When you aren't facing game-breaking glitches, ZombiU is a thrilling, genuinely scary ride.
Cons: Even scarier game-breaking glitches; Most combat encounters are a little too simple; Terrible, terrible name
I wanted to stop playing ZombiU at some point but I could not. I could have easily stopped playing, but I didn't want to.
If you've ever played a good survival horror game, you've perhaps felt the same way. You want to keep playing, to see what comes next, but you are absolutely terrified to go on. The greatest praise I can probably lavish on ZombiU as a horror title is that it managed to elicit such a response from me, despite being a modern AAA zombie game.
Remember when truly scary games could be released by big publishers? When horror game didn't mean action game with disgusting enemies? When Resident Evil and Dead Space weren't trying to be third person shooters (not that Dead Space really ever committed to horror)? For that matter, do you remember when zombies were scary (The Walking Dead excepted)? If you recall, there was a time when zombies weren't mindless cannon fodder that you could run over with a lawnmower in a mall.
ZombiU feels like a game from this lost era. Zombies take large chunks of your health very fast. They also take a while to kill with most weaponry. The few weapons that can kill them quickly are rare, tend to draw the attention of the horde, and should be saved for those special occasions where you truly need them. As a result, you need a good plan to take on more than one zombie at once. And if you are taking on more than two simultaneously, you should probably run. Fast.
But ZombiU isn't all old-school survival horror game. Smartly, it also borrows liberally from two of the scariest mainstream games of this generation: Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. Now, that might seem like an odd statement if you haven't played either game: after all, they're action RPGs, not horror games. But both of those games make death so easy for the careless, and put enough of a penalty in death to make it a legitimately scary prospect. They are designed to reward patience, and if you die, then you are out of your hard-earned souls unless you can reclaim your bloodstain.
ZombiU offers a very similar mechanic. As with the Souls games, you need to think carefully, and analyze each situation before you act (when possible). As with the Souls games, you will inevitably die. And similarly, death results in significant loss-in this case, your inventory. Any hard earned weapons, healing items, or items like flares will be gone unless you reach your old corpse without dying.
But ZombiU does subtly twist its many borrowed mechanics smartly. For instance, that corpse of yours is probably alive and hungering for flesh. Since each life is from the perspective of a new protagonist, you have to kill the old one to retrieve your stuff. And while ZombiU borrows the idea of connected single-player experiences from the Souls games, fighting other players' zombies is certainly a different variation.
ZombiU also does the most with the gamepad out of any Wii U title currently available. Not only does the touch screen serve as a mini-map, but it handles your inventory, your lockpicking, and scanning the environment. The key element in the last three is that they are all performed in real-time. If you are looting, lockpicking, or scanning the environment, you are vulnerable. Although I am still not sold on the GamePad being necessary for any of these functions, having to manage two screens in real time does make things slightly more intense, which is perfect for the game's tone.
Every design decision makes for a tense experience. Every moment walking through ZombiU's desolate, rugged environments is one spent alternately checking everything twice for safety, or dead. ZombiU actually isn't that hard of a game. It (once again, much like the Souls games) just demands that you respect it. If you don't cautiously think about each move you make and aren't prepared for anything, you will not succeed in this game, plain and simple. The game demands you full attention, but if you give it, then you are rewarded with detailed, spooky atmosphere, and some of the most rewardingly intense gameplay yet found on the Wii U.
But it's not without its caveats. First and foremost, most zombie encounters are pretty similar. ZombiU gets away with this in part because each encounter from the first until the last is a legitimate threat, but there's no denying that most encounters feel the same. It's not until the end of the game that you begin to see varied encounters that really force you to react fast and use your full arsenal. In truth, because tension is so well maintained, most people are probably not even going to notice the amount of repetition, and it's fairly excusable as long as things are still fun.
What's not excusable is the glitchiness of the experience. Again, I wanted to stop playing this game even when I was enjoying it. Part of this was because ZombiU can get pretty scary (there's a certain basement that will cause a shudder from anyone who's played the game). But the other part is because there are multiple places where your progress can get permanently blocked by a glitch.
I'm not unsympathetic about glitches either. Giant games like Skyrim are insanely hard to test, and goofy glitches get through. Sometimes you have a certain obscure set of actions that cause the tiniest subset of players to get stuck. Both of these are understandable given the challenges of development and won't ruin my opinion of the game, as unfortunate as the latter case is for those few players.
But I don't care if you have you had to hurry to meet a strict holiday deadline or not, the glitches in ZombiU are inexcusable. By simply dying at the wrong point in the game you can get permanently stuck. And there are multiple wrong points to die (part of what makes that basement so scary is the prospect of lost progress). ZombiU isn't a giant game and dying is not an obscure action, and these glitches should have been gone before release, so for four months to pass without a fix is just sad.
These glitches are honestly why I have trouble recommending ZombiU. Don't get me wrong, the game is pretty great. It's tense, scary, and respects the player. On content alone, it's an easy recommendation for horror fans looking for a good Wii U game to get. But it's just sad that a game gets released in this state. Maybe if the game gets patched, I'll give it ZombiU the extra point I want to give it (assuming I don't forget), and heartily recommend it. But I can't in good faith tell you that buying this game in its buggy state is a good idea. Only buy if you don't care about drastic glitches or if the game gets patched.