The survival horror genre is a balancing act. The player needs to feel fear and helplessness, but also needs satisfying ways to take action and combat those feelings. This harmony is something even the genre greats struggle with, but that hasn't stopped the first-person survival horror game ZombiU, the latest to throw its hat in the ring--and on a new console no less. However, its vision of a zombie-infested London not only fails to create an engaging horror experience, but also falls short of being a good game.
Combat is how you spend most of your time in ZombiU. Many environments are claustrophobic, your ability to run is limited, and the zombies can easily keep pace with your character at walking speed. Attempting to charge past the horde can lead to receiving some painful glancing hits or getting surrounded by the undead. The best course of action is to play it safe and dispatch all the zombies you encounter.
This means luring enemies away one by one and clobbering them with the cricket bat. This melee method can take a long time, since the number of hits needed to fell a foe changes randomly. And no one zombie, even the faster ones or the armored ones, poses an engaging threat individually. You just stand there, hitting and waiting. Tools such as flares and land mines break up the monotony, but their contribution is fleeting.
Firearms are faster and deadlier, but are not as readily available as the cricket bat. A shortage of weapons is not uncommon for the survival horror genre, but ZombiU’s emphasis on fighting makes this scarcity sting. New weapons and ammo are uncommon, and can be lost if your character dies and you cannot recover his or her backpack after respawning. A more cautious strategy is to hoard weapons away and circumvent this risk, relying solely on the cricket bat and pistol that new characters always start with.
Whether you choose to conserve your bullets or you use them as soon as you pick them up, most of your time spent fighting will be with the laborious cricket bat. Dispatching enemies this way is as repetitive as it is dull, and does not change throughout the entire campaign.
What does change are the protagonists. ZombiU takes an interesting approach by casting you as a new character every time you die, but struggles to stay consistent. In the beginning, your hero is taken in by the Prepper, a military man well versed in zombie survival (and conspiracy theories). But when that first character dies, the game's logic dies with him. It is not uncommon for the Prepper to yell at newcomers about issues they know nothing about.
Shouts of "I thought we were partners!" or "Why are you betraying me?" have zero context to a new arrival. Within the game's narrative, this person just got here. And since your hero is mute and disposable, all characters you encounter communicate at you, rather than with you (and they do not talk with each other). Everyone you meet is basically shouting at a very confused brick wall. This is not ideal for maintaining the unease and mystery of a horror story.
The Wii U gamepad functionality doesn't contribute much to the game. The pad’s functions include displaying the map and your inventory, and being the place where you tap to interact with things such as wooden barricades or manhole covers. When tapping on an object, you are treated to a reverse shot showing what’s going on behind your character. Every so often a zombie will shamble into frame, creating slight panic as you tap away.Other functions are simply better handled through traditional controller inputs. Cycling between weapons via touch screen or constantly dragging items to and from your backpack is not ideal. And scanning the environments for items means you do most of the exploration in a very detached, clinical way.
Sadly, what you do in that world is not very interesting. The vast majority of your missions boil down to simple fetch quests. Go here. Collect this. Return it. Any side quests are self-assigned item runs in case you lose a gun or need some extra supplies. The few puzzles you encounter are follow the same pattern: scan the walls for numbers to input on key pads. In the end, most of your time is spent lazily hitting zombies with cricket bats.
Thankfully, ZombiU's multiplayer works well. This local-only, two-player mode casts one player as the zombie king and the other as the survivor. Both players are trying to capture flags, but have wildly different play styles. The king deploys AI-controlled zombies from a top-down view on the touch screen, while the survivor kills those zombies and tries to survive the onslaught. Both sides earn rewards as the match progresses.
In this mode, the game's design really comes together. Individually, the different zombie classes aren't very interesting to fight. But in a large group their specific roles make for more fun and engaging encounters. The survivor player enjoys the challenge of these dynamic encounters and unloads with a full arsenal, which the zombie king strategizes with different groups of zombies. This high-action mode is the opposite of the rest of the game's design, and is infinitely more enjoyable.
ZombiU is a game trapped in the wrong genre. The run-and-gun multiplayer modes emphasize the game's competent shooting mechanics and ability to create interesting enemy encounters. However, these two aspects are discouraged in the single-player campaign for the sake of survival. To compensate, there's the bare minimum of a story and a few simple puzzles. And so much cricket bat. ZombiU could have been an enjoyable action game, but instead it is a poor entry in the survival horror genre.