Technically, ZombiU reviews can start hitting right now. Realistically, we won’t have a review until early in the coming week. Sorry about that. Too many Wii U games to try, to many system features to cover and too many snags with what could be a terrific, albeit imperfect game.
I can tell you some stuff…
I’ve been playing ZombiU on and off for several days. The short-short version is that the game is impressive and is, amazingly, something of a first-person Demon’s Souls with zombies. It’s very much a roguelike with lots of stat-building an perma-death. This is a very good thing.
You start the game as a survivor in a dark, disaster-struck London. You’re running from the newly undead. You get a cricket bat and a backpack and begin to receive instructions from a mysterious man who calls himself “The Prepper”. His voice emanates from the GamePad. He’s creepy, like the director from Rockstar’s Manhunt.
As you explore this dangerous version of London, you scavenge for weapons, health items and tools. The Prepper motivates you to explore farther. He sends you on missions to turn the power on or to get to a weapons cache in Buckingham Palace. He talks about a previous plague that hit London. This new one, oddly, seems to have stemmed from greed. It’s a financial crisis rendered as zombie apocalypse.
Zombies are everywhere in the game, and if you fight too many of them directly, you’ll likely die. When you do, your character becomes a zombie. You start back at the safe house as a new character. If you find your old zombie self and kill him or her, you can reclaim items that were in your backpack. That’s reminiscent of Demon’s Souls. So is the special spray-can that players are given that can be used to scrawl messages in the game world. Those messages supposedly will show up in other players’ versions of the single-player adventure. Another Demon’s Souls-ish idea: other players’ zombie selves can show up in your game. You can also track the performance of your zombie self/selves in games around the world.
Unfortunately, none of those features that required an online connection — the spray can, the crossing over of zombie characters from game to game — was accessible until a few hours before the Wii U launched last night.
Worse, earlier in the week I ran into two game-ruining bugs. The first occurred near the end of the game’s first supermarket mission. I was told to get back to the safe house; I tried and was killed. I spawned as a new character… in the safe house. The game’s voice-over suggested I’d made it back; the game’s quest log thought I hadn’t. I retraced my steps, but the game wouldn’t fix itself. I had to wipe my save. The second time I reached the end of the supermarket quest, my GamePad froze and my console emitted a shrill noise. I had to unplug the Wii U to fix that. This didn’t just set me back, but it got me worried about an otherwise-promising game. This morning, I loaded the game and immediately got a day one patch. Hopefully it will address these issues.
ZombiU has a lot going for it. Played with the GamePad, it controls as a twin-stick FPS, but it’s bolstered by the screen in the Wii U’s controller. That screen provides a lot of map data and can also display the contents of your character’s backpack. You can move things around with your finger and drag backpack items into quick-select holster spots. You need to access your inventory a lot, but there’s a catch. The game does not pause when you look down at the GamePad to, say, open up the backpack and grab a healing item. I a zombie is chasing you down (you can see them approaching your character on the TV), you’ll feel a lot of pressure. It’s a good kind of panic and shows how well the GamePad’s screen can improve the experience of a horror game.
The GamePad can also be held up and moved around like a scanner as if you’re suddenly inside the virtual world. This allows you to swiftly pan around a room your character is in to sniff out where new items are or aren’t. This beats having to walk to each filing cabinet or shelf and poke at each thing to see what’s there, Fallout-style.
The game is surprisingly full of good ideas and is designed for hardcore players who want a challenge. Death is a huge penalty, since you lose your items, most weapons and also any levelling up you did by using your guns. But respawning as a new character and trying to chase your old zombie self down is a lot of fun. Tense, nerve-wracking fun.
I’ve only played the game for a few hours, so I can’t give it a fair review. I don’t know if there will be more bugs, worse quests, better enemies, or even a whole new batch of good ideas. I can’t yet describe how well the online systems integrate into the game. There’s too much left unexplored, so for now, I hope these impressions help.
And in case you’re wondering, folks, I can at least tell you this: ZombiU is way better than the first Red Steel, Ubisoft’s equally hyped but immediately inferior launch game for the original Wii.