I only finished ZombiU a few weeks ago, despite buying it when it came out in November 2012. This isn’t just because it’s hard to find time to play games these days (although I do struggle to fit them in), it’s because I couldn’t play it for more than an hour without wanting to rush round the house turning all the lights on.
It’s easily the scariest game I’ve ever played, and it’s a masterclass in manipulating tension. Whereas Resident Evil specialises in cheap scares to make you jump, like those dogs jumping through that window in the first one, ZombiU creates a sense of palpable dread. You find yourself constantly listening for the ‘ping’ that warns of an approaching zombie, then cautiously shuffling forward in grim expectation of what lurks behind the next corner.
The secret to its tension is that you can die very, very easily. We’ve got used to games like Dead Rising, where zombies can – literally – be mown down with ease, but in ZombiU even one undead Londoner can take you out quite easily. Meet two in a room and the panic starts setting in. Meet three and it’s time to run like hell in the other direction.
Adding to this is the fact that when you die, your character stays dead. Well, undead in fact – when you leap into the body of the next survivor, your first mission is to track down your previous character and retrieve your precious backpack from their undead clutches. You only get one chance to do this too – if you die on your way to retrieve your stuff, it’s gone forever.
It’s refreshing to play a game where death actually means something – all too often it’s just treated as a minor inconvenience in modern games, but ZombiU shows us a different way forward. Not only do you lose all the stuff you’ve worked so hard to attain, you also lose any skills you’ve built up with that character. But perhaps more importantly, you lose the character him/herself. You can’t help but build up a fondness for your avatar, particularly if you’ve managed to keep them alive for a long time, so when the inevitable death comes, it can be devastating (see ‘KAYLA MITCHELL IS DEAD‘).
All of this means that every encounter with a zombie is fraught with tension, and playing the game forces you into a state of heightened awareness as you constantly remain hyper-alert for any sign of possible danger. Ammo is in short supply too, so most encounters involve getting up close and personal with a cricket bat, rather than spraying and praying from a safe distance. All of which leads to dangerously high heart rates, all of the lights being turned on and frequent cups of camomile tea to sooth frazzled nerves.
There are a few rough edges of course – graphically the game can look a bit ‘muddy’, and it could do with a bit of a polish. Still, the dull palette suits the grim atmosphere, and I love the fact that it’s set in London, and mostly in Brick Lane of all places. The plot is a little hokey in parts, but the ‘Prepper’, your guide, is a great character – I’d love to see his role expanded on in a sequel.
Sadly though, it looks like a sequel isn’t forthcoming, which is an absolute crying shame. ZombiU is one of the most innovative and clever games of this generation, and by far the scariest. Here’s hoping that if or when sales of the WiiU turn around, Ubisoft might reconsider its rash decision.
(As penned in terror by Lucius Merriweather.)