My clammy hands struggled to grip the gamepad controller as I struck another blow to the skull of a shambling zombie. He snarled and spat, his body twisted and dessicated — it was an appalling sight. It was the fourth blow, or maybe the fifth, but it still hadn’t gone down. All around me lay the debris of a fallen civilisation: sturdy pipes, bits of metal, bins, and all of them would have made for a better weapon than my godforsaken cricket bat, but I’m not allowed to use anything else. I’ve never liked the sport, but now I hate it with increasing passion.
Finally I struck the killing blow, and the zombie collapsed to the ground. I stood over the rotting corpse and pounded it once more with the bat. There was no satisfaction in this action. I’d been injured, and needed some medical attention once again. I rummaged around in my inventory, clumsily and hastily selecting the medkit. I selected another for good measure, and attempted to awkwardly drag it to my quick bar.
All this faffing around had left me open, and two more zombies appeared behind me. It was okay, I thought. I’m at full health. I turned around and attempted to push them back with my bat, but the imprecise weapon connected with nothing but air. A zombie lunged, there was nothing I could do about it, and now I was dead. ZombiU never excited me, it rarely scared me, but it caused me to become so stressed that I think I may have an ulcer.
Survival horror titles walk an extremely fine line. They need to scare and oppress the player, causing them to feel weak and isolated, but at the same time the experience must be punctuated by moments of empowerment. ZombiU does at least attempt to do this, but in cheap ways that, more often than not, lead to frustration. It is a game of awkward controls and missed opportunities, and few things emphasise the latter more than the disappointing setting.
Let’s get the story out of the way. John Dee, the original 007, prophesied the coming of a zombie plague. It’s now here. It’s a real pain in the arse. The Ravens of Dee are a poorly named group of conspiracy nuts who exist to stop the plague. Inexplicably, survivors keep waking up in one of their safe houses in the London Underground only to be sent on a suicide mission/fetch quest to put a stop to this zombie infestation. It’s a dull story only made worse by an incredibly tiresome mission structure. But at least it’s set in the UK, which is a bit different, right?
I was extremely excited to be able to finally play a survival horror set in dear old blighty. I’ve become sick and tired of fighting the undead horde in urban environments covered in guns and ammunition, and the early promotional material made the title seem like it would be an up close and personal romp in a more familiar — at least to me — setting. It bloody lied.
Half of the game feels like it’s a guided tour of London designed for sofa-bound tourists, and the other half has you moving from one dreary, uninspired urban area to another, occasionally broken up by a trip into the sewers or the London Underground. It keeps throwing around preposterous reasons for visiting places like Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, and yet does so with a completely straight face and level of seriousness that beggars belief.
Inexplicably, guns and other ranged weapons made up most of my arsenal — utterly ignoring the fact that most encounters with the undead in the game happen at close range. It also doesn’t make much sense given the setting: a country where we have a hell of a lot of knife crime but almost no guns whatsoever, especially in the cities.
Throughout the eight to ten hour experience, I found a myriad of pistols, rifles, shotguns and even a bloody crossbow, but at no point could I ditch my completely ineffectual cricket bad for something more appropriate. I get it, Ubisoft, the English like cricket and Sean of the Dead featured a cricket bat. You’re very funny and very clever, but it’s an absolutely atrocious weapon. It’s slow, unresponsive, weak, and led to countless deaths at the hands of zombies who, if they had a sense of humour, would likely laugh their arses off.
The firearms, on the other hand, are actually dealt with quite well. As I started to gather more explosive and destructive ordinance ZombiU started to feel more like an action game than a survival experience, but I was willing to forgive it this error when it allowed me to stop hitting things with my one piece of sports equipment. Aiming isn’t particularly terrible, but at no point did I ever really feel like a marksman, which felt realistic. Ammunition is also quite scarce, making the decision to shoot a zombie an agonising one, as I never really knew when I’d get more bullets or what was around the corner. These were the rare moments where the survival aspects and the struggle felt logical instead of coming from the shoddy mechanics or scripted zombie attacks.
Despite the solid shooting, at no point did I ever really feel comfortable using a gun. The game is filled with situations where such weapons simply make no sense, as I usually found myself in spitting range of a significant number of wandering corpses. Make no mistake, this is a melee game, but one that Ubisoft forgot to add melee weapons to.
