Review: ZombiU (Wii U)

7 mins read

I really did expect ZombiU to be more creative than it was in the end. Given all the hype behind it, and indeed my first impressions of the game from a Wii U demo booth, I expected an intense horror game quite unlike what I had ever played before.

What I got was an intense horror game that was… familiar from start to finish. Thematically, ZombiU is very much like From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls games. It’s a relentlessly challenging game that focuses on players learning through dying, and has some asynchronous online multiplayer options – dead characters turn into zombies and can be killed by online friends. Players can even leave messages for one another – a feature torn in its entirety from the Soul’s franchise.

As a big fan of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, the challenge of ZombiU appealed to me, and as a fan of classic zombie films, I feel this game is one of the finest recreations of a zombie apocalypse that we’ve seen in games yet. The goal – to simply survive – is a little alien to the norm for videogames where players expect going in to be presented with objectives to “win.” So I do understand where the negative reviews are coming from – this is not a game for everyone.

Weapons and ammunition are severely limited, to the point where hoarding wherever possible becomes a substantial feature of the game. Once again this is a decision that is brilliantly conducive to building an atmosphere of survival horror, but I suspect alienating to many people that prefer run-and-gun style action experiences. In fact, the game is alienating right down to the default weapon players have access to – the cricket bat. Surely Ubisoft realised that cricket is such a niche sport on a world scale that a baseball bat would have made more sense?

Yes the game is set in England, but there are sports (and potential melee weapons) that have a more global appeal than cricket. I suspect that the cricket bat is Ubisoft’s admission that this game has a limited market appeal, and rather than apologise for it, it has challenged the players to either get on with the game, or get out. It’s the kind of development purity that is a welcome rarity from a major publisher producing a major new IP for a new console.

However, though I appreciated vision and integrity of the game when I sat back to review it I find myself asking a simple question – did I enjoy it that much? I both did, and did not. I expected the world to be a little more open, for one thing. Most environments ended up feeling a little claustrophobic, and tended to highlight strategic vantage points in neon. I appreciate the Ubisoft wanted people to think about how to deal with the undead without charging in guns blazing, but did they need to make the solutions to the puzzles that blatant? I would argue not. At around 10 hours in length, it also felt like there was a bit of padding at times.

And so ZombiU feels a little underdeveloped. There are ideas in there that are only half-realised and as thematically sound as the game is, it’s difficult to look past some of the technical issues – such as a generally unattractive visual aesthetic and some ideas that are thrown into the game, but are not particularly interesting. I didn’t really buy the into the use of the gamepad as an inventory, for instance. Yes, when looting the body of a corpse for treasures you need to look away from the TV and at the gamepad for a moment, and yes occasionally a zombie will surprise you while you’re distracted, but that’s about the extent of it – it’s a shock tactic and a gimmick, and nothing more.

The multiplayer is absolutely brilliant though, and uses the gamepad in a genuine and useful way. With one player playing as the survivor, and the other player with the gamepad dropping zombies down to try and take out the player, it’s a competitive multiplayer style that we really have seen very little of in the past, and as such it doesn’t matter as much that there’s a general lack of variety in the game – what’s there is damned fun, if incredibly difficult for the poor sap playing as the survivor.

The multiplayer mode also highlights one of the greatest opportunities for local multiplayer with the Wii U. My wife is not a great fan of shooters, and so is not especially great at them. With most local multiplayer shooters this would mean we would simply not play them. With ZombiU however we’re both able to play and have a great time.

Overall ZombiU is a triumph. It’s raw and flawed, and it’s nowhere near as original or innovative as it probably should have been, but it is nonetheless different. Especially for the Nintendo gamers who have never had the opportunity to play a Souls game, ZombiU does a remarkable job of adapting that style of game and repackaging it in a new setting. Throw in one of the best multiplayer modes on the Wii U to date and it’s an easy game to recommend. And, looking at the sales figures, it’s surely a big enough hit to justify a sequel, which would give Ubisoft an opportunity to balance out some of the less spectacular elements in the game.

– Matt S
I’m on Twitter! @DigitallyDownld
I’m also on MiiVerse! WaltzIT

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  • I appreciate the fair and conscientious review, which Zombi U game hasn't gotten from many outlets. I'm enjoying it a bit more and am certainly taking longer than 10 hours, and would probably give it a 4/5 myself, but I like your analysis.

  • "At around 10 hours in length…"

    Haha, not from my experience.

    How many survivors did it take you, and why no post to Miiverse with the image?! Did you finish it, or just play it a good amount?

    Because this, "The goal – to simply survive – is a little alien to the norm for videogames where players expect going in to be presented with objectives to “win.” So I do understand where the negative reviews are coming from – this is not a game for everyone.", doesn't really make sense to me. The game has a start and has a "finish", or a "win". There are objectives to get from the start, to the finish…

    It has a story mode that you start at the beginning, do objectives throughout and complete (or, try to complete). Did I misunderstand the "win" part?

    I actually played Survival Mode tonight…………….FAILED. AGAIN. MISERABLY!

    Kind of ironic timing for this post though, as I have been compiling two posts on the game and editing one of them tonight and working on images, and debating on video.

  • Looks like I low-balled. According to the time code which I just checked to confirm, I played 14 hours to get through the story mode once.

    I died a few times, but not as often as I thought I would – this game is relatively straight forward compared to something like Dark Souls, and I must admit a few of the deaths felt cheap – traps sprung on me that I had no hope of predicting. I don't like that kind of 'difficulty,' thought thankfully there wasn't ever too much backtracking to regain lost ground.

    Anyway, I see people speedrun it in about six hours, so I'm pretty proud I was able to work through it that quickly. Chalk it up to too much Dark Souls time.

