Power makes us crazy. Who’s ‘us’ you ask? We’re talking everyone. Gamers, developers, marketers. Give anyone a little too much power or ability and you can guarantee that they will do stupid, bonkers things with it. Bonkers things like, oh y’know, ruining the survival horror genre.
The problem is that developers have been working with progressively more powerful systems as time has gone on, and they haven’t been afraid to ‘up the ante’, especially in these post Resident Evil 4 times. When the first Resident Evils and Silent Hills were being released power was in short supply, so more emphasis was put on the tension and fear that a single decaying carcass and a shortage of ammo could bring, as opposed to having players gun down entire streets of gribbly creatures to advance. Even when Resident Evil 2 landed, with an entire city of brain connoisseurs hankering after your noggin, the dead were used in excess to frighten you and make you wary of your relative lack of power.
The ultimate problem is that for a survival horror game to work it requires an unwritten level of trust between player and developer. The dev needs to trust that we’re smart enough to figure out what to do, and we need to trust that the developer’s designs are clever enough to teach us their rules without cluttering our HUD with hints and waypoints.
However in the modern world of videogames it always seems as though someone with too much power and not much smarts always steps in and tells the developer that we’re dumb and need all the help we can get, that we don’t really want to be scared, that we don’t want a hard game, and that a single enemy shouldn’t really be able to beat us. He tells the dev that they need to use all that extra power to add more enemies, more explosions, and less creep.
Well thank the zombified Gods that the devs at UbiSoft ignored this ‘advise’. ZombiU doesn’t think you’re stupid, it doesn’t mind scaring you, it is hard, and a single enemy can beat you in one bite. ZombiU is survival horror.
If you don’t know by now ZombiU is a Wii U launch game. Set in the belly of London after a mysterious viral outbreak, ZombiU casts you as a rather fragile ‘survivor’ of this event trying to avoid hungry Beefeaters and countless aggressive thugs. Half of ZombiU’s set-up is true for even a normal day in the Big Smoke, we’ll let you decide which. There is a plot of sorts to follow though motivation as of now seems basic, with a voice in your ear guiding you around locations (because that always works out well) looking for ways to restart power generators and find medical supplies, the usual post apocalyptic palaver really.
But as typical as the setup sounds ZombiU is actually rocking a number of rather intriguing elements. One – the game is never paused meaning zombies are always hungering after your grey matter, even when you’re re-arranging the contents of your bag on the Gamepad screen. And two – if you die then that character is gone for good. If you want to reclaim your loot you’ll need to find and kill your past, now zombified self, but death means you lose all of the old character’s ‘skills’ for good meaning that while you can retrieve your ten medkits you’ll have to work up your melee arm again. It’s a jolt of humility that’s frequently missing in modern, checkpoint laden design.
This setup works because in ZombiU any shambler, no matter how big or small, can end your survivor career should they latch onto you and you find ourself without any escape tools. Grab, dead. No shake to escape. No second chance. If you slip up ZombiU will punish you, and this makes tackling every engagement, even those against single enemies, a test of your abilities and smarts. That is ZombiU’s greatest success - by making no enemy insignificant it restores your fear in everything, even the one.
It’s this combination of extreme punishment and powerful individual adversaries that makes ZombiU a real espresso kick to even the most dulled gamer senses. Pay attention, don’t doubt anything, be careful, check everywhere.
In our recent hands on we wasted a shotgun on a few individual zombies, just for fun, and then found ourselves wielding a mere cricket bat against an onslaught of four of the decaying blighters before a surprise shambler burst from the loo’s we hadn’t cleared, trousers done up so he was thankfully not mid-business, and ended our first life in a fit of sweat and swears. Swears at ourself mind, not at the game – we’d played stupid and suffered the consequences.
All that said there are a few unknowns right now. The game seems incredibly linear, for example, and we’d quite like to be able to pick and choose different routes through an area or roam a good way off the beaten path in search of supplies, but we’ve only played the game in strict demo form so this may not be completely indicative of the full game.
Second to this a large number of the game’s scares seem somewhat forced. ZombiU is at its best when you’re tiptoeing around or trying to work out how best to deal with a group of hungry corpses, and there’s plenty of that, so when you’re forced into clear jump scare situations it comes across as lazy and cheap. Aiming with the right stick was also a little lag-y, but this may have been bad calibration with the TV and something we’re confident UbiSoft will sort before release
These unknowns aside ZombiU still presents a game worth championing simply because it’s a survival horror that trusts you to learn how to deal with its world, its adversaries, and its rules. It’s refreshing to be given the opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of a brutal world the designers have created, a world in which we feel constantly vulnerable because we know that any one enemy can quickly finish us. We relish the fact that ZombiU is a real test of our mind against the world, rather than being another horror power-fantasy that beefs us up and forces us through some cliché, overblown, cinematic action horror just because the console is powerful enough to do that. Just take our advise – always check the bogs.