ZombiU has no idea what it wants to be. On the surface, it's a first-person game with arcade pretensions that awards points based on how long you survive. But beneath that is a predilection for realism, narrative and verisimilitude that violently clashes with its pick-up-and-play style. It's neither fast-paced fun nor weighty horror; it wants to be a "core" survival game, but also has the responsibilities of a Wii U launch title.
Its chief gameplay mechanic is that when you die you respawn as a new character with a different face and name, but that really screws with the game's story and momentum. Objectives are fed to you by the Prepper, a mysterious conspiracy nut on your walkie-talkie. And although the plot of ZombiU is paper-thin, it's nevertheless jarring when the Prepper starts talking to your new character in exactly the same way as he did the last one, as if you've known each other for hours already.
It nerfs the apocalyptic vibe, too, when you remember the Prepper has an infinite supply of willing survivors ready to spawn in his bunker. ZombiU does a great job of being really dark, and miserable, and deathly. But when you know that the game will continually birth new people, that oppressive "last man on earth" feeling gets lost.
You can appreciate that the one bite thing is a gimmicky mechanic that wants you to mess around with it, but that doesn't fit with ZombiU's painstakingly researched real-world aesthetic. It's set in London, and although the geography is loose, the details are spot-on. Shadwell station is the most lovingly recreated and serves as the game's central hub; with its distinctive red lettering above the door and tube maps on the walls, ZombiU's Shadwell feels eerily familiar.
It's not perfect (there are signs for the Central, Bakerloo and Waterloo and City lines, which don't connect to Shadwell) but when it comes to designing a plausible version of London, it'll do.
But it doesn't suit ZombiU's central conceit, which is points based, and arcadey, and wilfully unreal. That leads to an internal conflict in ZombiU, where the impact of the real world look is lessened by the fantastical mechanics, and the fantastical mechanics are bogged down in realism.
The best example of that conflict is the combat, which is gory and plentiful, but also sluggish and awkward. The game wants you to die and respawn, so sends plenty of zombies after you, but killing them takes five or six thwacks from your cricket bat; come across a group of them, like when when a horde attacks Shadwell, and you'll get through four or five new characters before moving on. Again, it's a case of arcade style gameplay - fighting a lot, dying a lot, retrying a lot - colliding with "realistic" pretensions - difficult combat, overwhelming enemies; precious little ammo.
And it's just frustrating. Having to jog all the way back to where you died is a total chore, and when it happens midway through a particularly dramatic section, it totally smothers any sense of immersion or urgency.
The GamePad is rubbish, too. Not only is it too big and unwieldy to properly control ZombiU's finicky combat, it's badly integrated and only used for perfunctory actions like checking your map. Looking through your rucksack, searching boxes for loot and changing weapons are all done via the GamePad's touchscreen, but too little or no added effect. Scanning your inventory in real-time is kind of exciting, since it means leaving your back exposed to sneaky zombies. But since you've only been with your character for ten minutes, and there are umpteen more to take his place, you never really get scared about dying anyway.
The actions mapped to the GamePad are auxiliary, functional ones that have been handled perfectly fine by conventional joypads for years. It's an unnecessary contrivance shoehorned into ZombiU to justify its presence as a Wii U exclusive.
And that's what ruins the game. Nintendo is clamouring for the "core" gamer segment with ZombiU, but it's a game with subject matter and gameplay ambitions that don't suit Nintendo's hardware or marketplace. The graphics and all that are just fine, but the Wii U isn't built for games like ZombiU - the GamePad feels clunky, and the machine's and Nintendo's reputation for casual gaming infect ZombiU with jarring mechanics.
Rather than demonstrate the Wii U's appeal to "core" gamers, ZombiU shows that the console can't manage those sorts of titles - in a sense, it highlights the fatal flaw of the console itself, which is trying to be core and casual at the same time, and managing neither.
There are things to like about ZombiU. It's great looking, and the real-world touches are really appreciated, especially by a Londoner. It's nerve-racking, too, the gloomy, claustrophobic environments creating a genuine sense of dread. But every idea is contradicted by another one and it really lacks vision; like the Wii U itself, ZombiU could use a better sense of direction.
- Gameplay: 6/10 - The central one bite mechanic doesn't suit ZombiU's real-world fidelity. The GamePad is badly integrated.
- Graphics: 8/10 - A dark, beautifully-lit game. It's a shame the London aesthetic doesn't fit with the wacky gameplay.
- Sound: 7/10 - The zombie growls are suitably frightening, but the guns sound limp. The music hardly registers.
- Replay Value: 6/10 - There's a half-baked multiplayer mode, where one player drops zombies that the other has to fight. ZombiU isn't a game you will return to.
- Overall: 6/10 - Some interesting ideas go wasted on this directionless launch title, which like the Wii U itself, doesn't know what it's trying to be.
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