The payoff comes in the fact that the atmosphere and tension are exquisite. Ubisoft’s smartest trick is to force you to look at the Wii U Pad while involved in many commonplace activities – scavenging for kit, scanning the area, picking locks or checking your gear – meaning you end up flicking your eyes nervously from pad to TV, TV to pad, just to make sure no flesh-eating goons are on the approach.
Each new area has to be explored gingerly, and this alone can be genuinely nerve-wracking. There are some cheap scares and some irritating set-piece battles – which themselves make you feel like you’re doomed to fail – but in most cases ZombiU plays things smart, dark and brooding.
The downside of all this is that the difficulty level can be too formidable. Unlockable manhole covers work a bit like checkpoints, allowing you to move quickly from the safehouse to a specific part of London, but dying inevitably means retracing steps, and in some cases you’ll have to return to areas and scavenge for equipment before tackling the current mission, because otherwise you won’t survive.
Every now and then you’ll die repeatedly just because your last character went down in a zombie-infested area, and if you die before you retrieve their kit, it’s lost – a real nightmare when you’ve only just found a handy new weapon. It’s safe to say that ZombiU requires a level of commitment from the player.
And while it’s a good showcase for the Wii U Pad’s capabilities, it’s not such an awesome showcase for the console’s graphics. The look and feel is more reminiscent of older Xbox 360 horror games like the original F.E.A.R. or Condemned than cutting-edge greats like Halo 4 or Gears of War, and while it’s all torchlit, well-designed and richly atmospheric, it’s not what you’d call a looker.
ZombiU also packs in an interesting take on the Wii U’s asymmetric multiplayer. Here a player with the Wii U Pad seeks to hold objective points on a map by deploying different types of zombie, while a player with a Pro controller attempts to capture them. The controls are a little too slow and stiff to make the experience work brilliantly, but it’s good to see Ubisoft thinking outside the box once again.
On balance, neither the average graphics nor the difficulty level should put you off if you like the sound of ZombiU. In a world of me-too shooters and action games it’s a genuinely different and memorable experience, with the capacity to scare, amaze, immerse and make you think. It’s a game that would be unimaginable on any other format. It’s not quite good enough to make the Wii U an essential purchase, but it is good enough to make any hardcore gamers who might have dismissed the new console think twice.