ZombiU is a re-imagining of the very first game that Ubisoft ever published, and represents a back-to-basics approach of the best kind. No timid attempt at carving off a slice of the bloated zombie market, ZombiU takes a new path - one that cuts a swathe through the horde. If it's not quite perfect then that's no terrible criticism, and whatever else, it is one hell of a launch title.
The concept of ZombiU comes down to an overly familiar combination of words: survival horror. Discounting the Day Z mod (which is quite distinct from this), it's been a long time since zombies have lived up to that idea. ZombiU's zombis [sic.] are the classic shambler - slow-moving but relentless when roused, invulnerable to anything but headshots and invariably deadly up-close. It's a game where you have to remain in total control of every encounter, or death follows.
The first time I died in ZombiU was during the tutorial. Surrounded by zombis, I dashed to a ladder under the instructions of a mysterious cockney. The first-person perspective showed my hands gripping the rungs and movement upwards: relief. Except the view then jerked downwards to a zombi grabbing my leg - which began clumsily grasping my waist as I kicked out at its mouth, panicking. We both fell, the viewpoint hitting the ground at 90 degrees with a dull thud. I scrambled up and, facing another two zombis, tried to go for the ladder again. First, and last, mistake. I was hauled down again and, this time, unceremoniously mauled.
Dying during the tutorial always gets a thumbs-up from me, and the way ZombiU handles it is even better. The game restarts at its next stage, a base constructed in Shadwell tube station - ZombiU is set in London - and 'manned' by the same disembodied voice, who calls himself the Prepper. Death in ZombiU is permanent, with that character and whatever they're carrying remaining at the point they fell. You respawn back at Shadwell as the next survivor. You're given their name, age and occupation; they'll be wearing career-specific duds and have slightly varying base stats. The latter distinctions are so slight they don't make a substantial difference, but you'll notice certain characters can sprint longer or have a stronger melee.
This aspect of ZombiU is beautifully handled, with the previous character turning into a zombi and wandering undead where they fell. The next survivor spawns with basic weapons (there's also a lockbox at base to store things across characters) and your first mission is always the same: find your previous self and stove its head in with a cricket bat.
The influence of Demon's Souls' and Dark Souls' bloodstains is obvious, though it's worth remembering that the original Zombi had a similar mechanic. ZombiU further tweaks the idea to suit its setting, however. There can only be one dead character at a time, so if you die on the way to retrieving stuff, then it's gone forever. Anything from combat shotguns to mission-specific items can be lost, leading to truly fraught backpack hunts - die in the midst of a horde, and you just become part of it. Now pick that pack out. If you lose grade A goodies, ZombiU respawns everything in the area it was originally found but not the exact same place. When combined with the semi-random zombi placement, it's a neat system that makes revisiting areas more than a re-run, and valuables all the more meaningful.
"Areas gradually unlock their shortcuts and secrets, meaning you begin to feel like an experienced runner - knowing the turf, planning the fastest route, then thinking on your feet when things go wrong."
These tricks are essential, because achieving the Prepper's goals depends on much criss-crossing of ZombiU's world. Another well-implemented part of its design is how the areas gradually unlock their shortcuts and secrets, meaning you begin to feel a little like an experienced runner - knowing the turf, planning the fastest route, then thinking on your feet when things go wrong. The randomised enemy placement, which plays well with the game's sprinkling of set-pieces, means you can never be quite certain about what's around the next corner.
ZombiU does a good job of keeping things fresh, but there's no doubt that certain stretches become a little too familiar, while other layouts are so similar they can confuse: a particular U-shaped room re-used at various entrances often sets your head spinning. Despite this, the zombi threat makes every journey a slightly different one, even if it's only the blessed relief that you can sprint straight through.
