Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Defense: ZombiU

ZombiU was released alongside Nintendo's Wii U console in November, with a mature and hardcore game style and what appeared to be truly horrifying elements that seem to be so absent in zombie-focused games as of late. Ubisoft's title received a pretty mixed reception from review sites and other publications, which I can somewhat understand as it depends largely upon the expectations of the player. These reviews ranged from about a 3.5 all the way up to a 9 out of ten, which really illustrates the divergence of review scores. I've touched on this game briefly in one of my more recent entries, but having just begun ZombiU's Survival mode and becoming absolutely hooked all over again, I decided that it's a game that very much deserves a write up all to itself, so here are my two cents: ZombiU is fucking sweet.

The game is observed from an FPS view, and set in a post-outbreak region of London, where you begin as a character scavenging and attempting to survive. This character has a random name, race, occupation, and gender, which is a neat touch and something I'll elaborate on later. After being saved by a mysterious man known as The Prepper, you arrive in a zombie-free base of operations known as the safehouse where you can save your game or store items. You are immediately provided with a device called the Prepper Pad, a device that was apparently created by the man himself, and are provided the task to steal a Bug-Out Bag (B.O.B. for short) from a...not-so-fortunate previous survivor. The bag is strapped to a zombie who happens to be stuck in a window, and luckily there's a cricket bat nearby to smash the poor bastard's skull.

From this point on, your BOB and Prepper Pad (i.e. the Wii U Gamepad) are your best friends. The Prepper Pad will function as a map and a radar system, so it's integral that you keep an eye on it. You can also organize items in your BOB using the Pad, as well as read any documents you find, check your stats, and keep track of your leveling progress (more on that later). Managing your bag's inventory is ridiculously important, as you have to make sure you're well prepared for whatever could be lurking around the corner. Item management is limited to a handful of slots in your backpack at the beginning, as well as 6 "quick slots" where you can always have items available to you.

Basically, your TV acts as your FPS viewpoint...standard stuff. The Wii U Gamepad will constantly show a map and other information that you wish to access. Laid out in the corners of the Gamepad screen and overtop of this map are your quick item slots, where your items are available simply by tapping them with your finger. Thus, placing important items such as firearms and medkits in these slots is a damn good idea. You don't want "cake" in your quick item slots, when you have a Molotov cocktail that could be there instead. Items are found by looting lockers, containers, suitcases, the dead, and the undead...but loot is very hard to come by. Ammo won't appear very often, which makes it all the more important and relieving when you locate it, but it also makes you cringe every time you waste a shot. In addition, whenever you loot something, you're forced to look down at the GamePad to move your inventory around...while your panicking character is helpless on the main screen. A zombie can sneak up on you and chomp you while you're messing around with your inventory screen, so it's worth it to hurry the hell up! The game makes you look frantically from your GamePad to your TV screen and back again, which really adds to the feel that you're rifling through your backpack and simultaneously keeping an eye out for shambling dead people.

This pack of three zombies would definitely be stressful.

The Pad also comes with another key function: scanning. You can scan your environment and mark items on your map. These include lootable containers, doorways, and even the undead themselves. Marking the objects in your surroundings can provide you with a lot of key information on how to tackle the situation. Hell, the pad will even tell you if a container holds anything worth checking out or not, so you can decide if you even need to examine it. You also have a pinging radar function, which will send a blip out from your location and briefly highlight any infected in range, so you at least have some idea of what you're walking into. It's a very, very handy item, and it's good to see the Gamepad used extremely well in one of the very first games for the system.

In addition, the Wii U Gamepad is used in a variety of other specific situations. For example, you may come across a door with a keypad that requires a code to open. Your Gamepad's screen will display the keypad so you can just touch the buttons and enter the combination in yourself. Remember that hunting crossbow you picked up? Hold the Pad up vertically while you're aiming down the sights of that sucker and you'll peer through a zooming scope. For the most part, these interactions are pretty darn cool, but there are a few missteps. One example that I found rather weak was the use of a syringe which you acquire halfway through the game. This syringe is used to extract virucide from fallen zombies, which will save your life once if you're grabbed by one of the undead. This needs to be refilled after every use, so you need to locate a zombie to extract this miracle chemical from. When you find one, the Gamepad brings up a picture of a syringe...and I sort of thought that you'd touch the handle and pull your finger across the screen to draw the chemical out. However, you instead just rapidly tap the screen about 8 times to extract the virucide. It's a very small issue, but it would have been cool if some of these minor Gamepad uses were a bit more planned out. Far from game-breaking though!

