Back in August I walked away from my brief bout with ZombiU distinctly unimpressed. An unresponsive combat mechanism and a clunky interface did nothing but alienate the user. That was no slight on the novel hardware (I’d just had a great time with Rayman on the same device), but rather the blame solely lay at the door of the developers. It was Red Steel all over again.
However, come the start of December, when I buckled horribly and broke into my penny jar to get a Wii U, I still held onto the hope that an extra couple of months incubation could turn things around. Yet even after playing through it, the answer isn’t clear cut.
Straight out the gate you’re still faced with the same punishing slowness that greeted me in the demo. Your movements are casually paced considering the undead are right on your heels, and you swing a cricket bat with such consideration that you’d expect the zombie’s skull to find the gap and head to the cover boundary for four. It feels wrong; there’s no urgency to any of your actions.
The difference between this and the demo however is that you have time to adapt. Fresh to the controls and asked to take down a veritable cavalcade of cadavers you would die horribly and repeatedly. At home, however, you have time to learn the nuances, adapt to the lethargic rise and fall of the bat, and find your feet in the world. Very aware of this, the early stages almost spoon-feed you zombies one by one in as low a risk situation as possible to get you used to it all.
Of course, low risk is a relative term. A single zombie on their own can be handled simply, easily pushed back and pummelled into submission, but it can still rip your throat out in an instant should it slip pass your defences. It’s a game where – and I found this out on a handful of occasions – a lack of concentration can see the end of your adventure end before you can recover. It makes you approach every situation and each new room with caution as you learn to both fear and respect the undead.
Tackling more than one target at a time needs serious consideration as wading in waving your bat will only buy you slithers of time. If possible, outliers need to be dealt with first, or sensible use of flares (zombies like light, it turns out) paired with grenades and fire bombs to get rid of groups. These are no silver bullets, however, and a looseness in the controls never guarantee that these tossed objects end up where intended. Should things go even slightly awry, genuine panic can set in as you know that your default melee weapon is next to useless against multiple assailants, and running might only delay the inevitable.
As a fall back you do gain access to a series of guns, but this is no Call of Duty. As you play a member of the general public you have no formal weapons training and that tells in the aiming. Headshots will not come from popping a dot over a zombie’s bonce, they either require a splash of luck or for your enemy to be virtually on top of you. Not something to be advised.
Helping out in the quest for survival is the Wii U gamepad, acting as your inventory and your radar, each equally adding to tension in their own unique way. The former allows you to switch which weapons you have quick access to, though never pausing the game. Whilst digging around in your backpack the camera swings round to show you against the background. Even if there are no actual zombies in sight they play on the mind, and if there is then, boy, does that pile the pressure on your fingers to pull out the right item; flourishing a chocolate bar won’t quite work the same as a Molotov cocktail.
When not rejigging your weaponry, the second screen alerts you to local threats. Creatures show up as red blips, allowing you to prepare for what’s round the corner. Yet almost cruelly it’s not just zombies but rats and crows, meaning you’re never quite sure what you’ll be facing. The sonar can also function as a scanner to try and help differentiate these from a distance, but line of sight is still required. Despite that, wandering down a corridor to suddenly hear a blip emanate from the pad can cause you to pause, whilst the sound of a chorus of blips reporting back can do more than that.
What all these component parts have in common is that none are flawlessly implemented. The inventory management can seem needlessly convoluted, your actions dawdling, the story full of holes. Respectively they have rough edges, minor failings that whilst never jarring are obvious enough to make you wish that ZombiU had had just a couple of extra months to get an extra level of polish. But by the same token they also add to the levels of tension and drama.
Not since the original Resident Evil or Fatal Frame have I felt truly unnerved playing a game. There are no cheap jump tricks on display here, the pressure and tension come from being pitted against a world that has gone to crap and the only object that you can truly trust is a faithful piece of English sporting equipment. The knowledge that you simply respawn back in your Safe House as a new character – though having lost all your backpack’s content – should the worse happen, does little to calm the nerves as you’re trudging around an unmapped sewer with a handful of blips that you prey turn out to be small and fluffy.
It’s a game that seems to have been built out of equal parts luck and judgement. For as much as I think the slow nature of the cricket bat’s rise and fall is a very clever feature, forcing you to truly understand combat and not just swing out wildly, there are many others that just raise questions as to how they settled upon that as a solution. Although either way it does not matter. Rather than question why what you’re playing is compelling there are times you should just stop over analysing things and settle in and enjoy it.