The zombis are the best thing about ZombiU, a foe that's easy to manipulate but even easier to underestimate. In a straight one-on-one fight you'll rarely die to one, though their 'grab' move is an insta-kill, but it's a question of hitting them umpteen times with a bat before they go down - a satisfying, but terribly slow, process. You can see the problem. Any more than one zombi makes the bat next to useless, and firearms just attract more attention. It is this rhythm of a controlled engagement escalating beyond your means, often thanks to the bad decisions made while trying to deal with it, that turns an otherwise rudimentary combat system into something special.
This is an interesting part of ZombiU's design - the combat system is well-engineered and responsive but the guns are difficult to use effectively. Characteristics like kickback mean panicked trigger-pumping is terribly wasteful, but the essential headshots take time you rarely have. More often than not, you'll stand your ground and wish you hadn't. Every shot counts in ZombiU - especially the missed ones.
This goes double because ammo is such a scarce commodity, which makes firearms simultaneously your least-used and most precious possession. The guns are a pretty common selection (pistols, assault rifles, crossbows, shotguns, snipers) but alongside the even-rarer grenades and Molotov cocktails, they're the only way to survive large engagements. Regardless of how carefully you play ZombiU, moments always arrive where the only option is to fight, and whether you've kept something back for an emergency makes all the difference. As he points out, your boss isn't called the Prepper for nothing.
The resource-management side of ZombiU is the most direct link between the on-screen action and the Wii U GamePad. Your backpack's on the pad screen and whenever you loot a container or corpse you have to swipe the objects you want into it. This is a much neater touch than it sounds, because on-screen the character can be seen rummaging through things with an angle on what's behind them. ZombiU is very restrained in how it takes advantage of these moments, which means that on the few occasions you see a Zombi shuffling onto the TV screen mid-rummage, it comes as a big fright.
The map is also on the pad screen, which brings out another side of ZombiU's world. It's great not having to open a menu or squint at an on-screen corner, but it's when you have to take your eyes off the situation that the ambient groans and moans of this wasted London really filter through. One exquisite touch in ZombiU is the player character's breathing, which responds in some way to what's happening - calm and measured when safe, nervous and panicky near unaware enemies and all-out terror during battles.
This is a game full of great details, many of which involve the GamePad. I imagine that in a year's time, the idea of scanning a room Metroid Prime-style will be the new waggle, but in ZombiU it feels fantastic, pulling you into the environments that little bit more. The sniper is shot via the GamePad, with the sights coming up and aiming done entirely through an on-screen zoom and (flawless) tilt controls.
"ZombiU isn't the obligatory FPS launch title, but an original twist on the genre that has no console equivalent. "
There really isn't much wrong with ZombiU. The later zombis are a matter of taste, foregoing the game's grittier style for things like a rather generic lightning zombi or one that explodes when it gets too close. I also didn't find the narrative's mysteries especially engaging, though the way the story is told through both environmental details and different sources is skilfully done.
Sometimes, ZombiU will catch you so off-guard with an event that there's little chance of surviving it. Now, that is frustrating. But isn't it great at the same time? It's a game brave enough to punish sloppy preparation and rushing in recklessly. The Prepper says something every time a character dies (I went through 34) and it's usually about how you weren't paying enough attention to his advice. On one respawn, I was in such a hurry to get back that I ran into the first zombi mob and got killed instantly. "Good riddance," he said.
I'd always wondered why ZombiU was one of the Wii U's pack-in games, and finally it makes sense. ZombiU isn't the obligatory FPS launch title, but an original twist on the genre that has no console equivalent. It's not quite a revolution, lacking the scope and variety of mechanics to compete with high watermarks like Half-Life 2. But that should take nothing away from Ubisoft's achievement, and the success or otherwise of ZombiU could be defining for Wii U.
You see it in the smart plot-twists, hear it in the ambient weeping of an unknown monster, or try to ignore it in the frantic whispering of a terrified survivor near their end. Perhaps Nintendo's new strategy for tempting gamers, it all seems to say, is more about brains than brawn.
Zombi U was played for review over two days at Ubisoft's UK offices before we received our own Wii U. Eurogamer paid all travel and accommodation costs.