This game is very slow-paced and methodical for the most part. Your character doesn't move very quickly, and can only sprint for a limited duration. Zombies are also slow, but if you're careless and you let one get the better of you, you'll be taken down extremely quickly. Two or three zombies have a damn good chance of killing your character, and swarms of 6 or 7 are almost a death sentence unless you have a plan. It's at this point that I'd like to highlight something. Lately, zombies have been in every fuckin' game and movie under the sun, generally reducing their impact on the player or observer. Zombies are pretty much the only enemy type found in ZombiU, which would at first make you think that you'd tire of them. However, the fact that even one zombie is enough to kill you in a couple of good hits if you're sloppy makes you fear every single encounter, even with the most pathetic-looking undead human husk. There are a couple of variations as well, such as a Spitter zombie with a ranged attack and a Riot zombie which has heavy armor on that you must get through before you can start dealing damage. You genuinely feel tense every time you run into a walking corpse, and you'll absolutely avoid running headlong into a group of them in an attempt to Rambo your way through the game. That tactic simply doesn't work, and it's fucking fantastic that it doesn't!

So it's very, VERY likely that you'll die. When you're killed, your viewpoint shifts to that of a brand new randomly-generated survivor who wakes up back at the safehouse; some other poor soul that the Prepper managed to save, I suppose. All your items will be gone, as well as your weapon level progression. If you're lucky, you can re-locate the now-zombified version of your previous survivor and put them out of their misery, allowing you to reclaim all of your prized possessions. However, if you die again on the way there without reaching your lost items, they'll be gone for good. ZombiU doesn't fuck around, and rather than simply making you gun down opponents, it keeps you thinking every step of the way. Also, just so you're aware, ZombiU can actually be genuinely frightening at times. Scary shit will happen frequently, which is only compounded by the tension you're already feeling by trying to survive, so definitely play this one in the dark with the sound cranked!

Get the hell away from me!

Since I've mentioned leveling up a few times, I'll expand on it a bit. When you use a firearm to bust the brains of a zombie, your proficiency with that weapon type will increase. For example, once you've put down enough zombies with a handgun, your handgun proficiency will increase and your aiming, accuracy, and reload speed with all handguns will all gain a boost. Just remember that once you're killed and begin as a brand spanking new survivor, that progress is all gone. Only story-relevant occurrences are retained, otherwise you'd repeat story segments for every single survivor. In addition to leveling up with weapon use, you can also outfit weapons with upgrades that you locate throughout the game. These can reduce your firing spread, increase clip size, boost the firepower or decrease your reload time. Again, however, these upgrades can be lost with an unfortunate death, so you'd better put them to good use while you've got them. As you can see, every reward is counteracted by the constant threat of immediate loss, which makes every single item count and feel more integral overall.

The game layout is non-linear, and you have many places to visit and backtrack to. You'll find yourself in an apartment complex one moment and a sketchy nursery the next, and you can return to these areas at will if you want to scavenge for more items...but you have to watch for more zombies. This structure gives the game a small Metroid-inspired feel to it, and you'll find yourself creating mental notes of where certain things are so you can come back to them later, once you've found an upgrade.

Reviews have been really mixed with respect to the graphical presentation and sound effects, but I find both to be very well-made. The environment and locations look amazing and really capture the essence of London proper, and great touches like heavy downpours and great fire effects really heighten the experience. The sound effects are pretty darn good, except for some repetition of your character's noises when he or she swings the cricket bat in rapid succession. However, it sort of adds to the tension, as their grunts and screams become more and more panicked with each successive swing. Other sound effects are top notch, and voice work is also very well-done. That being said, there a few strange glitches every so often, which are mainly physics-based. Zombies can act a bit strange on staircases and in some other situations, and as of right now, there's actually one known game-breaking glitch which I have yet to encounter. However, a patch is on the way shortly and I believe it'll fix everything up!

