ZombiU was first announced at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles back in 2011. Since then, it’s made the rounds again at each Wii U event, from the 2012 E3 Expo to the special Wii U press event over the fall. At this point, there is no shortage of zombie games. Valve’s Left 4 Dead has been out a couple of years and received a sequel, and adventure game maker TellTale just wrapped up its Walking Dead series. There has even been an action RPG, Dead Island. You might think that the subject matter is played out and that Ubisoft should have dug something else out of the vault for launch day.
However, the trailers for ZombiU – and even the short playthroughs – haven’t prepared most gamers for the type of game we now have with ZombiU. Strangely, it’s actually an action RPG somewhere between Dead Island and Demon Souls. It is much more demanding than the former and not quite as pretty as the latter. Like the survival horror games of old, ZombiU gives you a limited arsenal with which to keep yourself alive. You will need to get adept at wielding your cricket bat – there are guns to find but a scarcity of ammunition.
Your character carries a backpack with a few supplies in it and more to be found. This inventory system, as well as a map, are displayed on the GamePad’s screen. The rub is that while you are digging around in your backpack your onscreen character is doing exactly that. You are completely defenseless until you zip that bag up with a swipe. This type of realism is likely to frustrate many gamers.
In addition to your map and inventory, the GamePad works as a scanner that will show you relevant location and item information. While you are supposed to lift the GamePad up and spin it around you, you can cheat it with the right analog stick.
For an action RPG, movement is pretty limited in ZombiU. You can look around, walk, and run. Other than those options, things like ducking, crawling, and climbing are all contextual. The melee combat isn’t particularly easy either. You will have to lift the bat and then swing it with separate controls and one hit isn’t enough to kill a zombie. It will take five or six blows until a finish prompt will pop up and you can crush the undead enemy’s brain. Luckily, there are no zombie hordes, but you can imagine that fighting even two zombies in this fashion isn’t quick or easy.
When you die in ZombiU, and you will die, you take control of a new survivor. Your new survivor is just that, new and with none of the cool stuff the guy who just died had. You will have to go hunt down the now zombified corpse of your predecessor to get the backpack. Except for the name and face, there really aren’t any differences between your incarnations. There are a few cots that serve as save points but they are few and far between. This means that there is also quite a bit of backtracking, so much so that you might decide that dying is a better alternative.
Zombie U also features a local multiplayer option for those who have a Pro controller or a Wiimote and Nunchuk. It is pretty limited and without the online capability many will never have an opportunity to try it out. The way it works is that the player with the GamePad is a zombie overlord who can see where the second player is and place zombies to obstruct his progress. Not quite a zombie version of Tower Defense, the zombie king is also trying to achieve objectives and if you can find a second player, there is some fun to be had.
Having played through a handful of Wii U games, I find that ZombieU makes the best use of the GamePad. I must confess that I am a huge fan of the original Resident Evil games and the number of games that copied them on the Dreamcast. For that reason I may be a bit more forgiving of survival horror games, but despite a couple of technical issues, ZombieU is an immersive experience. There’s no great narrative and the game can be tedious, but if you were really in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, how much fun would you really have? ZombieU isn’t easy and doesn’t give you any really great abilities – your handheld scanner and the prepper are the only legs up you get. Games like Deer Hunter don’t give you suitcase nukes or let you get 50 hit combos and neither does ZombieU.
ZombiU is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language.