At the outset of any console launch, players are likely to be surrounded by a glut of shovelware – ports or half-baked ideas created during the year or so before a new console is released prey on gamers looking for something, anything, to play on their new several-hundred-dollar purchase. Amid all the garbage, one or two titles usually stand out from the crowd, able to prove that the game’s concepts are sound outside of the gimmickry and hype of a new console. While ZombiU may not be the system seller Nintendo is looking for, it is probably the best representation of the legitimacy of the Wii U’s Gamepad.
To aid the player on their quest, a mysterious man known as the “Prepper” communicates with the player via the “Prepper Pad,” the in-game representation of the Gamepad. Every interaction with the environment (save for bludgeoning zombies with a cricket bat) are performed with the pad. Lock picking, entering codes on a keypad, and equipping items are all done by looking down from the TV and glancing at the Gamepad. Time only stops when the game is paused, leaving players wide open to attack while rummaging through the backpack or prying bars off doors. These actions are mostly ingenious, such as physically moving the Gamepad to scan the environment (though the analog stick will suffice for the lazy). Other actions are less so, such as furiously tapping on a plank to remove it from a door, or furiously tapping a manhole cover to open it, or furiously tapping a syringe to fill it with poison. These interactions pale in comparison to the ones that actually make inventive use of the Gamepad, and it just highlights the quality gap between them.
In ZombiU, zombie bites are fatal, and death is permanent. When a survivor dies – which will happen often on the first playthrough – that character is turned into a zombie, and another survivor spawns at the Safe House. All progress up to that point still completed, but the new survivor is reduced to the bare minimum of supplies. To get everything back, the new survivor must head back to the location the previous character died and retrieve their backpack. Dying before they reach the backpack means those items are lost forever. This adds a whole new layer of tension not seen before the first few Resident Evil games; ZombiU rewards patience and and will brutally punish the unobservant (don’t hit the exploding zombies with a cricket bat…). Light online functionality adds another small, but important layer by inserting undead friends into the main campaign, granting the use of their equipment if defeated. ZombiU also allows players to write messages on the wall, warning friends of impending dangers or leading them astray.
Luckily, the gameplay more than makes up for the lacking story. Controls feel responsive yet feel slightly sluggish, and somehow, it works. The survivors are not hardened soldiers with Rambo-like precision and accuracy, but rather every-day, normal people. Imprecise aiming and an overall lack of grace and maneuverability all add to the tension rather than detract from the gameplay. Combat with a single zombie is a bit boring – bashing zombies with the unbreakable cricket-bat takes a few more whacks than should probably be needed – but even singular encounters feel suspenseful because of the claustrophobic first-person view and the constant threat of a surprise attack. Players looking for a straight-up action title are going to be disappointed, and playing it like one will spell disaster.
“How long will you survive?” This central tenant informs the entire game. It’s less about the story than it is about the actual act of survival, and in this ZombiU is a huge triumph. Sure, the combat can feel a bit samey when dealing with small groups of enemies; sure, most of the third act is weak; sure, the game has some bugs and general polish issues; but what it does in atmosphere, in creating that feeling of hopelessness against a much larger unknown enemy is much greater than all of its flaws. It’s not perfect and it’s not for everyone, but ZombiU is a fantastic return of the survival horror genre. Who would have thought that a Nintendo console launch would have given us that?