Developed by Ubisoft Montpellier, ZombiU was released for the Nintendo Wii U at launch back in November 2012, and again this year as Zombi for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. I recently completed the game on the Wii U.
You play as a random survivor in London, which has been ravaged by a zombie plague. Aided and guided by “The Prepper,” a former military man, your survivor must traverse the ruins of London to gather weapons and supplies, fortify the safe house, and eventually work toward trying to find a cure.
ZombiU is a fantastic survival horror game. I want to make that opinion clear now. I do have one big problem with it, however, which this post shall explain.
While reception of the game was decently positive at release, many sites that I respect have praised it for being a very well made survivor horror game, of which there are not many these days. I love how the game made zombies a genuine threat again. There are variants aside from the standard zombie fare, but even a room with just three of the undead assailants was enough to make me nervous. Supplies are scarce, you just manage with firearms at best (you are a civilian, after all) and your most dependable line of defence is a cricket bat, which can take quite a few swings just to down one of them.
The atmosphere of the game was quite effective as well, as your best approach to survival is near-constant paranoia, never wanting to rush too quickly for fear you will be grabbed unexpectedly or catch the attention of a mob. You are equipped with a “Prepper pad,” a tablet-like device that is the in-game stand-in for your touchscreen controller. It contains your map as well as radar, which will blip if any other living/undead thing is nearby. While effective at keeping you prepared for a possible encounter — assuming it’s not a rat or murder of crows — it boosted the anxiety as well since it foreshadowed encounters to come. I came to rely on it so much that during the portions of the game where it is taken away or rendered inoperable I found myself more panicked.
On top of all of these things, a prominent factor of the game is permanent death. If you die in Normal Mode your survivor is dead for good. You then enter the shoes of another survivor, enlisted by the Prepper, who must retrieve all of the gear from your previous character, who is either a corpse or has turned into a zombie. On the surface this sounded to me like a really good design choice, and in simple circumstances it was. Combined with just how easy it is to succumb to zombie attack it raised the stakes, making death much more costly to time and possibly resources.
The problem I had with this is there were a number of key moments where this happened that completely destroyed my immersion in the story. For one, when this happens at an important moment, where events are urgent and time sensitive, your death triggers the final cutscene of that sequence. This happened to me regardless of how close I was to completing a section. You are essentially fast-tracked to that end of the part of the story in order for the game to stay faithful to death’s permanence, leaving the story feeling unnatural and broken.
What complicates this further is even though you are now playing as a completely different person, the Prepper will act as if you were the one that took part in those events, be it a casual reference or seething outrage regarding “your” part in it. This had me irritated with the game, as a big penalty about death started to become a loss of immersion. I became more paranoid about dying because it was make less narrative sense, rather than the reasons I ought to be worried about it.
It feels lazy on the part of the developers, like they didn’t want to commit fully to their design choice or hadn’t given it enough thought. I wouldn’t want permanent death to be completely taken out of the game, but I wish they had had the forethought to create specific checkpoints for certain parts where it reaches a point of no return. In exchange, health or resources could have been penalized in exchange for another chance with the same character.
ZombiU is otherwise a great survival horror game, I just wish there were something in the game to remedy these moments I found so disengaging.