ZombiU is scary.
Not exactly a groundbreaking statement, right? A survival horror game set in the zombie apocalypse is supposed to give me the heebie-jeebies. ZombiU, however, delivers a type of scare that I’ve never experienced before: a consistent edge-of-my-seat feeling of “dear God what’s coming next” that drives the entire experience (Editor’s note: Jason’s too scared to try Amnesia: The Dark Descent). There’s no comfort zone and there’s no calming down; ZombiU scares from start to finish, creating a tense and exhilarating experience that’s easily one of the best on Nintendo’s newest console.
ZombiU’s harrowing nature stems from its excellent use of the environment against the player. Everything is dark, dank, and dreary, all three of those things made worse by the “dirty lens” effect mucking up the sight lines. Most of the time, zombies will go undetected until they’re within arms’ reach. Nothing is truly “safe” in ZombiU’s world: the safe house will get attacked every once in a while, no area is ever comfortably lit, and even times when other games make players invulnerable, like when I’m going through my inventory, leave me wide open to attack thanks to the GamePad. Now, when I go through my bag, my perspective has to switch to the other screen while my character kneels and rummages. If there’s a zombie nearby, I’m as good as dead! There’s nothing I can do to be safe, other than cowering in an area clear of zombies until it’s time to go out and complete a mission. What else am I supposed to do?!
There are plenty of scares to be had in ZombiU, but there’s one moment in particular when I was struck with pure dread: the death of a character. Sure, I’d respawn as someone else, no big deal, but my new avatar would be armed with merely the cricket bat, just like the previous survivor started out. I’d have to go get all of my stuff back from the my old character’s zombie… just wonderful!
Herein lies the coolest thing about ZombiU: it’s the best emulation of actually being in a zombie apocalypse I’ve ever played. Resident Evil never made me truly dread death, as I knew I’d be able to start from my last stop at a typewriter. Dead Rising is less about “zombie apocalypse” and more about “fun ways to kill zombies in an apocalypse.” ZombiU puts me in charge of a single survivor, all alone, sticking my neck out for a disembodied voice guiding my way. One slip-up and I’m back to square one, only this time with the added task of finding the previous survivor and getting my stuff back. THIS is what a zombie apocalypse would be all about – survival by any means necessary – and ZombiU nails it.
If nothing else, ZombiU serves as an excellent example of what Nintendo’s new hardware, specifically the GamePad controller, can do. The voice of Prepper talks specifically through the speakers of the GamePad, just like a walkie-talkie. The map can be accessed at all times just by looking down at the GamePad’s screen; I no longer have to pause the game to access it. All heads-up display information is relegated to the second screen, leaving the television unobstructed. If this is the beginning of the GamePad, who knows what it will be able to achieve after a few years in the wild.
That being said, there’s also a significant flaw in ZombiU: normal control of the character. The strange button layout does not lend itself well to the tense moments of combat, especially for excitable types like myself. I continually forgot about the “shove” feature that allows me to set up a zombie for a bash to the skull, and then I would wonder why I wasn’t hitting any zombies. Lifting the GamePad to scan areas can and will quickly become tedious. It’s not perfect, but one would not expect a launch title on a brand new system to be perfect; the learning curve is forgivable.
As saturated as the zombie genre is, I’m quite surprised I enjoy ZombiU as much as I do. At its core, the game offers nothing I haven’t done before: kill zombies, survive, complete missions, etc. However, the presentation is so unique that killing zombies feels fresh and new again. The environment creates the scariest surroundings I’ve played in years, and the new Wii U technology allows for feelings of tension and dread that previous zombie games just couldn’t achieve.
ZombiU is scary. However, it’s a fresh scare, and one that makes the game a must for early Wii U owners.
Review based on Wii U release.