Like the combat, the survival aspect is a confusing one. At some points I felt like throwing away the term survival horror entirely when playing, but occasionally it gets things just right. Immersion is a big part of this. Utilizing the gamepad controller, I was rarely taken out of the experience. Managing my inventory didn’t require me to switch screens or pause the game, as I could simply look down at my controller and use the touch screen interface to swap out items, heal myself, load my gun with ammo and a plethora of other actions. And at no point during any of this did the game stop playing. A zombie could creep up at me at any time, and I’d be mince meat at an undead buffet. This tactile and, often, intense approach would have worked wonders if it wasn’t so imprecise. Often I found myself fighting with the inventory system more than I was with the zombies — inevitably this lead to death.
Other uses of the gamepad controller are less impressive. I often found myself tasked with pathetically tapping on sewer grates and planks of wood to open new paths, and it felt pitifully cheap and completely unnecessary. Using the gamepad to scan and aim are equally gimmicky, but can thankfully be sidestepped by just using the thumbsticks.
The permadeath system also lends itself well to the survival aspect, as death and zombification are often only minutes away. Coming back as a new character is quite jarring, unfortunately. The omnipresent voice guiding me through the game barely acknowledges the existence of a new survivor, often discussing things I couldn’t possibly know, and the player characters themselves are devoid of any personality or voice.
Adding some depth to the proceedings is the fact that your old, now dead character still exists within the game — as a zombie. I often found myself tracking down my previous body so that I could give it a respectable end, but mainly so I could get back all of my gear. Unfortunately, this feature soon putrefies like a corpse left out in the sun. You see, when I wasn’t dying because of dodgy mechanics or that god damned cricket bat, I was dying because the a zombie lunged at me. No matter how much health I had, a lunge meant instant death. Eventually I got some medicine that stopped that from happening with great frequency, but the lunges soured me on the game early on.
I should clarify, those two examples — inventory management and permadeath — are where the game almost does things right. Yeah. So it’s not exactly a shining example of how to make a survival horror title. The largest travesty when it comes to this aspect of ZombiU is the lack of stealth or, indeed, hiding. Remember Amnesia? It’s the game you’ll wish you were playing when you start up ZombiU. It was all about avoidance. Hiding, sneaking, fleeing — those should be the tricks up any survivor’s sleeves. You don’t survive by making loud noises, blowing stuff up and attempting to slaughter creatures that don’t know what pain or fear is.
The closest ZombiU gets to these underhanded tactics are via distractions and the occasional spot of emergent gameplay. I recall one tricky situation as I was exploring Buckingham Palace (god, I feel stupid typing that). Five zombies were lingering in a corridor and I had one bullet. There was literally no way my cricket bat could handle them all, so I had to think creatively. I backed off before they spotted me and investigated my inventory.
I had one grenade (they are awful) and a whole bunch of flares. I tossed the grenade first, which killed a grand total of two zombies, with three left over. Two of them decided to follow me, while the other got stuck in a wall. I pulled them into a fire in the other room, burning them a tad, and then ran back to another room down the hall, with them hot on my heels. I climbed up a ladder, and shouted insults at them from my safe vantage point. I was still a bit screwed, but I did have all of these flares. I proceeded to launch the flares into a huge inferno, over and over again.
Against all the odds (and all reason) the zombies were enraptured by these objects. It sort of makes sense when they aren’t being consumed by a fire much brighter than they are, but I’m not going to quibble over the silliness that saved my life. I burned those zombies into tasty, rotting steaks. These instances where you need to be creative are, lamentably, few and far between.
I was not particularly looking forward to extending my playthrough of ZombiU with the offline multiplayer, but it actually turned out to be one of the game’s strongest features. I’ve not had as much time with it as I’d like, though the fact that I’d like to play it more should be telling considering how sick of the core game I got. One player takes control of the outrageous King Boris, lord of the zombies, while the other player takes control of a survivor attempting to stop Boris and his chums taking over more territory. Playing as King Boris feels a little like a strategy game, and the survivor side is more focused on gun action. It’s an extremely welcome departure from the main game.
Every time ZombiU started to draw me in, my interest was immediately interrupted by gimmicks, discontinuity, cheap and obvious scares, and poor controls. It feels like several games, all intrinsically flawed, clamouring for attention, and it ends up being a rather ugly mess. It’s sad, really, because it has undeniable potential; potential that was tragically squandered.