Developed by Ubisoft’s Montpellier studio and formerly known as Killer Freaks from Outer Space, ZombiU is an intense first-person survival horror game with some interesting ideas – not all of which pay off.
ZombiU takes place in London right after an epidemic has broken out, turning people into (you guessed it) zombies. Things start in a way that instantly brings Bioshock to mind – casting the player as a lone survivor being led by a mysterious voice over a loudspeaker. That mysterious voice ends up belonging to a man that calls himself The Prepper: a fellow survivor who continues to help you find supplies along your way, and is usually looking out for your best interests. Over the course of the game, you’ll pick up notes and newspapers to help flesh out the storyline will leave you to speculate how the epidemic came about. So obviously, things aren’t going good, and your goal is to try and get out of London alive.
My favorite aspect of ZombiU revolves around how it handles death. Every single time you die, you come back as a new character and are able to seek out your previous avatar – who is now a member of the undead – kill them, and loot their corpse to get your weapons and gear back. This can prove to be difficult, particularly if you end up dying in a horde of zombies; you’ll have just added one more member to their posse.
All of the characters you play as are silent, random survivors. The only info or backstory the game gives you about them are their names and occupation, which never get referenced after spawning. These details don’t have any impact on the story, and never made me care any more about who I was playing as. The most you’ll ever get attached to your avatar is when you’ve spent lots of time building up their firearms skills only for them to wind up dead and have to start right back where you began as someone else.
There are other interesting characters you’ll meet along your way, but The Prepper is basically the main character and drives the story. One thing about The Prepper struck me as odd: he treats all your new survivors like they were the last. He refers to your previous characters’ actions as your own, a small plot-hole that took me out of the game a little bit.
It’s great how ZombiU handles its online features. As you’re wandering through the game, you’ll come across the zombies of fallen friends or online players. Above those particular zombies, you’ll see that player’s name and their score. Usually, the higher the score, the better loot you’ll find on their bodies – something that can be helpful in a pinch when you run out of health packs and you’re far away from a safehouse. Other players can also leave each other vague “don’t trust” messages with icons like skulls or happy faces on walls or next to doors to indicate if certain areas are safe or not – similar to the mechanic employed in From Software’s Dark Souls. The messages can either help other players, or lure them into a trap. To be honest, I ended up ignoring all of them; it was easier to just play carefully for the entire game instead
A nice aspect of ZombiU is how it handles looting, picking locks and scanning the environment. None of these actions actually pause the game. Instead, they all require you to look directly at the gamepad and interact with it in real time, leaving your character vulnerable to attack. While doing these activities, however, your character is shown in third person on your television, the camera angled so you can see your immediate surroundings. If you’re neurotic like me, you’ll find yourself constantly looking up at the screen while you’re healing or trying to decide how to fit a new gun in your inventory. But regardless of how cautious I was, I still got scared shitless by random zombies stalking me, or others crawling through vents. You can also upgrade your gamepad to act as a radar that beeps when zombies are near, similar to the motion trackers in . Once you get it, it rarely stops beeping – something may or may not annoy the hell out of you.
Your only melee weapon in the game is a trusty old cricket bat. After getting a feel for how it handles and swings, it’s fun, but over time it gets repetitive. It’s not particularly powerful, so all of the zombies take several hits to knock down. After doing it for the 40th time, it becomes tedious rather than fun; I wish you could upgrade it or build up your melee skill level to mix things up a little. The melee combat can also be annoying, because every other swing you throw, your character lets out a loud grunt. You WILL swing the cricket bat a lot…
Movement and gunplay in ZombiU feel very stiff, which can make it difficult during the many highly intense situations the game throws at you. I had a hard time lining up headshots on the first try, which caused me to shove zombies out of the way once or twice in order to get a good shot. For as little ammo as this game throws at you, there are over a dozen ranged weapons to offer, all of which are upgradable. I had an easier time with the ammo management after I ran into another player’s zombie. After killing them, they dropped a ridiculous amount of ammo that kept me stocked up for quite a while. This actually slightly broke the game for the next hour as I dumped all of my extra bullets into zombies. For a survival horror game that’s all about making the player feel threatened, suddenly being overpowered spoiled the carefully-crafted atmosphere.
ZombiU will get you on many jump scares, as well as freak you out on a regular basis. You’ll walk into a new room and hear the moan of a zombie getting louder and louder as they move frantically towards you. You can’t always see them – which makes it that much more terrifying – but they always seem to find you, more often than not when you least expect it. My hands let off a lot more sweat than usual playing ZombiU compared to most other games. Even some of the puzzles are creepy; scanning blood smears with a black light that have you lining up symbols together on several different objects from a specific view were a particularly clever touch.
The exploration in ZombiU is designed a bit like Metroid, but instead of finding a missile to blast to a new area you’ll find lockpicks or upgrade your iPad-like scanning device to open new doors. The newly unlocked locales usually aren’t that expansive, however. Many areas tend to be bland and irritatingly similar and you’ll wonder if you’re going the right way, or if you got turned around because the area looks far too much like where you’ve just come from. The tunnels to the safe house are a perfect example of this, being almost carbon copies of each other. Despite this though, some manage to stand out; a school you visit sticks in the mind as one of the creepiest video game experiences I’ve ever had, for example.
Despite many of ZombiU‘s shortcomings, overall it’s a unique, enjoyable, and scary endeavor. The atmosphere is unsettling at times and it managed to secure a place in my personal list of the top 10 horror games I’ve ever played. If other games implement the gamepad like ZombiU does, I look forward to playing them.