ZombiU review: Survival horror makes a bloody comeback
18th Nov 2012 | 17:00
Survival horror. Remember that? Creeping through the darkness with only a sliver of health and two bullets in your pistol. Terrified of what's waiting around the next corner. Suspense. Claustrophobia. It's something you don't see much of these days, what with Resident Evil turning into the world's dumbest action film and Silent Hill turning, well, shit.
So it was a relief when we discovered that, despite its impossibly stupid name, ZombiU is not only one of the best horror games we've played in ages, but a proper SURVIVAL horror. The gloomy streets of London are clogged with zombies, and you have to battle through the undead hordes to gather supplies, help other survivors, and eventually find a way out of the seriously broken city.
There are guns everywhere. Pistols, shotguns, rifles, crossbows. But ammo is more precious than gold. It's actually quite sadistic of the developers. You'll find an SA80 rifle and feel like the most powerful zombie hunter in the world - for about five minutes until the magazine runs out. Supplies are severely limited, which means firing a bullet or using a medkit is often a big decision. You might be tempted to drink that soda now, but when you're limping around with a dribble of health and six zombies clawing at your heels later, you'll wish you hadn't bothered.
You can't rely on guns, which forces you to think of smarter ways to deal with the undead. If you're facing off against a single enemy, the cricket bat is fine. Just pummel away at their head until it pops like a fleshy balloon. But faced with a group, you'll need another solution. Flares draw any nearby zombies towards them, giving you a few seconds to slip past or toss in a grenade.
The combat is great. The bat feels thick and weighty as you slam it against their rotting skulls. Guns pack a noisy punch, and there's a good feeling of variation between them. Shoot a zombie with the Magnum and their head evaporates in a cloud of red mist. Line up two and you can kill them both with a single, powerful blast of the double-barreled shotgun. Because ammo is so rare, at least for the more powerful firearms, using a gun is a novelty that you'll relish every time you get the chance. It's just a shame there's only one melee weapon. We love the cricket bat, and there's something brilliantly English about smacking a pinstriped, bowler hat-wearing London banker with one, but a few more would have added variety to the excellent melee combat.
Most enemies are your standard shuffling zombies, but a few are more exotic and require different tactics to beat. Some were turned while they were wearing riot gear, and you have to destroy their helmet before you can kill them, either by shooting it off, or whacking it with your bat. Another variant spits sickly venom at you, which blinds you temporarily - a bit like
One of our most embarrassing deaths was turning a corner, seeing a shadow and swinging our bat in a blind panic. A nanosecond after we'd squeezed the attack button we spotted the tank on its back and died an instant, fiery death. Oops. They're not all bad, though: sometimes you can lure them into a group before shooting them, wiping out an entire group with one bullet. Sometimes the game will throw multiple zombie types at you at once, forcing you to mix and match your strategies on the fly. Sometimes it's best just to run away; they won't follow you between maps.
When you die, it isn't game over. You don't restart from a checkpoint or reload a previous save. You wake up in your safe house, an abandoned tube station, as a new character. You might be a 34 year-old lawyer, a 23 year-old groom, or a 64 year-old dancer. It's decided at random, and it's amusing seeing what kind of person you'll inhabit next. It's a shame it's only a visual thing, though. We would have loved differing stats between characters to reflect their occupation; maybe a police constable would be better with guns. But they're all fundamentally the same.
The catch is, you have to go back to where you died and recover your gear from the last survivor - who is now a zombie (if they got bitten, that is - explosions will outright kill them). Having to gun down a character you kept alive for two hours is weirdly upsetting, but necessary. If you don't, you'll lose anything you had in your backpack: guns, food, medkits. Sometimes you have to go back to get a crucial mission item. It's a really fun system, and sometimes dying is actually a viable tactic to get out of a sticky situation. It's an inconvenience, but it never totally halts your progress, and you respawn with some basic supplies and a few pistol rounds.
One time we were surrounded by zombies and backed into a corner. Knowing death was imminent; we decided to sacrifice our current character. We dropped a grenade at our feet, knowing it would wipe out all the zombies nearby, as well as ourselves, making recovering the backpack much easier for the next survivor. Another time we managed to open a fast travel point moments before we were eaten by zombies, saving the next guy a long, dangerous walk.
Of course, there's a negative side to this. Sometimes you'll die in an awkward place, or among a huge group of zombies, and recovering your equipment just won't be worth the risk. We had to reluctantly leave a pack behind that was full of shotgun ammo because it was lying at the bottom of a pit filled with enemies. Skill points, earned by killing zombies, are also reset. If you're feeling especially brave, a one-life hardcore mode makes it so that if you die, it's game over.
Another interesting way the game is structured is that it's almost like an open world. You can travel freely around the city between missions to scavenge for supplies - albeit with loading breaks as you move from map to map. Between missions we often revisit areas, scour them for items, then bring them back to the chest in our safe house. This means that if we die, the next survivor can use them to help them reach our zombified corpse more easily.
