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Overabundant and stagnant, the zombie can be kind of an ironic symbol for the prevalence of its own genre in pop culture. Films, comics, television and video games that focus on various zombie apocalypse scenarios (I'm hoping the term “Zom-Poc” catches on) are as numerous as the featured creatures themselves.
ZombiU is challenged with making itself stand out amidst the ever-growing horde of zombie games, but is rather uniquely burdened as well. As a launch title, it's expected to showcase both the graphical power of the Wii U, and the capabilities of its quirky controller. On top of that, it carries the responsibility of being the "hardcore" poster-child for a system trying desperately to win back that audience.
That’s a lot of expectation for one game to live up to, and ZombiU does a decent job of proving itself.
The image of the Palace Guard zombie is immediately striking, and it sets the tone well. London is a city rich with history and iconography, and seeing these elegant symbols amid the chaos is unnerving.
It's surreal to fight off infected “Bobby” policemen outside Buckingham Palace, and brain-eating beefeaters at the Tower of London. Few locations allow such seamless transitions between modern streets and medieval dungeons.
The sheer Britishness of it all is somewhat hammed up, but the phone boxes, double-decker buses and even the occasional Union Jack-painted VW Beetle add splotches of character to the normally drab Zom-Poc palette.
The story blurs the lines between historical fact and fiction. A 16th century alchemist, named John Dee, wrote "In the year of our Lord two thousand and twelve, the alchemy of wealth from air will bring a second Blight upon mankind...” While Dee indeed existed, his predictions here are fiction.
Fast-forward to 2012, a year already infamous for apocalyptic prophesies. England is being ravaged by a catastrophe eerily similar to the Black Plague, which swept through Europe in the 17th century. But there were rumours that the Plague was far more horrific than history recorded, and modern London is now experiencing that first-hand.
Guided to a safe house by a voice calling himself the Prepper, the player starts as a random survivor, cobbled together from an assortment of first and last names, ages and occupations. I began my journey as Joshua Brown, a 33-year-old musician. He survived for a total of 52 minutes, before succumbing to a horde metres from the safe house.
There's no encore for this musician: Death in ZombiU is permanent. When a survivor stops surviving, players start over as a new character.
It's a clever way to deal with death. Hunting down your zombified self to reclaim your loot isn't too harsh a punishment, but it presents a definite threat: If you die before raiding your old pack, that zombie disappears – along with anything they were carrying – and the latest character takes its place. I lost many a good weapon being killed by my previous characters.
Next up, I was Megan Hill, a 27-year-old typist. Her first task was to go outside, put Josh out of his misery, and ensure the supplies he had gathered weren't wasted.
Ammo and medical supplies are scarce, and death (or undeath) is a constant threat. It's survival horror to rival – and even best – the original Resident Evil. Remember when a single zombie in close quarters was terrifying? ZombiU does, even if most other zombie games now assume more is scarier.
These zombies are the shambling kind, relatively easy to outrun, fewer in number than your average Zom-Poc scenario. But don’t get too complacent – what they lack in athleticism, they make up for in individual deadliness. A single bite will recruit you to the army of darkness.
You can’t rely on the conventional health bar to indicate how imminent your death is. It depletes as zombies scratch at you, but regardless of how healthy you are, if they get within lunging range, it can all be over in a second. It's frustrating at times, but it allows even a solitary zombie to pose a serious threat, as a mistimed attack or a break to reload can provide the few seconds they need to perform a fatal grab.
Combat is a tense, gruesome affair, with an irregular rhythm that can vary with each encounter. There are no specific rules when it comes to your trusty cricket bat, even amongst the most basic enemies; sometimes a single blow will de-brain the brain-dead, while others may require longer bat-to-skull interaction.
Melee combat's unpredictable nature means that taking on a horde with the cricket bat isn't wise. I found myself favouring the bat for individual encounters, while saving my limited use of pistols, rifles, shotguns and grenades for hordes.
The game described so far could be on any platform, but taking advantage of the Wii U hardware allows for some unique twists on conventions.
The GamePad screen contains most secondary information and actions. It's your map, your inventory, movement radar, menus, your sniper scope and your item scanner. Not only does this leave the TV screen nicely uncluttered, but tapping and scrolling through menus is unexpectedly tactile.
And of course, it forces you to constantly look between the action on screen and the information in your hand. The game doesn't pause while you rummage around in your bag or pick a lock, so keep an eye on the TV. It takes some getting used to, initially feeling inconvenient and neck-straining.
Online features are minimal but cool. You might bump into the fallen characters of random players online, near where they bit the dust (or, the dust bit them). Killing these Blighters is a handy way to gain sweeter loot. Your zombie-yous will also wander into random people's sessions, and the game keeps a running tally of how many of your past selves have killed, and been killed by, other players.
This would be awesome, but disappointingly, my zombies never wandered. As such, I'm not sure how the system works. The threat of losing your supplies to random players killing and looting your zombie potentially adds extra layers to the brutal survival mechanics, but maybe it just creates a copy, so you both get items.
ZombiU's multiplayer modes show off the Wii U's much-spruiked “asymmetric gameplay”. One player uses the Wii remote/nunchuk combination to fight off the infected, while the other views the arena from above on the GamePad screen, spawning zombies to try to overwhelm the survivor.
It's somewhat skewed in favour of the “King of Zombies”, but a worthy opponent can balance things out. For the survivor, using the Wii remote may conjure vaguely uncomfortable memories of Wii launch title Red Steel, but it feels less clunky after a few rounds.
Multiplayer is a decent amount of fun, but it's a mere side-dish to the meat of the story mode.
ZombiU is classic survival horror, a genre that’s increasingly neglected by the franchises that pioneered it. If you're after dudebros slaughtering speedy zombies by the dozen, look elsewhere.
ZombiU's much slower, more suspenseful approach eschews action in favour of traditional survival horror. It's a wonderfully fresh take on an oft-ignored genre, and a worthy third-party implementation of Nintendo's fancy new tech.
A gamer since the days of Lemmings and Wolfenstein, and a writer since Scamper the mouse in Grade Three, my two passions only met after a freak accident left them surgically inseparable. Follow @MikeIrvo.