Survival horror. Remember that? Creeping through the darkness with only a sliver of health and two bullets in your pistol. Terrified of what's waiting around the next corner. Suspense. Claustrophobia. It's something you don't see much of these days, what with Resident Evil turning into the world's dumbest action film and Silent Hill turning, well, shit.
So it was a relief when we discovered that, despite its impossibly stupid name, ZombiU is not only one of the best horror games we've played in ages, but a proper SURVIVAL horror. The gloomy streets of London are clogged with zombies, and you have to battle through the undead hordes to gather supplies, help other survivors, and eventually find a way out of the seriously broken city.
There are guns everywhere. Pistols, shotguns, rifles, crossbows. But ammo is more precious than gold. It's actually quite sadistic of the developers. You'll find an SA80 rifle and feel like the most powerful zombie hunter in the world - for about five minutes until the magazine runs out. Supplies are severely limited, which means firing a bullet or using a medkit is often a big decision. You might be tempted to drink that soda now, but when you're limping around with a dribble of health and six zombies clawing at your heels later, you'll wish you hadn't bothered.
You can't rely on guns, which forces you to think of smarter ways to deal with the undead. If you're facing off against a single enemy, the cricket bat is fine. Just pummel away at their head until it pops like a fleshy balloon. But faced with a group, you'll need another solution. Flares draw any nearby zombies towards them, giving you a few seconds to slip past or toss in a grenade.
The combat is great. The bat feels thick and weighty as you slam it against their rotting skulls. Guns pack a noisy punch, and there's a good feeling of variation between them. Shoot a zombie with the Magnum and their head evaporates in a cloud of red mist. Line up two and you can kill them both with a single, powerful blast of the double-barreled shotgun. Because ammo is so rare, at least for the more powerful firearms, using a gun is a novelty that you'll relish every time you get the chance. It's just a shame there's only one melee weapon. We love the cricket bat, and there's something brilliantly English about smacking a pinstriped, bowler hat-wearing London banker with one, but a few more would have added variety to the excellent melee combat.
Most enemies are your standard shuffling zombies, but a few are more exotic and require different tactics to beat. Some were turned while they were wearing riot gear, and you have to destroy their helmet before you can kill them, either by shooting it off, or whacking it with your bat. Another variant spits sickly venom at you, which blinds you temporarily - a bit like Left 4 Dead's Boomer. Occasionally you'll find one with an explosive tank strapped to its back, and they're a lot more dangerous than you might expect, especially in a confined space.
One of our most embarrassing deaths was turning a corner, seeing a shadow and swinging our bat in a blind panic. A nanosecond after we'd squeezed the attack button we spotted the tank on its back and died an instant, fiery death. Oops. They're not all bad, though: sometimes you can lure them into a group before shooting them, wiping out an entire group with one bullet. Sometimes the game will throw multiple zombie types at you at once, forcing you to mix and match your strategies on the fly. Sometimes it's best just to run away; they won't follow you between maps.
When you die, it isn't game over. You don't restart from a checkpoint or reload a previous save. You wake up in your safe house, an abandoned tube station, as a new character. You might be a 34 year-old lawyer, a 23 year-old groom, or a 64 year-old dancer. It's decided at random, and it's amusing seeing what kind of person you'll inhabit next. It's a shame it's only a visual thing, though. We would have loved differing stats between characters to reflect their occupation; maybe a police constable would be better with guns. But they're all fundamentally the same.
The catch is, you have to go back to where you died and recover your gear from the last survivor - who is now a zombie (if they got bitten, that is - explosions will outright kill them). Having to gun down a character you kept alive for two hours is weirdly upsetting, but necessary. If you don't, you'll lose anything you had in your backpack: guns, food, medkits. Sometimes you have to go back to get a crucial mission item. It's a really fun system, and sometimes dying is actually a viable tactic to get out of a sticky situation. It's an inconvenience, but it never totally halts your progress, and you respawn with some basic supplies and a few pistol rounds.