Writing the Survivor Stories series while playing through ZombiU put me in a mindspace where I was constantly thinking about the game. My experience with the game overall was great, and there are a lot of interesting things that ZombiU does with systems I’ve seen in other games. Some are implemented in a similar fashion, and some are quite a departure.
From a survival horror perspective, ZombiU is much more in line with the classics like early Resident Evil and Silent Hill games. The game is very atmospheric. Whether you are trekking through sewers or crawling over broken furniture in Buckingham Palace, you can often hear enemies long before you see them, so there’s a constant fear of what’s around the corner. Every encounter is potentially lethal, so there is a rush of anxiety whenever a zombie approaches. I was constantly using the environment to slow them down, or to get myself in a defensible area where could see whatever was coming. Ammo is scarce, which forced me to use the cricket bat in almost every situation where there were only one or two enemies. Bullets were for crowd control. Grenades were for armored zombies. Every weapon other than the cricket bat became situational. In many ways, ZombiU is an intentional throwback to the survival horror of old.
The story of ZombiU is rooted in British history, and really lends a sense to depth to the game world as you make your way through a ruined London. Granted, the story plays on the wilder aspects of the legend of John Dee, but its in a similar way that H.P. Lovecraft tied his fiction to the New England area–there’s truth woven into the fiction, and sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. You know, except for the zombie parts.
ZombiU also takes some inspiration from the Souls series, both in its approach to death, as well as it’s online features. When a survivor of yours dies, they not only show up in your game as a zombie, but they also show up in the games of your friends as well. While the novelty of this is cool, there is a gameplay purpose as well–these zombies are still wearing their backpacks full of gear. When it’s your previous survivor that has died, you must reach them before dying again in order to claim your gear, or its lost forever. This is exactly like the Souls series, and it adds an additional layer of tension to the game. When it’s another person’s survivor that spawns as a zombie in your game, it’s like a bonus, as you can kill them and take whatever gear they had on them when they died. There were a few times in my playthrough that I was strapped for ammo, and finding someone else’s former survivor helped me get out of a situation alive. In the Souls games, this would be the equivalent of another player dropping an item for you in a multiplayer session, which I’ve had happen as well. In both cases, certain gear is precious, and you can’t afford to be careless with supplies.
The spraypaint mechanic in ZombiU also seems inspired by the Souls series. You can leave messages (consisting of a series of symbols) for other players, which they can find with their scanners. I have to say, I found the implementation in ZombiU to be a little clumsy, as the symbol system wasn’t robust enough for really meaningful hints to be given. In the Souls series, you at least have a variety of phrases to utilize, which, while restricting, still allows you to convey what’s coming to another character. This is an area that could be improved should the game get sequel, as the premise is solid.
No discussion of ZombiU would be complete without talking about the GamePad implementation. While my experience with WiiU has been limited to only a few games so far, I do feel that its use in ZombiU is the best implementation I’ve experienced yet. For those worried about it feeling too gimmicky–don’t. The primary use of the GamePad is inventory management. Being able to hot key items into easy access slots, as well as access things like your map, journal and stats at the touch of a tab is great as well. The GamePad also functions as a scanner, and other than having to come up with a story explanation that seems reasonable, using the scanner works well. Basically, you can scan any area that you can see for enemies, items, doors and more. I found myself doing that as soon as i came into an open area, and then planning my route through from there. Using the scanner also mean taking your eyes off of the main screen, and since you’re not actually pausing the game when you scan, there’s an element of danger to it. Again, this adds to the tension, and you have to be thoughtful about when you do it. All in all, the GamePad functionality is great in ZombU. Even the sniper moments, where you use the GamePad as a scope, are so few and far between that you don’t even have time to get tired of them.
GamePad aside, the one place where ZombiU stumbles is when the controls can’t keep up with the design of the game. The basic controls are clunky, like those early survival horror games. They are meant to go hand in hand with a methodical pace, and a limited number of enemies. There are some times in the game when what’s happening eclipses the ability of the controls to keep up, even when a player knows what they’re doing. Early on, the safehouse gets attacked by a horde, and for that early in the game, it’s a pretty big difficulty spike. However, that’s nothing compared to a late game level that is so difficult that it’s almost game-breaking. Had I not been trained in the Demon’s Souls / Dark Souls school of never giving up, I would have walked at that point, because it was so frustrating. The crux of the problem was that it required you to be constantly running, when you have limited stamina, it required a high degree of accuracy when the controls don’t provide it, and you needed to use the environment in specific ways when the zombies did not take the same path every time. It took me days to beat this section, as I would make several attempts, fail, and then have to walk away. Sure, I was overjoyed when I finally beat it, but the whole pace of the game, and my immersion in the world had been badly thrown off by that one section. What amazes me is that there is a Survival mode in ZombiU, where you only get one life, and people have actually beaten that level in one try. When you play this game, you’ll know how amazing that really is.
After spending 27+ hours with it, I can honestly say that ZombiU is now one of of my three favorite horror games this generation–Resident Evil: Revelations and the original Dead Space being the other two. The game serves as a reminder of what survival horror can and should be, and it deserves to be played. I’m excited that Nintendo is releasing a ZombiU bundle for WiiU, as that will hopefully get the game into more people’s hands. I had an absolute blast with it, and the few frustrations I ran into would not keep me from recommending this game to those who want a challenging, fun horror experience.