Oh, and there's tapping. Lots of tapping. Whenever you pry wooden blanks from a blocked door, fill a syringe, or open a fast travel point, you have to tap on the GamePad screen. It's the kind of thing that's been used in DS games for years, and it feels a bit weird in the context of a game played on your TV. Cleverly, though, the game doesn't pause during these moments, so sometimes you'll be tapping away frantically as zombies lurch towards you. The same goes for accessing your backpack to switch items. If you don't have any medkits or weapons assigned to your six-slot quick access bar, you'll have to root around in your pack for them, which leaves you open to attack from zombies lurking in the darkness.
So the GamePad works well, and the Prepper Pad is a useful tool, but the game isn't defined by it. It would work just as well without it, and sometimes it feels a little out of place and overly high-tech in the present day setting. The basic controls are pretty standard for a first-person game, although we had to set the controller sensitivity to 100% to counter a pretty massive dead zone on the analogue sticks, which are spaced really far apart. The controller isn't heavy, but it's cumbersome, and after a few non-stop hours with the game our arms ached a bit. If ZombiU is your first Wii U game, the controls will take some getting used to for the first few hours.
One of the biggest problems we ran into, literally, was the lack of a jump button. Sometimes we'd be stuck in a corner next to a shin-high obstacle that we should have been able to simply step over, but couldn't and ended up getting grabbed and killed. You can only climb by approaching something head-on and pressing A, but this only works on certain objects. The world is beautifully designed, but it's far too static. Objects are glued in place, besides a few physics-enabled barrels, and you can't destroy anything. This doesn't affect the gameplay in any serious way, but it dampens the immersion; especially when you detonate a grenade and it barely leaves a dent.
The missions are mostly excellent, but at one point the story grinds to a halt and the game forces you to go around the city collecting 7 items, which feels like a fairly obvious attempt to artificially extend its lifespan. We do love the use of gear-gating, though. Like in Batman: Arkham City, some areas will be blocked off until you find a certain tool. In the first level you'll see a pile of rubble and your scanner will pick up an item behind it, but you'll have no way of accessing it. Then, once you find C4 explosives much later in the game, you can return and grab it.
ZombiU is full of great ideas, some borrowed from other games, and others uniquely its own. It harks back to glory days of the slow-burning survival horror, but the GamePad gives it a modern edge. The first-person movement can be clumsy, and there are a few stark difficulty spikes, but it's an imaginative spin on the horror genre. But is it scary? Well, yes, but not in the sense that you'll be jumping out of your seat every five minutes, but in the way it builds tension, the grim atmosphere of the world, and the constant threat of dying and losing all your precious gear.
An imaginative take on the tired zombie genre, with some genuinely clever ideas and a grimly realistic setting.
- Classic survival horror gameplay
- Beautiful lighting and world design
- Freedom to explore between missions
- Clumsy movement in tight spaces
- Some GamePad features feel forced
- A few punishing difficulty spikes