Overlooked Gem: ZombiU

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A few months ago, I wrote a two-part article recommending thirteen post-millennium horror games I had played and enjoyed (see part 1 here and part 2 here). Well, I better now increase that number to fourteen, as since the time of writing I’ve played ZombiU and it’s easily one of the best horror games I’ve experienced for a long time.

    Developed and published by Ubisoft and released exclusively on Nintendo Wii U as a launch title for the system in 2012, ZombiU is a first-person survival horror game set in London sometime after a zombie apocalypse has devastated Great Britain and left England’s capital teeming with the hungry undead, who are still much less ignorant and pushy than many of the people who crowd the London Underground every day in reality.

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    Your goal is to navigate a number of areas around London, gathering weapons and supplies, avoiding or killing zombies, and learning about the outbreak and in particular how it was predicted by 16th-century mathematician and occultist John Dee. You’re often assisted in your endeavours by the Prepper, a former military man who provides you with advice and a safe house which acts as your home base, and in terms of the story, the present-day events and characters are enhanced by an interesting backstory that adds some depth to the typical “zombie outbreak” scenario.

    I used the term “survival horror” above, not just “horror”, and that’s because ZombiU boasts several hallmarks of this particular subgenre, such as careful resource management and the fact that even the most basic of enemy encounters can easily end in the player’s death. However, although ZombiU possesses these classic survival horror roots, the game is also filled with fresh and innovative ideas and features.

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    Firstly, there’s the fact that when you die in the game, you then respawn as a different survivor. Not only that but if your character died as the result of a zombie bite then they can be found at their place of death, now undead and still carrying the items you had on you when you died. If you want that inventory back, you’ll need to put your former protagonist out of their misery and loot their corpse.

    A related feature involves the online component of the game. If you’re connected to the internet while playing, the characters of other online players who died in their own game worlds can appear in yours as zombies, complete with the items these players were carrying when they died. This adds an element of randomness that helps to increase the tension while also offering potential rewards in terms of the items you can loot. Such as cake.

    Another online element can be found in the game’s message system, which allows you to spray-paint messages which will then appear in the game worlds of other players. Rather than using text, these messages can only be made up of symbols selected from an existing list. However, the list is extensive enough and the symbols clear enough that it’s easy to leave helpful – or deceitful, if you’re a tricksy hobbitses – messages for other players. It’s a feature clearly influenced by From Software’s Souls games, which is no bad thing.

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    Something else that ZombiU has in common with the Souls games is its challenging but fair difficulty. Like in the Souls games, if you die in ZombiU then chances are it’s your own fault – a prepared and cautious approach is key to survival, the game being quick to punish the careless. The first time I saw the game in action, it was a welcome surprise to find that a lone zombie could kill you with a single bite. As I said to my friend who was playing it at the time: “This game does not fuck about.” A hearty recommendation there, I think you’ll find. This, combined with factors such as the scarcity of saving opportunities, makes every enemy encounter a tense one.

    And if the game’s standard mode isn’t quite tense or challenging enough for you then there’s Survival Mode, which involves a playthrough of the full game but with a perma-death mechanic in place, meaning you get one life and that’s it. If you die, it’s game over. I managed to complete my playthrough of the standard mode with only two survivor deaths, so Survival Mode remains a tantalising option even with my current backlog of other games to play. Maybe one day…

    Thankfully, ZombiU offers a wide range of weaponry to help you survive – at least in terms of guns, anyway, as one of the game’s few drawbacks is that the only available melee weapon is a cricket bat. (Yes, the game is set in England, we get it – why not strap a teapot and some scones to the bat just to make sure?). Even though the bat is a reliable and effective weapon that I used for much of the game, it would have been nice to see other melee options – a crowbar, a machete, a ferret wearing a crash helmet – for the sake of variety.

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    The gun selection fares much better, offering numerous types of rifle, shotgun and pistol. Upgrades found scattered across the environments can be used to increase the effectiveness of these weapons, and this effectiveness can also be increased via your kill count – the more zombies you kill with a particular type of weapon, the more skilled you will become with that type. There are also Molotov cocktails, mines, flares and fragmentation grenades, all of which can come in very useful.

    As with its guns, ZombiU also features variety in its zombies. Alongside the standard type which you will encounter most often, there are electrical zombies who can summon other zombies to them, zombies who explode if you let them get too close, and even teleporting zombies, amongst others. Frankly, although the inclusion of these different types does help to shake things up, to me it hardly seems necessary, as after the release of countless zombie-themed video games over the past several years, one of the most basic but effective things that ZombiU really gets right is that it makes zombies scary again, both in their aesthetic design and as a credible in-game threat.

