ZombiU is a smart and engaging exploration of what Nintendo’s strange new machine can muster. Historically, thirdparty releases on a console launch day have been chequered and timid affairs made by inexperienced teams fearful of losing their footing on unknown terrain. When Ubisoft Montpellier’s ZombiU works in smart union with its host console, however, it frequently delights.
London has been ravaged by a zombie plague, and the shambling husks of its businessmen, Beefeaters and tracksuit-garbed working classes make for tough opposition. A single zombie must be dispatched with five or six cricket bat blows to the head, and even then a final coup de grâce is required once the creature’s on the floor. When faced with a crowd, running and slamming doors behind you is often your best option. Ammo is scarce, health depletes in worryingly large chunks and the virus can be passed on with little warning.
Your light source gradually runs out, meaning that at some point you’ll have to stand in the dark waiting for it to recharge
As a survivor (or, rather, a sequence of survivors), you’re guided by the voice of an ex-squaddie known as the Prepper – a Yorkshireman who chunters from a tinny radio within your GamePad. Operating from a central safehouse deep in the London Underground, your quest is an odd mix of survival objectives and discovering the overarching intentions of the followers of Elizabethan occultist and academic John Dee. You must carefully tread through zombie-packed hubs, some tourist spots and a few housing estates. Throughout it all, your primary objective isn’t just the plot MacGuffin you’re after, but to also find the save points and manhole shortcuts that will make your progress secure.
ZombiU’s gloomy colour palette isn’t the only area of the game that’s deeply in hock to Dark Souls: death for your character is final, so your first task after respawning is always to tramp back through areas to reclaim your lost gear. Armed with a mere six pistol rounds and a willow bat, respawning is a grisly process that invariably involves murdering your former zombie self. It’s a somewhat lightweight variant of what Hidetaka Miyazaki acolytes have come to adore, yes, but this trick can help the game ratchet up to a remarkable level of tension. Fear of lost ground and fear of losing your gradually levelling character’s abilities keeps you alert, involved and deep-set within a survival mindset that an autosave safety net would dispel.
It’s Wii U’s GamePad that conspires to make this game impossible on other platforms, its subtle art being to divert your attention from the primary screen. When you, for example, reorganise your inventory, you must touch-and-drag weapons, health packs and molotovs into easy-access slots on its screen, but up on the main display you’re still vulnerable. As such, whether you’re picking locks or inputting puzzle codes, you’re forever worriedly peeking back up to the main screen to check the shadows. Very often those shadows move.