More than just the bridges of London have fallen down. The entire England capital has fallen. Zombies prowl the streets eating brains and maiming those that get away, spreading their infection across the city. Those uninfected are doing the best they can to survive, and the streets of London are being watched by an ex-military man known only as the Prepper. You play as a random survivor being guided by the Prepper to go out and find supplies and keep the safe house guarded. It's a given that you will not live long, but don't worry if you die. Another survivor will be right there waiting to take your place.
ZombiU can best be described as Demon's Souls with zombies. As with Demon's Souls, ZombiU features a permadeath gameplay mechanic. When you die, you stay dead. You respawn as a new random survivor, while your previous body is now a zombie roaming about where you last died. If you're able to kill it, you can loot its pack (called a B.O.B., which stands for Bug Out Bag) and get your gear back. If you die, however, then it's all lost. ZombiU punishes playing recklessly and promotes caution and methodical progression. There's really nothing more frustrating then getting yourself ambushed and losing a weapon stash for good, so you find yourself forcing to take baby steps.
This kind of gameplay will go against the grain of people eager to run into a zombie game with the hopes of shooting holes in skulls and blowing things up. There are, of course, a few moments in this game, but they are few and far between. Guns are rare and ammo is scarce, as it should be in a survival horror game, so you'll need to become intimate with your standalone melee weapon, the cricket bat. Herein lies the problem. The combat is so dreadfully boring and the swinging is inconsistent. Zombies can go down in as little as one shot, or require up to nine swings to put down for good. Your character has no control over the way he swings the bat, and some of his swings are fast while others are slow causing errors in timing that could result in an untimely death. That's just no fun. Also, you'll never be granted any other melee weapon, which means its cricket bat for life.
But this is survival horror. If you could just run around killing zombies with no trouble at all, the tension would be lost. The meleeing is a double-edged sword because although it is monotonous, it also makes each encounter seem that much more personal. You'll want to horde your weapons as every gun and bullet you find feels like a blessing from the Almighty. The game also gives you several tools to ward off and dispatch zombies from flares to Molotov cocktails to grenades. You can even use planks to board up doors to either give yourself more time to prepare for the next fight or simply run for your life. A good portion of the game is comprised of close corridors, but there are also a fair number of open areas with many ways to give your undead pursers the slip.
The best way to play, however, is preventing yourself from getting ambushed, and that's where the Wii U's tablet controller comes in, which is called the Prepper Pad in-game. It shows the map of the level you're in, provided you've hacked the corresponding CCTV junction box, and you can use it as a radar pinging for signs of movement. This allows you to get a feel for what's waiting around the corner. You can find upgrades for your Prepper Pad, one of which is automatic pinging that becomes a godsend later on. Inventory management is controlled here, but since the tablet's screen is pressure sensitive and not capacitive like real tablets and smart phones, some of your inputs may not register. The tablet also acts as a scanner highlighting items lying about and using UV light to reveal hidden messages. There are times where you'll need to interact with it to punch in a key code, lock pick a door, remove a barrier or a manhole cover. These interactions, though, are really nothing too exciting.
Another way ZombiU is like Demon's Souls is its real time hint giving. Once you find the spray can, you can tag symbols on walls letting someone know in their own game what might be coming up ahead. Is there a zombie waiting for you, or is a much needed bed? You can also come across your own friends' zombies as they die in their own games. As with your own, you can kill them and loot their packs for the goodies. Fortunately for them, they won't lose their gear just because you collected it first. As with all Wii U games, Miiverse plays an integral part of the community aspect, because there are a number of active gamers asking and answering questions about the game.
If you're disappointed with how little shooting the campaign affords you, you can always grab a buddy and play the multiplayer mode Survivors vs Zombies. In this mode, one player uses the tablet controller to place different types of zombies to capture flags while trying to kill the survivor, while the other player focus on surviving and capturing his own flags using a pro controller or a remote and nunchuck combo. The survivor racks up kills to earn gifts giving him that much more firepower with which to kill. It's a direct contrast the slower paced campaign.
Graphically, ZombiU is not the title you'll want to show off your new Wii U to friends and family with. The game is dark and murky most of the time, so a lot of the textures appear muddy and not very sharp. There's constant clipping issues with zombie parts moving through walls and doors. Physics can be quite ridiculous as bodies sometimes bounce into the air from a smack of the cricket bat on top of the stairs. The animations are almost entirely uniform across all zombie types, and the special effects are average at best. It's very gory at least, with blood and bits splattering everywhere staining your character each time you cave in a skull, but it loses its impact as you watch it fade away. Given more development time, ZombiU could have looked far better than what it is now.
The sound design fares much better. The music knows precisely when to cue in, delivering violins to build up the tension of an incoming zombie attack and pianos banging as the game delivers a jump-out-and-scare you moment. The game's ambiance can be very quiet at times, which magnifies a subtle noises's ability to disturb you that much more. Hearing your Prepper Pad suddenly come alive with multiple pings is enough to get your hair standing on end. The only draw back with the audio is the many yells and grunts both you and your zombies illicit become overused very quickly. Still, ZombiU does an excellent job establishing atmosphere because of its audio.
It's easy to see that ZombiU isn't a fleshed out game. It's far from unplayable but it lacks the cohesion and focus of better survival horror games. It should be applauded for its unique take on the genre, but admonished for its piss poor execution on melee combat. As with Demon's Souls, it's not a game for the impatient and easily frustrated, so its addictive nature applies only to the determined. ZombiU also contains a mode called Survivor that only lets you die once and at the time of this writing, the developers have claimed no one has finished it. Whether or not you can put up with the game's shortcomings, one thing's for certain: the game can be frighteningly scary. If you have a Wii U and are interested in ZombiU, approach this game as you would play it: with caution.