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Zombi U Review
Stop me if you've heard this one before: The world is plunged into chaos following a mysterious viral outbreak which quickly goes feral, killing and mutating its hosts into deadly, flesh-eating monstrosities. Now it's up to a ragtag assemblage of survivors to seek out a cure, kill any zombies they come across, and simply survive to see the next day.
It's a fiction that has been worn down so much over the last few years it's a wonder there's anything left to build upon. But build Ubisoft does, with a back-to-the-basics approach that emphasizes tense, thoughtful gameplay over the zombie stereotypes we've come to expect over the last few generations. Despite the fact that Zombi U boasts a decent arsenal, this isn't Left 4 Dead with its lightning quick combat, nor is it the plodding zombie hunt that characterized many early games in the genre.
Instead, Zombi U finds a harmonious balance between tough and terrifying, rewarding players for pressing on even as it's scaring them with the idea of an perma-death right around the corner. That's right, perma-death. The term "rougelike" has been thrown around a lot when describing the game, and while I don't think that is totally accurate, it at least serves to get the point across: Die, and your character stays dead for the remainder of the game. After this, you will inhabit a new survivor, who can then hunt down the old survivor's corpse, which has in some cases become reanimated in the time apart, and steal your supplies from its cold, dead back. Die for a second time along the way, however, and your supplies are gone for good.
It's a cycle that's perhaps a bit more forgiving than some rougelikes, but certainly more demanding than we would have expected out of a Wii U launch title. Let a zombie get close enough, and it can kill you with one bite regardless of how hight your health is. It's this constant teeter-totter act, the precarious balance between life and a sudden, brutal death that makes Zombi U such a compelling and terrifying title.
Of course, punishing difficulty is nothing without the controls to back it up. Luckily, Zombi U might as well serve as a textbook for future developers when crafting a first-person shooter on the platform. Using the RZ and LZ buttons to fire and aim respectively felt a little off at first, but it quickly clicked. The Wii U's smooth analog sticks and comfortable layout mean that you can comfortably play Zombi U for hours on end, all but an inevitability once you really get into the game's formula.
Like every other pseudo-rougelike worth your dollar, Zombi U operates on a very specific set of rules. The Cricket Bat is your default melee weapon, and perfecting the timing of the swing is an art unto itself. Then there are the firearms, which must be aimed with care even in frantic situations so as to avoid waisting precious ammo. Because of limited ammo supplies, you'll end up performing most of your kills up close and personal using the Cricket Bat, a gory spectacle that luckily never gets old.
It's the various ways that you can trap or fool the zombies before you kill them that make the game so interesting, though. For example, zombies are attracted to both light and sound, and you'll frequently use these elements against them. Early in the game you will acqure flares, which you can use to draw enemies over to a spot before either rigging it with a land mine or blowing it up with a molotove cocktail. You can even opt to sneak around the group entirely so long as you get past before your flare expires.
This serves as a great way of combining weapons and items in new and meaningful ways, and the decisions made regarding the controller and its miniature screen just go to show how practiced Ubisoft is at tuning the scares just right. For example, when rummaging through your backpack, the rest of the game goes on without you, as seen on the television. Skilled players will wait until lulls in the action to access their backpack, but even when the radar doesn't show any zombies nearby, taking a moment to be defenseless as you rummage through your supplies is harrowing.
A sense of persistance is granted to things even as the characters and worlds themselves remain fickle and constantly changing, thanks to the weapon upgrades. As you progress through the game, you will uncover upgrades to the firing rate, reload rate, power and more for your weapons. These will always persist even as your characters die and begin anew. It's just enough to remind you that you are making progress through this challenging and dense game.
Ultimately, Zombi U is a short game made longer by its high difficulty. If there's one downside to the experience, it's that the game itself really isn't that long; a decent amount of your time will be spent scavenging for supplies and hunting after your previous survivors who have since perished.
Zombi U is the Wii U's best launch title. Its high difficulty forces careful, strategic play and imposes a feeling of terror where otherwise there would be none. Furthermore, the GamePad's touchscreen is used in some truly intelligent ways that portent intriguing things to come for the console. If the Wii U's future exclusives are anything as exciting and unique as this, we're in for a fun ride.