works. Your struggle to survive, to maneuver, to shoot, combines with the very real possibility that the character you're controlling will die and not come back. There's a virtually constant overwhelming sense of fear and risk. ZombiU didn't need to kill me to make the stakes understood, but when I did die for the first time, those stakes sat on my shoulders like so much dead weight.
All of this is artfully complemented by the Wii U's GamePad controller. ZombiU delegates tasks both mundane and vital to the Wii U's second screen. Your scanner is a vital tool that gains more abilities as you explore ZombiU, and every new addition is another situation where you're forced to expose yourself to take advantage of it.
Want to dig through your backpack? Then you have to take your eyes off the main screen and carefully rearrange your inventory on the GamePad. Want to find hidden messages or scan for infected or loot in the distance? Again, you'll have to narrow your view to the gamepad, robbing you of most of your field of view and all of your peripheral vision. In other games, this would mean minor inconvenience. In ZombiU, there's a very real possibility that something could grab your leg while you're not paying attention, and it is goddamned terrifying.
ZombiU may be the most wonderfully stressful game I've ever played — most of the time. ZombiU is difficult, but that never bothered me. The prospect of death forced me to play carefully, and to really pay attention to my surroundings and weigh my options and strategies at literally every turn. I learned to enjoy the fear inspired by the scanner's motion detector, of forcing myself to turn the corner with my flashlight turned off so that I wouldn't alert any infected that might be twitching and shrieking in the distance.
In fact, ZombiU does such a fantastic job of building a believable zombie apocalypse that its intermittent forays out of disease-induced cannibalism and into ridiculous supernatural forces feels cheap, and unnecessary. Worse, these are the moments where ZombiU shattered my otherwise universal, unwavering suspension of disbelief, and they also violate the sort of rules and reality that ZombiU works so hard to build and adhere to. It doesn't help that my first death came out of nowhere at the hands of one such ... apparition.
Almost as disappointing are moments of cheap game design used as shortcuts to tension. A nightmarish trip to a burned out basement isn't enough, apparently — someone somewhere thought a stupidly contrived sequence waiting for a door lock to be hacked remotely by the Prepper, all while infected spawn out of thin air just out of eyesight, was a good idea. Everything else in ZombiU feels designed fairly around your abilities. Moments like the aforementioned door incident are like the game crossing its fingers behind its back while it shakes your hand.
ZombiU is exactly the kind of bold, experimental game we look for in new console launches
ZombiU won't be for everyone. It's difficult. It's dark. It deftly juggles genre conventions to do the unexpected. And it's exactly the kind of title that gamers have come to expect from new console launches, the kind of game that makes new console launches exciting. ZombiU feels developed outside of blockbuster considerations, but it isn't a cheap, throwaway game. And more importantly, it shows that third parties can make good, unique games on Nintendo's new hardware.About Polygon's Reviews