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    The game’s impressive graphics extend beyond the zombies, with detailed scenery and effective lighting really helping to present a bleak and grimy atmosphere, immersing you in the locations through which you travel, from dank sewers and a ransacked supermarket to Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. The sound and music also add to the atmosphere, with music being used sparingly, the game instead relying more on ambient sounds – a choice that often works well in the horror genre, as it certainly does here.

    With ZombiU being a launch title for the Wii U, Nintendo and Ubisoft must naturally have been keen to show off what the console’s touchscreen controller, the GamePad, could bring to the table, and it’s to the developer’s credit that the GamePad functionalities present in ZombiU remain to this day some of the best examples found on the system.

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    The GamePad contains a host of screens concerning your proficiency with various weapons, your current survivor’s personal details, a list of documents you’ve picked up, etc. But it also offers a number of other, more practical, features – the screen acts as your map/radar, you can tag zombies so that they appear as marked on your television screen, you use the GamePad as a scope when firing a mounted machine gun or a sniper rifle, and you can implement an ultraviolet light that allows you to read otherwise hidden messages. These and several other features make the GamePad an integral part of the experience, something that helps ensure that ZombiU is not just a great horror game but a unique one boasting a number of inventive and interesting control mechanics.

    The GamePad also comes into play in ZombiU’s competitive local multiplayer mode, which sees one player strategically placing zombies via use of the GamePad in an effort to kill the second player, who uses a standard controller to play as a survivor on the same map. Although this multiplayer mode is fairly limited, it’s still a welcome inclusion alongside the single-player aspect of the game. After all, who doesn’t enjoy hurling hordes of zombies at a friend and watching them desperately fight for their life?

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    The multiplayer mode brings me to one of the few criticisms I have of ZombiU, although it’s not a criticism of the game itself but of Ubisoft. Like Electronic Arts’ Origin, Ubisoft’s Uplay service is essentially about the publisher exerting more control over the player and their information, and it’s a “service” that adds nothing to the game of ZombiU. Instead, it actually takes away, because there are rewards to be earned by playing ZombiU – concept art, alternate cricket bat designs, a new multiplayer mode – but these are all locked behind Uplay. You can earn this content, but to actually access it in the game, Ubisoft force you to sign up to Uplay. Well, as much as I love the game, I don’t love unnecessary, invasive and customer-unfriendly tactics such as this, so no, I won’t be signing up, thanks.

    So for the game itself, I want to say a big “Thank you” to Ubisoft. For the Uplay bullshit they pulled with the game, I want to say a big “Fuck you” to Ubisoft.

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    Although the high sales numbers of lazy, annually-churned-out, by-the-numbers franchises would argue otherwise, the fact is that creatively, not every video game needs a sequel. Would the existence of a singular, amazing gaming experience such as Thatgamecompany’s Journey be in any way enhanced by Journey 2: Electric Boogaloo? No.

    But it’s a damn shame that in July 2013, Ubisoft – ironically one of the leading supporters of the “churn out as much franchise content as possible” mentality, as seen by the Assassin’s Creed series – announced there would be no sequel to ZombiU due to it being unprofitable. As I said, not every game needs a sequel, but the fact is that it’s sad to see a challenging and inventive game such as ZombiU not being commercially successful, especially when the game contains some great features which could be expanded and improved upon even further. Although of course, generally poor sales of the Wii U console itself certainly haven’t helped the game’s sales situation.

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    Basically, it would have been nice to see ZombiU receive greater commercial success and generally higher critical acclaim (although it did receive a few glowing reviews), hence why I decided to write this article.

    ZombiU is one of the main reasons I bought a Wii U, and I’m glad I did. As I stated in my opening paragraph, ZombiU is one of the best horror games I’ve played in a long time. It’s technically impressive, tense, atmospheric and challenging, with a number of innovative and interesting features, both offline and online.

    In short, if you like horror games then you really should pick up ZombiU. And if you do, then to borrow a fitting line from another game I love: “Prepare to die.”

Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and video games. #1 of his 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is now available on Comixology, while later this year will see the release of his graphic novel Dead Men from Markosia Enterprises. His upcoming video game projects include action/strategy title Crystal Arena and sci-fi roguelike The Traveler. Marvel at his occasional nonsense on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy

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