ZombiU would not be seriously considered for my pending Game of the Year List (GOTY) list if it was on the XBOX 360 or PlayStation 3. Instead, it's a worthy game because of the innovative gameplay that can only be accomplished on the Nintendo Wii U console. It's not so much as the actual game that thrills you—it’s the experience of just playing it that does.
ZombiU takes place in the present day—except London is overrun by zombies. Game designers, of course, let you experience many London landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, the tube, the Tower of London and more. Plus, you know, you get to bash in a British Royal Guard's head with a cricket bat—if you're in to that sort of thing.
ZombiU has two innovative gameplay experiences. First, if you die—your character is truly dead. When you re-awaken in the safe-house as a new character, you have to go back and kill your previous self to take back all your weapons. Sometimes, you can skip this (as I did); other times, you really need a USB key or whatever important mission objective they're carrying and so you have no choice but to track them down.
It brings a great sense of true danger to the game. At the same time, it is a little out of place when characters you interact with, like the Prepper, the voice on the radio guiding you along missions, seem to have no issues with the fact that you're an entirely different person. But the difficulty and somewhat excitement in starting over from scratch – I once died with more than five different guns on my person – more than make up for the slightly shaky narrative.
In fact, once you die, your zombified persona will wander to friends' Nintendo Wii U consoles. My friend Matt, for instance, told me he loved running into my characters because I seemed to always have what he needed at that exact moment.
The other innovative gameplay feature is what truly sets this title apart. The tablet-like Nintendo Wii U Gamepad is known as your Bug Out Bag in the game, but it's more than that. You change your weapons on the touchscreen, turn on and off your flash light (which has a rechargeable battery that you need to let recharge every now and then by turning off the light) and see where the mission objective is on the map.
The issue is if you are taking your eyes off the TV screen you're playing on to make room in your inventory for more items you're looting off a body on the Gamepad... that's likely the exact moment when you'll get attacked.
That fear. That decision to take your eyes off the main screen for two seconds. That's pure gameplay and has little to do with story, but it's what makes ZombiU such a pleasure (and sometimes, yes, a pain) to play. The story is by no means perfect, though it's certainly serviceable even if you see some of the twists coming. There is a plot, believe it or not, and even better, you can wind up with a crappy ending if you die on the final mission. (There's no coming back as another survivor.)
ZombiU takes a lot of risks that could potentially anger new players who might not be accustomed to this type of title on a Nintendo system. At the same time, this is the type of title I hope we see more of in 2013—using the Gamepad because it influences the tension and excitement in a game, not just because it makes it somewhat easier to navigate the game world. The beauty of the Gamepad implementation isn't that it's intuitive to use your inventory on that screen (though it is.) Instead, it's that by doing so, you're switching your focus and may miss the zombie ready to strike you. It’s a type of immersive gameplay I’ve never experienced and now that I have… I crave more.
ZombiU is quite a lengthy game, especially if you die the 40+ times I did. (Sorry London-ers!) You might get frustrated towards the end, but it's worth it to continue. My longest character lasted more than an hour and a half, and only succumbed because I ran out of bullets. That thrill, and that power I felt, was incredible and only because I knew that at any moment, that guy could die.
There is a multiplayer mode, though I didn’t have a chance to play it. According to the documentation, one player spawns and controls enemies from a top-down view with the Gamepad, while the second player fights for survival on the big screen with the Pro Controller.
While New Super Mario Bros. U brought me more pure joy, ZombiU is the one that thrilled me and angered me in a way few games have this year.
But in all the right ways.
It's a must-own (after Mario) if you pick up or receive a Nintendo Wii U this holiday season.
* Disclosure: A copy of ZombiU was provided by Ubisoft for the purposes of this review. *