    You should start seeing my zombies popping up around the place now. I always review games on a separate account to my 'social,' one. It lets me test the game without having to deal with people interfering, and it allows me to then benchmark. A lot of the time I will find I don't play a game after reviewing it – I don't end up with many trophies and so on in that game as a result, and it tells me a lot about the game for future reference. I think I'll be playing ZombiU for a while yet though. Not done with it just yet.

    With regards to the story. It struck me throughout the game that the story itself wasn't important. Sure it was there (and was actually interesting, against all odds), but the point of the game is that survival is a reward in itself for good play, and the fact you're completing objectives around it feels like a nice bonus. Again, very much like Dark Souls. The plot in that game is harder to remember than the setting, and the challenge.

    I hope that helps clarify for you. 🙂

  • I rather like that idea of having to shift your attention when rummaging for items…another factor that underlines the games creed of "always mind your surroundings."
    Good to hear sales are looking healthy, if for no other reason than to reward a publisher for taking a bit of a chance.

  • "I died a few times, but not as often as I thought I would…"
    Just as an FYI, the game tells you how many survivors it takes you.

    "I must admit a few of the deaths felt cheap – traps sprung on me that I had no hope of predicting. I don't like that kind of 'difficulty,' thought thankfully there wasn't ever too much backtracking to regain lost ground."
    You died in traps? The only "traps" I'm aware of are able to be spotted with the scanner, and they show up on your radar after you scan them.
    Maybe we took different paths in areas, or approached them differently? Did you not use the scanner often?

    "The plot in that game is harder to remember than the setting, and the challenge."
    You must have gotten the bad ending…

    Also, do you like Bacon?

  • Yes, I know. 11 deaths is a 'few', no?

    I didn't mean 'trap' in the literal sense. There were times where I was wandering around doing my own thing, and a zombie attack would be triggered when I was in a strategically disadvantageous position. The zombies were the threat in the game after all, and their abush traps felt like they were placed around to make deaths easier and for jump scares. Again, that's not a kind of difficulty I appreciate. I liked the bits where I could overcome overwhelming odds by being strategic far more.

    In other words, put the enemy there in front of me from the start. Don't have them jump out at me because I wandered past a game trigger that there was no really way to prepare for.

    Regarding the twist, perhaps I didn't get the same ending as you, but it was nowhere near as spectacular as Ubisoft promised.

  • This is really the only game that I'd really like to play on Wii U, outside of a handful of eShop titles. I think it'll see a multiplatform port in the future, as it seems to be a great fit for Vita.

  • While playing the game, I did wonder how they would port it over. There is one certain thing in the game, that I think works very well with the GamePad, and it can't be done with a typical controller. Though, SmartGlass could maybe provide one solution for it on the 360, but I'm not sure what the connectivity has been with that yet.

  • SmartGlass should work. It's capable of displaying a different set of data to what it going on the "main" TV – so for instance in Forza Horizon the iPad/ other SmartGlass device displays a GPS.

    Obviously SmartGlass would not be able to do certain interactions such as the scanning, as there is no guarantee that the SmartGlass device has a accelerometer built in, but it should be relatively easy to port ZombiU across.

    Heck if you think about it, there's very little ZombiU does in terms of interfacing that Dark Souls doesn't do, and so it should be possible to move the GamePad's functions to the single screen. It'd lose some of the "experience" if it did do that, but the game itself would remain relatively intact.

  • I haven't played Dark Souls, so I don't really get the reference to it, but I hear it a lot with ZombiU. My fault…I know! Yeah, the scanning could be done in game pretty easily and the weapon selection, but the way they had the map setup on the GamePad, and using a feature on it, I think would change the game a good bit.

    Do you know if SmartGlass can output different sounds specifically tailored for the SmartGlass app/portion of the game? I would imagine it can, but I haven't looked at it much, since I don't own a 360.

  • Mechanically, Dark Souls works very similar to ZombiU. The online component is very similar, and the game doesn't pause when you open your inventory. The inventory simply pops up on the screen and the action continues on in the background. If you need to change weapons in a hurry you're in for a world of pain, basically.

    But you are right, it's a different experience to ZombiU, which has a shock-scare factor when you are busy with your inventory and a zombie springs out at you.

    With regards to SmartGlass, I *think* it can output sounds independently of the game. I can't for the life of me remember if it does in either Forza or Halo 4, which are the two games I've tried it with. I do assume that it would be no different from outputting visual information independently though.

    Back to the most important point though – hurry up and play Dark Souls. If you like ZombiU, you are going to fall head-over-heels in love with Dark Souls.

  • "Yes, I know. 11 deaths is a 'few', no?"

    It's 'few' compared to my nearly 3 dozen (0_0), but I was actually hoping to keep it under double digits for it to be a 'few'. I have attempted Survival Mode 4 times now, and it hasn't ended well on any attempt yet. 🙁

    It's kind of interesting you mentioned the trap thing being a triggered attack, as only a few (I think 3 that I'm remembering) happened that were triggered…and one resulted in my untimely death do to my panicked, "If it MOVES! HIT IT!" response. I really didn't feel like the game had many triggered events I guess, and felt it flowed very well…unlike some odd "triggered" events in a certain FPS.

    On the ending/twist, I was on a bit of a ZombiU media blackout, so I was avoiding interviews/videos/articles on the game for about a month before the game released, so I wasn't really sure what to expect going in.

    Also, do/did you like Bacon?

  • If your talking about using the Gamepad to look into the television screen, the Vita could do this when combined with the PS3, but I'd think that they would just alter the gameplay a bit to compensate – leaving the Wii U version the top version of the game.

    With the game's mixed reception, I expect Ubisoft is already working on ports to get it into the hands of more people, in the hopes of not losing money on the title.

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