If ever you happen to see modern London's Buckingham Palace populated by restless Zombies, you'll know that Queen Elizabeth I adviser John Dee's apocalyptic "Black Prophecy," predicted for 2012 AD, has finally become true.
ZombiU is a grim, desperate game, both in story and gameplay, which seems inspired by FromSoftware's Souls games known for their rigor. Thus, even on the easiest difficulty level ("Chicken"), technical death is as frequent as it is irreversible: the last checkpoint cannot be reloaded and the scene repeated until proceeding, but the playable character too is zombiefied when bitten, and the player has to start over from the initial Safehouse with yet another expendable survivor, woken up to the cynical words of "The Prepper." Former army man (Royal Signals) The Prepper has adapted London's CCTV system to his advantage, which is not: instilling hope in the missioned survivors, and equips every spawned individual with the basic weapons, a wooden cricket bat and a revolver with six bullets, as well as a smart-map, a scanner, and a (upgradable) "Bug-Out Bag" (BOB), devices whose functions are all perfectly realized by the Wii U GamePad. The Prepper consecutively sends the all-in-one survivor to different locations—the Supermarket, the Royal Bunker, Buckingham Palace, Brick Lane Markets and Flats, Victoria Memorial Park, the Tower of London—where they'll pick up, among useful stuff like ammo, flares, mines, Molotov cocktails, the existence of two other of the game's protagonists, both having their impact on the story's outcome: Sondra Kelley, leader of the secret society of the "Ravens of Dee" who promises extraction, should we survive, and Dr. Knight, a Palace guard scientist tasked with finding a remedy to the outbreak, the Panacea, while having gotten infected himself. Collecting the Letters of Dee in which Dr. Knight is hoping to find evidence is a first optional, later main quest which leads our generic subsister sure but not safe through the different Zombie-infested areas, including Brick Lane, Baconfields, Spitalfields Green, all behind the back of The Prepper who doesn't believe in a cure for the long presaged outbreak. He doesn't like the Ravens of Dee, either, and once their member yet disagreeing on their objectives (“the Ravens couldn't even organize an orgy in a brothel”) substituted his own for their common interest, so that the player character's secret doings will later cause them being thrown out of the Safehouse: The Prepper will easily find another nameless pawn to secure his stocks instead.
The Prepper, Sondra, Dr. Knight, King Boris: we'll know the few identified protagonists better than our own blanket character (Andrew Cooper, Amy Moore), yet unlike other horror survival games as Dead Space or The Last of Us, ZombiU does not wish to establish emotional bonds with anybody: the own death is the main gameplay element, and survival time (reflected in the online Leaderboards) the one true objective.
However, unless playing on Survival difficulty which starts the game entirely from the begin after the demise of the only survivor, the game's well-thought-out saving system assures that death doesn't but mean dead end: whereas character progression is possible only along with time survived, story progress itself is being saved, as well as yet unlocked tools (Prepper Pad, hammer, lockpick, C4), weapon upgrades successively applied at the workbench—yet not the weapons themselves if not kept in the Safehouse container—, or the various fast-travel manhole shortcuts discovered when checking each area. Whilst effects on the damp environment are permanent: some story areas will stay cleared, whereas other transition ones are dynamically repopulated every time one passes by, including the occasional fellow player gone Zombie (if Miiverse is enabled), one of ZombiU's few alleviating aspects is that unlike games like Lone Survivor neither food—a rare energy drink or chocolate bar (even rat) is swallowed only for minor healing purposes—nor battery supplies are vital, but the flashlight recharges automatically after depleting its 99 units, preferably while in a dimly lit zone.
Players may also spray some iconic graffiti together with the message “Don't trust” on the walls, to advert others without revealing secrets, another detail that adds real-world realism to this game whose somber Londoner environment—a devastated Underground, the infested Buckingham Palace, deserted Parks, the brumous Tower bridge—makes one otherwise feel often quite alone.
