To say Zombi-U is a revelation is to quite substantially understate the argument somewhat. UbiSoft have come in from left field and utterly destroyed the current horror gaming market. And if this game is to be a testament to that destruction, then I can’t wait for the future of the genre!
My first death in Zombi-U was being jumped by a zombie. From behind. Oops. I didn’t pay attention to that red dot on my sonar. And now I’m dead.
Admittedly, it took some time before I actually died; whilst some report having burned through a dozen survivors before they finish the first Supermarket area, I got through with barely taking a scratch. But it probably took me longer too – because I just had to stand and stare at everything, every detail and quirk that just turned the game from a horror game into a proper, surreal and thrilling experience. As I quietly skirted around a pack of zombies, I found one on his own, back turned. Slowly I crept up with my baseball bat ready to strike and SMACK! Down he went, only for me to finish him off whilst he was on the floor. Looting its body found nothing of note, but it wasn’t the point; the thrill and excitement of sneaking up on a zombie and smashing in their lifeless, decomposing skulls with a pretty old cricket bat is easily one of those moments when you can forget that this is a video game. Because suddenly it’s so much more than that.
Then there’s the shock moments; everything is so silent, so you walk up to the door only to find that it is rigged to an alarm and now there’s a half-dozen zombies who are on their way to your current location, and a few behind that door who just realised that lunch wants to get in to meet them. Getting past those isn’t an issue, but it is still a little clumsy and desperate. You fumble, you feel tense and the nerves kick in. Fight or flight. Can I beat those two zombies before the horde arrive? Or should I just get inside quickly and hope I’m not unceremoniously infected? Turns out your imagination is your worst enemy in Zombi-U. You’re seeing horrible scenarios at every turn. You become inherently suspicious. And one single moment of not being thorough, not being smart – and your character is a zombie. And your next character, well, they’ve got to go and retrieve the stuff on the character you just got killed.
There’s no real easy way to say this so let’s break it to Capcom; chaps, you have been usurped. For the tag of “Survival Horror” isn’t a misnomer with Zombi-U; it’s literally a horror game in which survival is the key aspect of it. You can have as many “lives” as you want, but sadly each time is with a new survivor. Your old one is dead. And each one is different. Each one has a unique quirk. Each one is special in their own little way, all guided ably by “The Prepper”, a guy who knows a little bit too much about everything to be entirely trustworthy, but you have no real choice. He is your eyes and ears beyond your screens, and therefore a key part of the experience. Teaching, preparing, guiding and giving you little bits of information that flesh him out as a character – like when he slips that the CCTV isn’t securely wired, not compared to the secure comms he worked with in the Army – but in a teasing, almost taunting manner. The Prepper is simply a genius addition. As a character, they couldn’t have written him better.
But it’s the two screens that really define the experience. Not least because the U-Pad is wonderfully distracting at times, but because you can’t imagine a better way to interact with things; you are given a pad or PDA in most games which is never truly interactive, but here it is. Completely interactive, and essential whilst being at the same time clumsy and distracting. Use it in the wrong place and you’re going to discover that an exposed neck is simply asking for trouble. Open your backpack and your character kneels over, exposing themselves to an attack. The Prepper uses it to keep in touch with you, jumps off its remote insides to hack junctions and terminals and see the chaos wrought in the wake of The Black Undeath. You use it to scan around, work out which containers have items, which infected corpses are most likely to jump up and try to eat your face and which doors and areas are accessible. It’s essential; but again, using it means you hold it in both hands, and therefore you are left relatively defenceless should an attack happen. It’s a brilliant setup; both useful and yet also unwieldy.
Which is definitely a problem as the zombies themselves are some of the most disturbing for some time. They react to light, to sound – to anything, really, and it is their persistence more than their resilience that makes them a threat, especially in large numbers. For a single zombie isn’t a big threat; however, three of them running around IS a problem. Four of them is just insane. More than that and you may as well cover yourself in sauce and wait to be munched on. So combat in Zombi-U becomes less about the firepower – there aren’t lots of guns here because it is London, and the Right to Bear Arms isn’t in our constitution so we don’t have a heavy-duty gun shop on every corner – and more about control, learning the environment and drawing them into situations where you can get the most attacks in with the least amount of risk. Stand your ground and you likely won’t survive if there’s more than one of them. But barricade a door or two up and force them to come at you through a slightly open shutter? Oh how nice, you’re exposing your soft weak skulls to me! SMASH! That’s how you play a game like Zombi-U. It’s brains, not brawn, that see your continued survival. Utilising your surroundings to devastating effect. It’s not a First Person Shooter. It’s something much more cerebral and tactical.
But more than that, Zombi-U is a stunningly pretty game. I mean really pretty, the sort of game which just blows your mind with the attention to detail. You wouldn’t think a packet of crisps left on a table is worth looking at, but the detail and attention to how that is placed there is second to none. There are little details, like ribbons on windowsills to denote ‘survivors’ (or rather, zombie warnings now!). Signs which say something. Even a few cheeky jibes at other games. Your attention may be on survival, but there’s so much more to see and do and it is quite special when such things actually end up adding to the experience. You get the impression something did go wrong. And it’s a lonely world.
Add to this the tensions with the Prepper and a really dark undercurrent of plot and intrigue and what you have here is a seriously polished, refined horror experience. No, it’s not very “long” in terms of length but it’s the sort of thing you want to replay, the sort of game which just makes you feel. And that feeling is scared. It’s a scary game, a tense game. It does atmosphere to aplomb and it’s a truly thrilling moment when you are being chased, trying to survive.
Of course, it isn’t completely perfect; the inherent clumsiness does frustrate at key points, for all the use of scanning and plotting out a course most things are pre-fixed, meaning once you know where they are, you’re never really that surprised or worried. The inventory management is still a little on the ludicrous side, flares don’t stack despite their compact nature compared to other items which are more clumsy and delicate which do. It’s an inherently faulty game-logic ideal that isn’t limited to Zombi-U, but is still rather annoying at times to see it in a title that so often has such an intelligent angle to it. However, at its best and when it gets going Zombi-U is exhilarating, chilling fun. And there is nothing else like it out there.
And this should worry Capcom, and EA. Because UbiSoft have always been capable of doing good games; but here, in Zombi-U, they’ve outclassed the competition and outdone themselves. It’s easily the game that demonstrates exactly how the U-Pad can be used, why it’s so brilliant and what it can bring to your gaming life. Which is a lot more than inventory management, it turns out; scanning, tracking, hacking, manipulating, lighting up and generally doing the kind of cool stuff any half-arsed spy would do. It never feels like too much though. There’s never a sense of being completely overwhelmed; that job is left to the zombies, and its your task to ensure they don’t build up enough for that to be an issue.
It is, simply, the return of Survival Horror.
And long may it reign!