Hello there zombies, it really hasn’t been long, has it? You’re always clawing and gnawing and moaning and swarming, and just when I think I’m safe from your mindless lurching and throaty moans you go and turn up as DLC several months later. Good job I can always count on dispatching you with a careless spray of bullets, or the idle swipe of a chainsaw.
ZombiU doesn’t give me a crate full of ammo though, and while I’m flicking through my inventory I can see your leathery face creeping closer and closer. What is this I feel? My, I think it might be fright, urgency…actual horror. Desperately I switch to my last weapon, but there are more of you than there are bullets in the barrel. I’m starting to realize why you zombies can scare me in the first place. You put me under pressure. You force me to my wits ends to stay ahead. Living is no longer a given, but a game that’s all too easy to lose.
Zombie games have all seemed to miss this point as of late. Zombies aren’t there for fodder; they’re there to push us into desperate situations. Telltale’s phenomenal The Walking Dead episodes task players with dealing with the end of the world by negotiating the relationships of your fellow survivors, while ZombiU moves the emphasis on environmental traversal, exploration, and survival instead. Think of this as Nintendo’s bid to make the Wii U seem as credible as possible towards core audience, and it looks like it could work. With a laser-like focus on realism and survival, and liberal use of the consoles dual-screens, ZombiU is shaping up to be the game that proves the Wii U.
ZombiU attempts to use the second screen to complement and enhance a kind of game that could have been done elsewhere. Crouched in a corner I rifle through my inventory, which is shown to me on the gamepad. All the while I find my eyes darting from my inventory to the screen. Enemies could appear at any time, and I don’t have the health to take another hit. There’s not enough ammo around either. Two more pistol bullets and I’ll need to fall back on my cricket bat. Suddenly I realise that I’m stressed, and suddenly I realise that ZombiU has begun to work. Pause menus, inherently immersion breaking, are gone leaving real-time scenarios where danger is a constant threat. It’s horrific. It’s what I want from a zombie game.
ZombiU makes plenty more use of the GamePad. I can hold up the pad to the TV and use it to scan for points of interest around me, or even as a scope for my ranged weapons. Having two screens to pay attention to felt like a powerful simulation, and despite the bustle and noise of the show floor around me, there were moments of tension that came from the interplay of the two screens in a way that feels unique to the Wii U.
While ZombiU looks to be a great demonstration of the Wii U as a console, it’s also shaping up to be a successful game on its own merits. Part of this is an apparent understanding of horror, something recent games could do with relearning. While many games are happy to stuff your pockets with weapons, ZombiU displays a respect of one of the oldest tenants of survival horror: make every shot count. If horror can only flourish when we feel vulnerable, then expect ZombiU to deliver scares in spades. When my character wades through water in a dark basement, I’m vulnerable, with my bag held over my head to keep my items safe. If a zombie rears its head while I’m in such a situation, then there’s no fighting back. It makes perfect sense, and yet this game, a humble launch title for Nintendo’s bizarre new console, is one of the few to pay such reverence to realism.
Rooting itself further still as a persistent, realistic world is ZombiU’s system of respawning. When one survivor runs out of ammo and inevitably succumbs to the shambling dead, I restart the segment as a new survivor, complete with a new name, age, and occupation. The zombies I had defeated before are dead, but my bag is empty. To get my items back I need to make my way back to the place of my death, and fight the zombified version of the person that, up until a few minutes ago, had been me. It’s a sadistic way of going about item retrieval, especially if I end up getting attached to any one survivor. Once defeated, my ex-avatar can be looted for my old items.
‘Dark Souls but with guns’ isn’t too wild a comparison to make, one which I can only hope ZombiU lives up to.
Not just another first-person zombie game, I’m intrigued about ZombiU simply because it’s playing to the strengths of the Wii U and harnessing its features in ways that complement the horror experience. If the zombie apocalypse ever should come true, I’d expect it to feel like ZombiU. If it doesn’t (and let’s go with that, shall we?) then get your fix when ZombiU and the Wii U both launch in North America on November 18 and Europe on November 30.