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This one is special. (And wholly misunderstood by critics!)
on November 28, 2012
Zombi U is special. It is the only true survival horror experience I have come across in the last six years of console gaming. While other franchises like Resident Evil have gone the way of action shooters, Zombi U is truly SURVIVAL horror. The goal is not to "run and gun," popping zombie's heads with one well placed shot, and feeling invincible behind the barrel of a powerful automatic gun with an infinite supply of ammo. The goal is to survive, and surviving needs to feel very difficult--perhaps even punishing--or both "survival" and "horror" lose any real meaning in the game.
There are only two possible explanations for the host of very negative critical reviews of Zombi U: (1) failure to understand the genre of survival horror and how it is supposed to differ from an action shooter; and (2) desire to be negative toward Nintendo because they choose to rethink the game experience rather than merely feed the ridiculous obsession with better hardware specs (which obviously underlies all the concerns that the Wii U is "not next-gen enough").
Pushing those negative critics aside, here is why YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY PLAY ZOMBI U:
1. It is TRUE survival horror. Weapons, ammo, medicine, and other supplies are in sufficiently limited supply that you are forced to be strategic. You cannot run wild on a shooting spree. If you do, the penalties are severe... Death comes easily and it means starting over as an entirely new survivor, with only the cricket bat, a pistol, 6 rounds of ammo, and any supplies you were wise enough to stow away in the safehouse before an untimely demise. The high stakes of losing the supplies and skills you've built up with a particular survivor result in a palpable feeling of tension during the entire play experience--exactly as a good survival horror game should make you feel.
2. The graphics are excellent. Reading reviews, I had come to expect the graphics to be shoddy, but they are very nicely done. You feel like you're in realistic spaces. Textures, lighting, and environmental objects are sufficiently varied that each location feels distinctive and fresh, not recycled and repetitive. Everything also has a nice "gritty" style that compliments the horror mood well. Play in a dark room on a large HD screen and you really start to feel "in" the game world.
3. The gamepad mechanics are very smartly implemented, NOT gimmicky. I can't believe so many critics disparaged this game for the ways the gamepad screen is utilized. Ubisoft did a brilliant job finding ways to incorporate it in ways that enhance the experience. For one, it is wonderful that the game does not pause when you're managing your inventory. That keeps the mood tense even when you're doing mundane tasks. While some have complained about the need to watch two screens, I think it makes perfect sense. Your gamepad is your inventory, and onscreen you can see if a zombie is sneaking up to attack you. Your attention is divided deliberately because Ubisoft rightly realized that this enhances the creepy and vulnerable vibe a good survival horror game is supposed to create. The scanning feature is also awesome because you can use your pad to look for hidden items or notes, but while scanning the light can also attract nearby zombies. Again, it offers a nice blend of game-enhancing convenience (managing items and scanning are both very simple) and intimidating risk in a threatening environment (both features leave you vulnerable without pausing the gameplay). A third feature--the icing on the cake, so to speak--is the "ping" feature of your radar which allows you to detect moving zombies, but which does not reveal non-moving zombies and also returns false positives when crows or rats are nearby. So the radar helps you detect threats with advance notice, but it's brilliantly designed with some unreliability so that it keeps you guessing and prevents you from feeling confident in your safety.
4. The risks are high, and so the rewards of success are high as well. Like the game Dark Souls, death can have severe consequences. You lose everything in your inventory and you need to fight your way back to kill your previous character (now zombified) to retrieve whatever gear you had when you last died. If you die before retrieving your gear, it's all lost and you start from scratch. This makes death in the game feel like a very undesirable outcome. Unlike 99% of all other FPS-style games, you can't just reassure yourself by saying "who cares if I die; I'll just respawn." Besides contributing tension, this can also lead to massive frustration. I kept my first survivor alive for 58 minutes. Then I hit a rough patch and killed off nine more survivors in about 20 minutes as I tried to recover my gear in a zombie infested zone. Everything was lost, and then it was even harder to battle through the wave of zombies milling around. For some people, that would be a game killer, but if you really appreciate "survival horror" and the experience it is trying to deliver, you'll keep playing. Then you'll discover how rewarding it is to finally battle through a hard spot and keep your next survivor alive twice or three times as long. Yes, if you just want to feel invincible, you're likely to hate this game. If you want to feel like you're really in danger in a very bad situation with genuinely dangerous zombies, then you'll be right at home.