Each section of the city is linked, so you can walk anywhere - or use a fast travel tunnel if you've unlocked it. The world isn't massive, but it's exquisitely realised. It's not the caricature of London you're used to seeing in games: it feels like a real, lived-in place. There's a good mix of locations, from the dreary residential areas around Brick Lane, to the Queen's palatial private underground bunker. The atmosphere is superb, and the soft, natural lighting is stunning. One section takes place during a raging storm, and you can barely see in front of you as you battle undead Royal Guards and Beefeaters in the rain. Then, suddenly, Buckingham Palace looms out of the downpour, surrounded by upturned ambulances and abandoned machine-gun nests. It's really gorgeous in places, although they do go a bit overboard with the lens flare effects.
The art style is so bleak that it's almost completely stripped of colour, but that only adds to the realism and feeling of dread that pervades every fogbound street and dingy tunnel. When it's dark, it's dark. You can't see a thing, and have to rely on your torch. In true video game style, its batteries run dry after about 100 seconds, but it recharges so quickly that it barely matters. One tense section takes place in the maze-like dungeons beneath the Tower of London. There's no light at all, and the zombies linger silently in the shadows waiting to pounce on you.
There's a story, but it's pretty minimal. Escaping the city is your overall goal, but most of the time you're dealing with smaller matters: a generator running out of fuel or a distress signal. You'll meet other survivors, but as you might expect in the middle of an apocalypse, not everyone wants to help you. It's an oppressive, dangerous world, and you never really feel safe. Even if your pack is stuffed with cakes and shotgun shells, all it takes is one mistake to lose them. Zombies can kill you with one hit if they grab you, and believe us, they will, repeatedly.
You'll notice that we haven't talked about how the GamePad works yet. That's because, compared to everything else, it's the least interesting thing about the game. Another survivor called The Prepper - who guides you by radio and teaches you how to survive - gives you a device he calls a Prepper Pad, which looks almost identical to the Wii U GamePad. This has limited uses at first, but as you upgrade it at certain points in the story, it becomes a really powerful tool.
When you hold the GamePad up to your TV, your character holds up their Prepper Pad. It shines a light on the environment, and on the screen you can scan the world for loot, enemy locations, and unopened doors. When you return to the game, everything you scanned will be marked on the HUD. The GamePad also displays a map, although you have to scan CCTV hubs to reveal them, otherwise the screen is blank. Finally, you can send out a radar ping that reveals the locations of anything that moves: which includes enemies and harmless animals.
The radar upgrade is perhaps the most useful. When you get it, the GamePad will constantly be pinging the level for movement. It basically turns it into the tracker from Aliens. When it picks up movement, it emits a noise. This can be nerve-wracking if you're low on health or ammo and suddenly you hear the bleep and see a crowd of zombies on the mini-map. Other upgrades include the ability to hack and bypass electronically locked doors and a UV black light to reveal hidden messages. If your Wii U is online, some of these messages will be left by other players,
Oh, and there's tapping. Lots of tapping. Whenever you pry wooden blanks from a blocked door, fill a syringe, or open a fast travel point, you have to tap on the GamePad screen. It's the kind of thing that's been used in DS games for years, and it feels a bit weird in the context of a game played on your TV. Cleverly, though, the game doesn't pause during these moments, so sometimes you'll be tapping away frantically as zombies lurch towards you. The same goes for accessing your backpack to switch items. If you don't have any medkits or weapons assigned to your six-slot quick access bar, you'll have to root around in your pack for them, which leaves you open to attack from zombies lurking in the darkness.
So the GamePad works well, and the Prepper Pad is a useful tool, but the game isn't defined by it. It would work just as well without it, and sometimes it feels a little out of place and overly high-tech in the present day setting. The basic controls are pretty standard for a first-person game, although we had to set the controller sensitivity to 100% to counter a pretty massive dead zone on the analogue sticks, which are spaced really far apart. The controller isn't heavy, but it's cumbersome, and after a few non-stop hours with the game our arms ached a bit. If ZombiU is your first Wii U game, the controls will take some getting used to for the first few hours.
One of the biggest problems we ran into, literally, was the lack of a jump button. Sometimes we'd be stuck in a corner next to a shin-high obstacle that we should have been able to simply step over, but couldn't and ended up getting grabbed and killed. You can only climb by approaching something head-on and pressing A, but this only works on certain objects. The world is beautifully designed, but it's far too static. Objects are glued in place, besides a few physics-enabled barrels, and you can't destroy anything. This doesn't affect the gameplay in any serious way, but it dampens the immersion; especially when you detonate a grenade and it barely leaves a dent.
The missions are mostly excellent, but at one point the story grinds to a halt and the game forces you to go around the city collecting 7 items, which feels like a fairly obvious attempt to artificially extend its lifespan. We do love the use of gear-gating, though. Like in
ZombiU is full of great ideas, some borrowed from other games, and others uniquely its own. It harks back to glory days of the slow-burning survival horror, but the GamePad gives it a modern edge. The first-person movement can be clumsy, and there are a few stark difficulty spikes, but it's an imaginative spin on the horror genre. But is it scary? Well, yes, but not in the sense that you'll be jumping out of your seat every five minutes, but in the way it builds tension, the grim atmosphere of the world, and the constant threat of dying and losing all your precious gear.