The Wii U was something of a strange console when it was first released. There seemed to be little fanfare around it, especially compared to the Wii (and the later Switch), and even as someone who’s into games I knew virtually nothing about it when it hit shop shelves. I’ve met a number of people who thought for a while that it was some kind of add-on controller for the Wii, before learning it was a completely new console. Despite not knowing much about it, one of the things that immediately grabbed my attention was the game ZombiU, as an adult action horror-oriented game on a Nintendo console definitely stood out.
ZombiU is a survival horror game set in London 2012, where a zombie virus has swept through the city, turning most people into the living dead. Armed with whatever they can find around them, the player sets out to try and stay alive, find answers, and hopefully discover a cure before it’s too late. Whilst this may not initially sound too different from the dozens of other zombie games on the market, ZombiU takes a slightly more grounded approach. It’s set in London, so guns and firearms are a rarity in the game, and players will often have to fall back on hand-to-hand combat instead.
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The game also tried to set itself apart from other games in the genre by including a perma-death system. If your character is killed by a zombie, which can happen in a single bite if you’re unlucky, your character is gone. You don’t get to reload the checkpoint and try again. Instead, you then take over another character, who is recruited to the cause by the same mysterious figure who was guiding you through the game before. You start back at scratch, though the areas your last character unlocked and secured are still open to you. If your previous character had some good items or a particularly useful weapon on them you can head back to where you were killed, where you’ll find them as a zombie. Killing your old character gives you the opportunity to get your stuff back, though if you’re killed before doing so it then becomes lost forever. Looking back at it, it was a little bit Dark Souls-like in that way.
The game also made use of the Wii U’s new controller system in some interesting ways. The screen was used to control the player’s inventory, where the contents of your backpack would be displayed. But when it came time scan the environment the pad would come into play, with the player physically moving it around and using the central screen. Whenever you used a keypad to open doors you would also use the screen in the controller to do so. In these moments the TV screen would switch from first-person view to show your character doing the task, allowing you to keep an eye on their environment, lest a zombie sneak up on you and kill you. It was a pretty unique and fun system.
Perhaps most strange about this game, however, was that it didn’t start life as a zombie survival game, but as a fast paced, sci-fi shooter that was a spin-off of the Rabbids franchise. Originally titled ‘Killer Freaks From Outer Space’, the game had monstrous versions of the Rabbids, which players would kill with guns. It was much more fast paced and frenetic than ZombiU, and whilst the game was initially received well when it was announced, it was decided during development that it was too fast, and too unsatisfying for players. A massive overhaul was done, and the game pretty much went back to square one, becoming ZombiU.
A large part of the redesign involved the new setting, and London was chosen in part due to the mixture of modern architecture and medieval buildings. And the game utilised both of these kinds of setting across the story. You could fight your way through housing estates, challenge zombies in old Underground tunnels, and kick them into the Thames off scaffolding. But perhaps the most stand out environment in the game was Buckingham Palace. Part of the story involved sneaking into the Palace in search of answers, and players were able to fight through large rooms, killing Palace staff and the iconic Yeoman Warders, better known as Beefeaters. Perhaps the only let down in the inclusion of this location was that it didn’t feature a zombie Queen for you to go up against.
The released game was pretty well received, and had some decent reviews, with most publications giving it high marks. The use of the game-pad mechanics, the perma-death system, and the scariness of the zombies were all praised as highlights of the game, and things that made it stand out from other, similar games on the market. Despite the high praise, the game failed to sell well upon launch, and as a result it became unprofitable, and plans for a sequel were scrapped. Over the years, however, the game has found an audience who appreciate it, and versions were ported onto both the Xbox and Playstation under the name Zombi in 2015.
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ZombiU might not be one of the most popular or best selling zombie games on the market, but it’s still an enjoyable experience, in large part because it tried to be different. It offered an experience that wasn’t the same as the big selling names, and the original Wii U release was a unique game-play experience that was lost even on the ports of the game. If you like zombie games and have never given this one a chance, now might be the perfect time to give it a go.
ZombiU was released in the UK on 30th November 2012.