Apart from a few English-humored details, the storyline is nothing of a well of cheerfulness: Vikram, the friendly guy at the Petrol Station—ending up eating his family he's just been asking antibiotics for; the young girl barricaded in St. George's Church—a trap, according to The Prepper; and “King of the Zombies” Boris—the typically sadistic chaos exploiter delightedly pitting hordes of brain-dead gladiators against captured survivors, including, of course, ourselves.
Yet if ever we'll make it until here, there will be some hope in the three different endings: Sondra won't betray us, whether we are able to retrieve the Panacea formula (A) or not (B), yet the most likely outcome is that of us dying (C), once again, before being able to reach the Tower of London and see the the prophetic “cleansing fire of Black Angels” (the RAF) bombarding the City...
One of the virtues of ZombiU is its ideal use of the Wii U GamePad: to see the growing map as well as our current objectives; our present random ID (name, age, sex), status (Current/High Score, Time Survived, Infected Killed, Survivors Played), and weapon skills; manage the frequently full backpack inventory (initially ten, plus six quick access slots, plus the 15 mission item ones); use the scanner's Augmented Reality to localize loots, doors, and Zombies; spray graffiti; or zoom in a scoped rifle. It does not, however, work ideally as controls for first-person weapon handling, and performing some perfunctory shooting and perforce well-timed melee thus does often result in an all the more frustrating experience, and even more so as one might have to quickly switch weapons in a moment of utter distress (e.g., first knocking off the helmet and then shooting off the head). Neither does using the GamePad's gyroscope scanner or opening the backpack permit regaining one's breath but getting attacked while thus momentarily immobilized might well make this be one's last one. This way, ZombiU's checkpoint-less system does as well contribute to the overall sensation of fear: not only of unknown dark spaces full of hostile Zombies, but also of losing all level progress and having to start with a new specimen again...
As frequently as possible making use of the fast-travel shortcuts to return to the Safehouse or later on, using one of the few Raven makeshift hideouts, in order to save the game while resting on the sleeping bag (which permits recovering full health) and store superfluous stuff in the metal container (30 slots) is highly recommendable. So if having to start over with a new random survivor, at least one can reclaim some of the precious (ammo, health) items previously stocked here, whereas no savegame ever permits retrieving a former character and level (even when managing to recuperate the former backpack inventory by killing one's own Zombie).
Whenever one catches a glimpse of the outside London the visuals look realistic with some atmospheric, anti-idyllic touch (fog and crows), while the dark underground areas serve above all functional needs, where one might deplore the repetition of some preset environmental elements—a small room with an old fridge and a ladder, dark staircases, a break in a graffitied brick wall—that make orientation, perhaps purposely, the more difficult at times.
It is so, to be sure, also without one's getting lost in tunnels and sewers: attacks out of the void—from behind, below, afar (spits)—eating off the last bit of health are frequent despite the GamePad's radar emitting a clicking sound that alerts one of nearby enemies, as well as the predictably scripted Zombie avalanche just when close to the objective, or the “jump scary” explosive fool right when having managed to find another medium health kit, as in the dreadful Nursery kitchen: no dramatic music here, either, to prepare one for a sudden rise in suspense.
Whoever doesn't find enough challenge in the Campaign with its different difficulty levels may also try out the three King of Zombies (local) multiplayer modes (Assault, Killing Box, Survival-- after unlocking “The last of them” Uplay achievement), for which one player has to act as King Boris strategically spawning Zombies via the GamePad in one of the five arenas at choice (Rooftops, Stadium, Metro, Bunker, Brick Lane), whereas the second player (using Pro Controller or Remote & Nunchuk) has to play the Survivor trying to wipe them out. Alternatively, one might chose getting oneself “zombified” in the self-explanatory Bonus feature called "Me As A Zombie."
“Prepare, for a small few shall be spared”: ZombiU is a scary and difficult survival horror game with a good, interesting story (Dead Space writer Antony Johnston, Gabrielle Shrager) and an intelligent gameplay making great use of the Wii U GamePad's possibilities, yet whose slow pace makes it require quite some patience to be played through.