As I slowly edge round the corner my hands tighten round the bar. Holding it tighter and tighter to try and stop my hands from shaking. The scanner on my map sends out its constant, droning beep. Telling me that they are there, in the next room. Three of them. One of me. And only my cricket bat to stop them from turning me. I know the odds of me taking out three are slim but I have no other way to go and the safe house is too far back. I had to go through them. I stepped into the room, shone my flashlight at them to get their attention, I caught one in the face as it came near, spun round and shoved the other one back but I was too slow. As I turned back to hit the third he grabbed me, lunged his mouth toward my throat and bit into me. I was dying.
I was one of them now.
That is the basic premise of ZombiU, one of the most pure blood survival horror games of all time and the Wii U's best game. I have never been scared by a game, even one such as Silent Hill or Dead Space, but this game is terrifying, it's atmosphere is intense, it's challenge refreshing and its gameplay addictive. This is the Wii U's current killer app.
The game begins with a scene showing you running from a pack of zombies. A surveillance camera turns on and a man starts talking to you through it. He guides you away from the zombies and down into his safe house, introducing himself as The Prepper, literally a man who was prepared for this zombie apocalypse. The safe house becomes your new home, it has a bed to save your game in, a monitor to check CCTV footage to find items, a sewer entrance to use the game's sewer based fast travel system and, most importantly, a container to stash your important items in. The safe house can be attacked but provided you keep the electric gates shut you are safe. The Prepper sends you on numerous missions to acquire the cricket bat, the handgun and the backpack. After this you are sent off on the game's main missions which gradually explain the zombie rising and introduce you to other survivors. the story is quite interesting but is a tad cheesy. The backstory you uncover through collectible newspapers is cool and the main story does keep you interested but it sticks fairly well to traditional zombie story tropes, for better or worse.
Your character has no backstory per se and has no voice outside of his/her grunts as he fights. In most games this would annoy me but because your character's life can be so fleeting I understand that it would be pointless to build attachment to a character and impossible to programme an infinite number of stories and voices into the survivors. Your first survivor fits into the story well but when he dies, and when any subsequent survivors die, your new survivor's arrival at the safe house is not explained, you just see your new character wake up on the bed and The Prepper already seems to know them. You are shown his/her name and profession and are given a bat and a pistol with six bullets in it. Again in most games this lack of story would annoy me but in this context it makes perfect sense. As your new character your first port of call is to walk or fast travel back to where your last character died, kill his/her zombified self and get your old equipment back. But be careful not to die in the process because then your gear will be lost as the first zombie will be replaced by the newest one of your characters to die.
This perma-death system can cause frustration if you die several times in quick succession but it is always handled fairly, there are no cheap deaths, and provided you seek out the fast travel stations, (sewer exits) which are not hard to find, then returning to your corpse is quick and easy. Indeed it's this superb perma-death system that gives the game it's charm. Well, that and the superb use of the GamePad.
The GamePad is your survival kit. You hold it up and move it around to scan the area for items and hack devices such as CCTV networks, you use it to control your rifle scope (don't worry the motion control is very easy to use and you can use the stick) and it holds your inventory, map and health bar. It also features a scanner which at first works manually but upgrades to work automatically which periodically shows you the positions of nearby zombies. All of these features are cool but its the use of the inventory that makes this game so special. There are six slots for quick item access, but one has to be for your bat. Everything else is in your back pack. To access this you have to drag a bar down on the pad which causes your character to kneel and put the pack in front of him. You then have to look away for the screen and down at the pad to get your item out. The genius thing is the game doesn't pause and if a zombie does come for you whilst you are doing this then you are vulnerable so you then you have to close the pack and wait for your character to get up and draw a weapon before you can act. It might not sound like much but if you play it you'll understand that this makes the game terrifying and is easily the game's standout feature.
Combat wise the game is pretty simple. If you choose to fight rather than run (a choice you have to make often) then you can use planks you gather to barricade yourself inside a room, set mines down and wait. When in a direct combat you can use grenades, fire bombs, pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles and crossbows or just the bat. All of the guns handle well and can be upgraded at benches throughout the game but ammo is scarce and if you die then you risk losing all of your weapons if you can't get back to your zombified self. This means the bat has to be your best friend. The bat, as with all weapons, has two functions, a main attack and a move you can do to shove zombies away. Using the bat is simple and it feels good to club a zombie in the face. In a one on one fight the bat works fine but against bigger groups its best to just run or draw a gun. The only problem with the combat really is that there is only one animation for the bat so combat can look and feel very repetitive. This may be a put off for some but it really isn't that much of an issue and the combat is still great fun. Plus the fact that perma-death is in play really makes even small fights intense.
Combat is varied nicely by the variety of zombies. Some have helmets and armour so take much more of a beating, others spit at you from a distance to do damage, some can disappear and teleport and others wear gas tanks so they explode if you hit them. There is nothing ground breaking in their design but it keeps you on you toes.
Also, if you find the game isn't quite hard enough then you can try survival mode, where you only have one life.
Good luck with that.
Gameplay wise the game is solid, making great use of the GamePad, featuring crazily intense fights and a lot of chances for exploration. This game is a great demonstration of what the Wii U can do.
As well as the superb single player the game features an offline two player mode where one person takes control of a zombie and another person takes control of a survivor. There is an unlockable mode via UPlay but I haven't unlocked it so I can't comment on that. The mode that the game ships with is good fun but its not great for lengthy play sessions. Still though, for a few rounds with a friend it's great fun and its nice to see offline multiplayer in a modern game. The single player also features some multiplayer elements. Outside of the Miiverse community - a life saver in this game - there is the ability to spray paint messages for other players to find and occasionally another player will enter your world as a zombie for you to kill. They can sometimes have decent loot so its worth going after them.
Sound wise this game has great atmosphere. The zombies' growls are terrifying, the screams of your survivor adds some real authenticity to the game, the soundtrack is suitably haunting and matches the mood of the game perfectly and voice work and the script is done brilliantly. Sound wise this is a superb game. The ominous beep of your radar, the soundtrack and the noise of the zombies makes you painfully aware that you could die at any second. The thing about this soundtrack is it makes you yearn for silence. The sounds and the music do such a good job of making you on edge that when you can't hear a beep on your radar and when you can't hear growls and when the soundtrack has faded out you feel a sense of calm and safety wash over you. That is until you turn a corner and a corpse wakes up and tries to eat your face.
The graphics don't quite match the sound for quality but they are good and as Ubisoft are having to get used to new hardware the mistakes are easily justified. Some of your characters faces look slightly off, it's hard to explain but you'll see what I mean when you play it. Some of the textures are a little on the muddy side and sometimes there is a noticeable lack of animation, for example with the bat there is only one swing and when you rummage through your back pack your character doesn't actually put a hand in it. Also if you look down your character has no feet! This is one of my big pet hates! Ultimately though most of this is minor stuff and the graphics really are quite good.
ZombiU is a superb game. It's one of the best survival horror games I have ever played and it is a great game for the Wii U to have. If you love survival horror or just want to see why the Wii U is a great console then buy this game.