5. The game keeps you guessing by randomly spawning zombies on each new playthrough. UNLIKE Dark Souls, if you die in this game, the next time you pass through the same area, you will NOT be confronted by exactly the same enemies in exactly the same positions. That means you can't just memorize the layout of levels and rush through the zones you know to be safe. If you clear all the zombies in an area, those areas do tend to stay mostly clear (which is nice because it ensures that even players who die very often will still make steady progress if they keep killing a few zombies each time), but they may also occasionally respawn a zombie who will catch you off guard. Even then, when a zombie respawns, it can be in an entirely different area than before. A dead body that slowly came to life and stood up in the corner of a room might be replaced, on the next playthrough, by two zombies shuffling around in the middle of the same room and rushing at you as soon as you open the door. Very cool. This game will have great replay value not only because it is challenging, but also because it mixes up the situations enough to preserve the tension of the experience even as you back-track or play again.
6. The game is truly fresh. The greatest irony of the many critics who bashed Zombi U is that they tend to be the same folks who routinely lament the lack of creativity in gaming. How many articles have we read bemoaning the sheer number of sequels that developers now rely on for a steady stream of "new" games? How many times have we heard calls for "new franchises" and "new modes of gameplay"? Now something like that comes along, and in an extremely well-executed form for a first-showing, especially as a launch title for an entirely new game system, and yet Zombi U gets berated (apparently) for not being like every other zombie game (i.e., an action shooter). Reviewers have complained that dying is too easy, the weapons are underpowered, the supplies are too sparse, the save points are too far apart, the shortcuts are too difficult to find, the zombies are too difficult to kill, etc. Those folks need to stop whining and recognize the irony of their own position... craving something fresh, and then berating Zombi U for everything that is fresh about it. Take my word for it: This game is special and will deliver a truly unique gaming experience with a distinctive feel not quite like anything else you've played.
7. The gameplay is punishing but not impossible. Yes, dying is a big consequence, but refreshingly, Ubisoft did not load every corner of the game with a wave of zombies. WAVES of zombies are actually comparatively rare. Far more common is to bump into one, or two, or three zombies every few minutes. This keeps the creepy vibe going nicely, but also means you do not have to tediously slash or run constantly to stay alive. You're given enough "breathing room" to carefully explore nooks and crannies, and you're rewarded for your exploration with the gradual accumulation of supplies. Those supplies are limited, but if you're methodical and careful, you can load your backpack to capacity with powerful items that make it possible even to square off against one wave of zombies (assuming you play it strategic and find a place where they are forced to funnel through a narrow opening rather than attack from all sides). Again, you can't just "run and gun," but the game does allow you to build up a safety valve of gear to manage one strong stand off against a lot of zombies if the need arises. I really think the balance of power versus vulnerability is near perfect for survival horror--though obviously I swear a lot every time I die. :)
Is Zombi U perfect? No. There are a few places in which accessing a keypad (or some other significant event) will trigger a forced wave of zombies. I realize these moments are necessary to build tension, but they will be annoying if, like me, you try to play it safe and slowly take out all the zombies in an area, then suddenly discover that the area is not clear because the game automatically inserts a new wave of zombies (who were not physically present a moment earlier) the instant you try to open a door whose numeric combination is still unknown to you. But it's not a game-breaker and does contribute to the tension further. After one or two fiascos of that sort, you quickly learn to map out an "escape" route before trying a significant action (like accessing a digital combination door), and arguably, that makes for a more realistic survival horror experience anyway.
Some people will also not like the repetitive motion of the cricket bat (the most used weapon by far), but I think it's very well done because you have to time your shots carefully to take out a zombie. Ubisoft clearly didn't want the bat to feel so powerful that you would take on multiple zombies without question. In fact, it's very likely a losing proposition to try to defeat two or more zombies with the cricket bat. I can tell you that killing three at once is out of the question unless you carefully lead each zombie away from the others first. But the game actually wants you to reserve guns and explosives for killing multiple zombies (in a pinch), and to rely on the cricket bat for one-on-one encounters. I think it's a good mechanic, but it's bound to get criticized for not being more "action oriented" (i.e., more powerful and thus, easier to dispatch zombies quicker). I disagree with that critique because, if the zombies were easier to kill, the game would lose most of its compelling sense of tension.
There's a lot more I could say, but it comes down to this: If you're open to having a fresh and rewarding gaming experience, BUY THIS GAME. If you're wanting an action shooter of the typical FPS variety, however, you'll certainly be disappointed. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant game by any standard (and even more so given that it's a first entry for a brand new console with wholly new split-screen gameplay options). I am confident other developers will learn from Ubisoft's outstanding first effort, and I already hope Ubisoft will make a sequel to this game that pushes its already-superb horror experience even further.