It has been 400 years since the prophecies of John Dee, a mathematician, astronomer, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. He was one of the most learned men of his age and well known for both his revelations and attempts to commune with angels. The Black Prophecy was an apocalyptic event set to devastate the world in the year 2012, and, unfortunately for you, it actually came true.
You are a lone survivor, scavenging for whatever supplies you can take from the wreckage. London has been overrun with zombies and it is not known how the virus spread or if the rest of the world faces the same epidemic. You hold your breath and walk cautiously through the corpses that litter the streets, all the while unaware that you’re secretly being watched.
A mysterious voice identifying himself as The Prepper calls out to you, telling you to follow his voice down into the subway station. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, as you’re quickly being surrounded from all sides. This may be your first time using a Wii-U gamepad, but sorry, no time for tutorials. It’s time to run!
Welcome to the Safe House, this will be your central hub of activity for the rest of the game and where you’ll get equipped with a scanner and cricket bat to defend yourself. Here you will be guided by The Prepper to complete various missions, upgrade weapons, store spare equipment, save your progress and and rest from the horrors that await you outside.
ZombiU is not a game which will hold your hand, the resources you need to survive are scarce and you will certainly die. This is where the design choices get interesting and in a similar fashion to the popular Souls Series, the concepts of permadeath and cross-play functionalities are introduced.
The survivor you are playing will only have one chance and should they fall, so will all the loot you’ve collected. When this happens you will awake in the safe house as another random survivor and be given only one opportunity to kill the corpse of your previous survivor and take back what’s rightfully yours. Should you die again, it’s gone forever.
This makes it essential to store any spare items in your safe-box, but on a positive note this feature can also be played to your advantage. The cross-play functionality will allow for these corpses to drop into the games of friends and other players, including yours. This means that throughout the game you will also have a chance to score loot from friends and random players who did not fare too well. It was definitely exciting the first time I got to loot a friends corpse and send them a screenshot via the MiiVerse!
ZombiU is not exactly an open world, but there are many different locations that all link together. As you progress through the game, you will come across various sewer tunnels which can be unlocked to provide a quick return to the safe house or to other previously unlocked locations. There are also smaller safe havens scattered across London, but they only offer quick relief and a way to save your game.
It won’t just be about trying to survive though, you can expect a secret society known as The Ravens of Dee to complicate your objectives with The Prepper and you will also cross paths with the lone surviving Doctor Knight who will send you out on an optional side quest to locate important information. It works well to make an otherwise dry narrative come to life, but it’s still not incredibly deep.
The most exciting feature of the game is how you play, which is something you would expect from a Wii-U launch title. The two main weapons you are only ever gauaranteed are the Cricket Bat & Pistol, which work in a way that you would have come to expect. However, it is The Scanner which brings the game to life and draws you into the experience.
The first thing you will notice is that the screen on the Gamepad will function as map and motion detecting radar. This can be very helpful at times, but also misleading when you have environments filled with Rats and Ravens. You will begin by having to manually activate the radar when you want to use it, but as you earn upgrades this will thankfully become automated.
Having access to a map is not always a given though, as you will be required to locate and hack various CCTV cameras around London if you don’t want to be completely in the dark. Once you have used the scanner to hack a camera, the map will light up on the screen and you will then have the ability to monitor the camera from the Safe House if you would like to locate any loot you may have missed.
There are 6 shortcuts on the Gamepad which can be accessed as you play, these are reserved for your flashlight, main weapon and 4 other items of your choosing. Should you want to manage your inventory any further, you will have to open your backpack. When this happens the game does not pause and you will see the camera zoom out to show a third-person perspective of your character. There are seldom places safe enough to stand still, so this is to make sure you are aware of your surroundings.
You will also be able to hold the L Button whilst lifting the Gamepad to peer through the screen and move around and scan the environment. This feature can be used to mark enemies, find loot, hack CCTV cameras, see messages from other players and discover secrets.
There are various other implementations of the GamePad, such as the sniper scope, keypad or tap-to-do-this function, but this is where the gameplay starts falling into realm of novelty and whilst can be fun, it is not necessary.
When it comes to visual appeal, ZombiU can definitely feel a bit drab. I don’t think it was unreasonable to have expected a little more polish for a launch title on a new console, but at the same time the design fits the tone of the world well and it doesn’t take too long to adapt.
The apocalyptic London definitely holds it’s own charm, and ironically feels quite alive with many memorable and well designed locations. The one thing the game does really well is lighting and it’s a good thing too considering you’re consistently in darkness. The zombie design is also quite varied and detailed, but I couldn’t help but notice the repeated animations when using melee combat to smash one of their heads open. This was a little disappointing as it is a frequent occurrence.
There are some genuine moments of intelligent design to be found in the game, especially hidden within the soundtrack. In particular, my time spent exploring The Nursery comes to mind as a truly brilliant, albeit unsettling experience in great part to the sound design. You would be punishing yourself to not have surround sound connected from the moment you start.
What it does right, it does well. This is a game that will demand your attention and drag you kicking and screaming to the roots of survival horror. You will only ever be rewarded through patience and it will get frustrating very quickly if you do not keep this in mind.
The plot is admittedly spread quite thin and only enough to keep you moving forward, but it’s interesting enough and doesn’t really damage the experience as it’s your own personal experiences in London that will be remembered the most upon reflection.
ZombiU comes close to brilliance, but unfortunately falls short on too may little things. This is a fantastic game and that much needs to be made clear. However, it had the potential to be a killer app for Nintendo if more time were spent in development. This is still the game that the Survival Horror genre desperately needed and while it might not achieve what you could expect from a launch title, it certainly provides inspiration for the future.