There are a few multiplayer modes in ZombiU, and the Wii U GamePad makes them a pretty interesting experience. All modes allow for two players and are competitive, with one player using the GamePad and the other using a Wii Remote and Nunchuck or the sleek, awesome-feeling Pro Controller. Basically, the player with the Pro Controller runs around a stage and tries to complete objectives, which can range from capturing points to simply surviving as long as possible. The player who holds the GamePad, however, has a top-down perspective on the stage and is dubbed the "King of the Zombies." They can select different zombie types and place them around the map in an attempt to kill the other player. As they place zombies, the King will also level up and gain access to abilities or new zombie types. In all honesty, it's pretty fuckin' fun! Outwitting the other player is a blast, and this really shows the asymmetrical gameplay that Nintendo has been touting with the release of this system.

The cricket bat is your best friend, so get used to it.

Another multiplayer function is also present, but in a rather passive form. As you progress through the game, you may encounter special zombies which glow red and take a lot of punishment before they hit the ground. These often have a name above their head, which is the screen name of another player somewhere around the globe who died in the area that you encounter the zombie in. If you smash these special zombies, you can loot them for whatever items the player was carrying when they were waxed, which can provide a huge boost to your inventory if you're lucky! You will also eventually find a spray can as you progress in the single-player mode. This allows you to spray graffiti on the walls, which function as messages that can be read by other ZombiU players. Obviously you can use this to help people, as well as mess them up. These two mechanics are directly inspired by the online functionality in Dark Souls, which is pretty damn cool in and of itself!

If this all doesn't sound hardcore enough already, then maybe you'll be interested in Survival mode. This mode is unlocked upon your first completion of the game, and tasks you with completing the ENTIRE game (fairly lengthy, but not ridiculously so) without dying even once. You have no spare survivors that you take over upon death, and zombies seem to be a little bit tougher as well. If you're killed, that's it. You've gotta start the game over. I just recently went back and began playing through the game in Survivor mode, and I have to say that it's a very cool experience. Your stress level is constantly through the roof, and you're constantly thinking about every situation and re-organizing your inventory in an attempt to optimize your trek through the streets of London. It's a very unique and challenging game mode and I can't wait to finish it up.

That's the bulk of my review! However, I'd like to address some things that I've seen certain reviews complaining about. The first issue I'd like to address is the use of the cricket bat as your only melee weapon. For some people, this appears to be really irritating...but I have no issue with the repeated use of the cricket bat. It's your one fall-back weapon, and it's always there. It never runs out of ammo, never needs to be reloaded, and it never breaks or needs to be replaced. The swinging animation may seem repetitive at first, but this allows you to get used to the weapon such that you're not afraid to use it as much anymore. I equate the cricket bat in ZombiU to your sword in a Zelda game. As you use it more and more, you learn the timing and range perfectly and can bust it out in every encounter, without hesitation.

The other issue I've observed is that some reviewers were clearly expecting this game to be more of a run and gun experience. ZombiU is the exact opposite of that. Every move you make needs to be deliberate and well-planned. You need to observe your surroundings carefully if you want to succeed, rather than just stock up on bullets and blast your way through. Any player going into ZombiU expecting a fast-paced kind of experience will be disappointed. This game is a survival horror experience right down to its core, and a very tough and unforgiving one at that. If you choose to pick ZombiU up, perhaps as a part of the recently-announced bundle with the Wii U game system, just be sure you know what you're getting into!


The Bottom Line

ZombiU is a hardcore game that finally makes zombies feel fresh again. In the current gaming environment where zombies are in every fucking game, that's a pretty big feat in and of itself. ZombiU is also one of the best "true" survival horror games in years, and despite having a couple of extremely small flaws and glitches, it's the kind of experience that you don't want to miss out on if survival horror is your kind of thing. It's a shining example of what the Wii U Gamepad can be used for, even if a few of those uses fall a bit flat, and the gameplay itself is tight and well-executed. Graphics and sound are damn good, if that's the kind of thing you play games for, and the overall atmosphere of the game really benefits from the spectacular presentation.

ZombiU gets a 9/10 from DtC.