(Note: This is a review of the single player. Multiplayer is pretty much exactly what you’d expect.)
I’ve been playing ZombiU constantly over the last two days, and when I first started out I considered myself nothing more than certifiably intrigued. A couple of hours in, and I went from intrigued to impressed. A few hours on top of that and I was enthralled. Add an hour or two more and I found myself legitimately surprised that I was enjoying the game as much as I was. I had read in so many places that at best it was “fun-but-flawed”, and I had damn-near convinced myself that such a label was “good enough”, and very admirable for a launch title.
When it comes down to it though– and I do NOT say this lightly– I’ve ended up thinking that ZombiU is one of the best survival horror games I have ever had the immense pleasure of playing.
It probably comes as a bit of a shock to hear that, right? I’m willing to bet that you’re in the same place I was before actually playing the game: convinced that it was an average game with a cool concept, and that was “good enough” for you. Trust me though– if you like the concept of a true, difficult, atmospheric survival horror game positively brimming with intensity, you must pick up this game.
The “survival” aspect of ‘survival horror’ is perhaps the most prominent of the two in ZombiU, because death is almost literally waiting around every corner. With the help of a trusty motion-sensor (displayed on the Gamepad, of course) you can know a moment or two in advance what’s coming, but it works on all moving things (including rats, crows, etc), and it only works on things at your altitude. Anything on ledges above you or in ditches below will not be picked up, meaning that relying too much on it will get you killed.
Another thing that will get you killed is doing pretty much anything without thinking first. Just one lapse in patience can quickly snowball into a chain reaction of bad situations until you’re cornered in a room with no exit as zombies pound down the door and consume you as you fire off your last few rounds. Alas, perhaps the best moments in this game are these, where you have to run to a new area (due to being chased) without being able to stand still and motion-detect it first. It may sound silly to you, but it’s absolutely immobilizing to find yourself without the trusty motion detector, notwithstanding the fact that you actually have to look away from the screen to use it.
These moments of fanaticism placed sparingly in an ocean of slow, tense walking are the reason why ZombiU does survival horror so well. It understands pacing and flow better than perhaps any game in the genre I’ve played in years, and the brilliant thing about it is that these moments of life-or-death are YOUR fault at least 75% of the time. Occasionally, though, the game will toss a scripted “zombies are everywhere!” moment for good measure, such as the “famous” one where you have to frantically figure out a keypad combination as a horde approaches (sidenote: the first time this happened was one of my favorite horror moments ever). These instances are equally-if-not-more terrifying than the organic ones, and succeed by themselves at doing what so many “survival horror” games of the last generation have failed at. (Note that a “horde” in ZombiU is not hundreds or even tens of zombies– any more than two and you’re fighting for you life.)
Another one of the many things ZombiU gets right is that everything feels real. Apartment complexes have zombie families inside of them, military checkpoints have zombies in body armor, subway stations have zombie hobos– everything feels incredibly authentic and “lived-in”, as though just three months ago this was a town full of frantic life that was trying so hard to escape a worldwide plague. Several times you may find yourself stopping over various corpses, slowly realizing what their last moments in life were. The beautiful thing is that it doesn’t feel like you’re projecting these ideas onto the situations yourself– it really seems like the developers thought about how at least 60% of the scattered corpses spent their final moments.
Though, among all of the praises I could sing about the game (of which there are many), one stands out as being more impressive than all of them: Its use of the Gamepad. We all knew that this would be cool and fun, but at times it prior to launch it looked novel and gimmicky. I’m incredibly happy to report that every moment you use it feels completely organic and adds a ton of freneticism to what could otherwise be a drab experience. Take, for example, rapidly tapping the screen to pry off a barricade. This sounds like it would be annoying or pointless, but when you’re being chased (again, the best moments are when you’re being chased!) by several zombies, NOTHING is more terrifying than actually having to lift your hand off of the controller, reach over to the screen, and rapidly tap it to get through an obstacle. Dare I take some of the credit off of Ubisoft’s shoulders, but the Gamepad is a big reason why this game succeeds as well as it does.
Of course, not everything about ZombiU is flawless. Load times are pretty long, and even after a level “loads” it will do the Metroid trick of loading the next room while a door waits to open. It can be frustrating at times, but luckily it doesn’t appear to happen beyond the first 30 seconds of being in any given area. Another small gripe is that the technical quality of the graphics is pretty low, and while it doesn’t detract from the experience at all, seeing an 8th generation console output the same graphical quality as a launch-day 7th generation console is a little inexcusable.
Easily the biggest problem with game is that the story is somewhat inconsistent. When you die and come back as a new survivor, no one else seems to care. Any character that your previous survivors had interacted with already knows who your new-self is somehow, and often times they’ll mention things that only someone three survivors ago would have known about. The act of being reborn as a new survivor is actually more of a sort of “reincarnation” where you have all of your old memories, and all of your “friends” are in on the joke. It’s a small complaint in the grand scheme of things though, and ultimately has as much bearing on the overall experience as Resident Evil 1’s use of giant sharks. Which was admittedly pretty stupid.
The pleasant thing is that reincarnation– which, let’s be honest, was created for gameplay satisfactions and not story purposes– is the only inconsistency I saw, and everything else had more attention paid to it than you would expect from even the largest developers. For instance, if you kill a zombie as one survivor, it doesn’t respawn when you switch to a new one. If you open a door, it stays open until someone closes it. If you looted a box, items don’t magically re-appear in it. Also, the use of “loud noises attract zombies” isn’t shoe-horned or lazy. Zombies won’t magically spawn just because you made a loud noise, and if there’s something to cover up the sound (roaring fire, music, etc) you can bang around all you want. You could even hire a band and start playing Metallica covers. Small details, but important ones that really help make the game feel properly built.
It’s hard to say how long it will take any individual person to beat the single player of ZombiU, and it’s even harder to guess how many survivors someone will go through. If I had to staple a number to it, I would guess somewhere between 8 and 12, but that all depends on how patient you can keep yourself and how smart you are about conserving resources. All things being equal, Ubisoft has done an absolutely incredible job making a game that is not only a fantastic launch title, but a truly great survival horror game that could– assuming people aren’t deterred by “mediocre” numbered scores– revive the genre as it should be, exclusively on the Wii U.
Until then, I am completely okay replaying this one over and over again.
ZombiU is a finely crafted survival horror game, and perhaps one of the best in the genre I’ve ever played. If you’re a fan of these sorts of things and you’re not buying ZombiU because of review numbers or the opinions you read on the internet, I urge you to reconsider. You will not regret it.
Buy this game if…
You enjoy survival horror, as it was meant to be.
Don’t but this game if…
You prefer upbeat action games to slow and technical shooters.
This game is better than…
Dead Space, Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil: Revelations
This game is (slightly) worse than…
Resident Evil (GCN Remake)