It was a dark, cold, and wet night in London. But then, that was fairly normal. What was more unnerving was just how quiet it was. "Maybe they're all in a party", you think, as you carry on your way. Making your way down to the underground, you quickly trot down the stairs, only to pause, just for a moment, when you hear something scuttle. Or rather, something that sounds like it's scratching. "It's probably only a rat", you tell yourself. But then you turn the corner. And you see them. The mindless horde. With their tattered clothes, gormless expression, and stench of rotting flesh, you have to make a quick choice - should you flee, or should you stay and fight?
And if you think London's bad on a Saturday night, you should see what's happened in ZombiU.
Worse than a hipster invasion, in ZombiU, a second plague has taken to the streets of London - a plague that turns people's into zombies. If you've ever played a zombie game or seen a zombie show/film, the chances are you'll know exactly what this means - get bitten by a zombie, and you'll be history, as the virus takes over and turns you into one of the great unwashed undead. The difference is, in ZombiU, that's actually the case - if you want it to be. Choose to play on the normal difficulty, and you'll be playing under what's effectively one hit kill rules, as a single bite is all it takes to bring you down. Chicken out, like we did, and you'll be able to take at least a few hits before succumbing to the zombie threat.
Set in a reasonably accurate recreation of London, you take on the role of a random survivor, under the instructions of "the Prepper". Part of a gang who'd long warned of a terrible fate that would eventually overcome London, the Prepper and his associates had been making arrangements for this day for a long time. With a network of cameras, safehouses, and stashes in place, the Prepper sends you out into the streets to try and solve the mystery behind the infection, and, if you can, save all of London.
And it's a surprisingly authentic looking London, too. Although the buildings aren't the same, and the areas aren't exactly photo recreations of how they are in real life, there's been enough attention paid here to make it at least "feel" like London. The underground trains, in particular, have been rather well done, with every detail, even down to the fabric of the seats looking exactly as it does in real life. For once, it's nice to have a game that's set in this country, rather than the US of A, too.
Played from a first person perspective, ZombiU is a tale of survival that revolves around the GamePad. In fact, unlike other first person shooters, the GamePad's the only control option available, as the Classic Controller Pro, and the Wiimote/Nunchuck combo only work in the game's multiplayer modes - which we'll get to later. For the purpose of ZombiU, the GamePad becomes your Prepper Pad, an all singing, all dancing interface with the ZombiU world. Hold the L Button, and you can scan your area for items, check if a door's locked from a distance, or hunt for clues as to where to go next. It also functions as a makeshift keypad, a lock you can pick when you're trying to open a locked door, a map, and, most importantly, an inventory.
In ZombiU, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the idea of survival in isolation. While you follow instructions from the Prepper, for the most part, you're on your own out there, following your nose as you try to find the next objective, and dealing with any enemies you come across along the way. And deal with them you must. In ZombiU, you see, there are precious few ways to actually pause the game. While you can pause by pressing the Start button, all you can do there is choose to continue, fiddle with the options or quit. If you want to mess with your inventory, you'll have to play around in real time - pull the tab down from the top of the GamePad and you'll be able to root through your backpack, but while you're arranging your weapons, or using your health boosting items, the game carries on in the background, leaving you perfect prey for one of your zombie friends. A few hits is all it takes to kill your survivor - and should that happen, you'll be back to square one.
The longer your survivor, er, survives, and the more objectives you complete, the more experience your survivor will earn, and the better they'll become, increasing their accuracy, or the damage they can do with their weapons. Should they meet an untimely end, you'll find yourself being restarted at the Prepper's safehouse as a new survivor, without the benefit of any the experience the last person gained, and, most importantly, without any of their items.
Instead, if you want your items back (and that includes guns, health-restoring items, and weapon upgrades), you'll have to retrace your steps, and find your old survivor, who's now going to be looking a little bit worse for wear. And they'll be a zombie. Should you manage to survive all the way there (and that's not easy, especially when you remember you'll be doing it without your old weapons), and then take your former self down, you'll be able to reclaim your items. Should you perish before you get there, your former items will be lost for good.
And it's this that's one of the main problems with ZombiU. While we appreciate the setting, and could potentially get involved in the story, it is really rather difficult. Too many times we've been killed, and then almost reached our former self only to fall again, and lose all our hard collected items. Putting you back doubly, by making you lose your progress physically and item-wise, it's a rather punishing system, and one the game could have done without. Although you're playing on "Chicken" mode, you're still coming up against a brick wall - and you'll be dying a lot.
It's not as though ZombiU doesn't have its other problems, though. One of the largest problems the game suffers from that isn't a deliberate design decision is its awful loading times, that have a nasty tendency for rearing their heads at the worst possible times. Should you find yourself being chased by a zombie down a dark corridor, and finally reach a door, as you mash the button to open it, you need the door to open, straight away. The last thing you want is for absolutely nothing to happen, as the game slowly starts loading in whatever's behind the door, and you get eaten by zombies whilst mashing the button in vein. Being killed because the game's been badly programmed/is terrible at loading isn't the nicest of feelings.
The plot, too, is a little bit on the ropey side at times, with a story that never really grips you, and it sometimes not being all that obvious where you're meant to be going, or what you're meant to be doing. Of course, it doesn't help that you don't have a map on the GamePad to begin with when you enter a new area, as you have to find, and hack a security camera in order to download the area plan, but a better pointer would have been much appreciated - especially in a maze like Buckingham Palace.
On the plus side, there's more to ZombiU than just the story, with a selection of multiplayer modes that make interesting use of the Wii U GamePad. Pitting two players against each other is fairly standard fare for a first person shooter, but ZombiU takes a slightly different approach, by having one player using a first person perspective on the TV, while the other uses the GamePad to place zombies in strategic places. Pitting two players against each other with rather asymmetric gameplay, it's an interesting idea, and one that works remarkably well. There are two modes on offer - one, which sees you working against your friend to capture a number of flags, while the other is a simple survival mode, where one player has to survive, and the other has to place zombies to kill them. With several different types of zombie on offer, there's a fair amount of strategy here too - and, better still, for those not keen on dual analogue sticks, you can use the Wii Remote and Nunchuck combo to take on the zombie hordes.
As a launch title for the Wii U for the hardcore, ZombiU ticks a lot of the right boxes, yet sadly falls short of its overall goals. With a difficulty level that punishes you too much for dying, and some rather frustrating loading times that lend themselves to a few too many deaths, ZombiU is a flawed attempt at zombie survival. If you're looking for an exclusive story driven game on the Wii U, then at the time of writing, you don't really have much choice - but if it's a story you're after, we'd lean towards Batman: Arkham City instead.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U