I would like to tell you that the butler did it, but he did not.
Alfie White, the zombie-killing butler, was going to save rotted London. He shot zombies, whacked some of them to death with a cricket bat and got awfully close to finding a possible zombie cure.
But he failed. And then he became a zombie, as did thirty five other working class heroes turned shambling stiffs.
I played a housewife, a cop, and an assortment of other survivors, one at a time in ZombiU, the dark, challenging and startling first-person shooter released on day one for Nintendo's new Wii U. Each lived briefly. Each died gruesomely. Each got me closer to making it through a game that is scarier than Resident Evil, more boldly designed than any other Wii U launch game and an altogether terrific adventure that earned my recommendation despite a couple of game-resetting bugs.
I felt bad about Alfie White, by the way. I thought I'd clear the game as him. After Alfie there was Robert Moore, the plumber. He died and became a zombie too. After Robert was Mia Marshall, game designer, who awoke in ZombiU with a gasp, as do all of the hopeless heroes you play. Mia didn't fail. The game failed her. I hit a glitch and restarted so I could proceed. This time I awoke as Annabelle Kelly, taxi driver.
ZombiU is a desperate struggle from the start, glitches or not. It's survival horror that is both tough to survive and actually scary. The survival comes from the imbalance. You're weak, poorly-equipped and outnumbered by the undead. Whether you're on the run or in the hunt, you're in the dark, creeping through sewers and warehouses, across fields and down to the basement of a children's school where things went badly. Play it fast and you'll die. Play it slowly and you'll manage to just barely hang on. And then you'll die anyway and you'll be mad at yourself, at the zombies or, if the game glitches, the developers.
When I awoke as Annabelle the taxi-driver, I was only slightly less screwed than I was when I'd started playing as any of the poor fools I'd controlled before her. Some of the weapon upgrades—capacity and firepower upgrades, for example—that you find in the game's version of London carry over into your next lives. Fast-travel spots that network one end of town to another remain available. That's about it. As Annabelle, as with any other new survivor, I awoke with just a pistol, six bullets, an invincible cricket bat and a flashlight. Gone were any of the improvements to my weapons proficiency, earned through use of said weapons in the previous life. I could scavenge more weapons and maybe some food from the dark tunnels below London's streets, maybe rush back to the crashed cars outside Buckingham Palace, pick off some zombies and find some more provisions there. I scraped some things together, stuffed them in Kelly's backpack and then… crap... I got her killed.
When your character dies and they become a zombie they still wear their backpack and carry all the guns, ammo and recovery items you had found when you were them. In your next life, priority #1 is to chase them down, knock their undead head off, rifle through their backpack and grab the good stuff. If you fail, if you die before you get to them—or maybe if you are killed while rummaging through that backpack—then everything in it is scattered back into the game. The progress you clawed to achieve slips from your grasp. You fall back down.
The guy I played after Annabelle Kelly did get the backpack. Then he got swarmed by zombies. I'd packed a landmine in her bag and I had the guy take it out. I had him put it on the floor somewhere in the sewers near a tube station. The zombies rushed in too quickly. They blew it up. He blew up.
At least he didn't become a zombie.
In my next life, as Erin Smith, lecturer, I found his pack anyway. Erin was my next hope.
If all ZombiU had going for it was this playable cycle of life, death and undeath then it would be an interesting new horror game worth playing. That idea alone is simple and pure. It's pulled from roguelikes and the likes of Demon's Souls. It makes this horror game scarier than the Resident Evils or whatever else is called survival horror these days. ZombiU may try to scare you with changes in its soundtrack or a programmed rush of zombies, but most of the terror comes about naturally. It emerges from the decisions you've made in this squalid setting: the decision to run recklessly around a corner, to spend three bullets trying to kill this zombie and suddenly having none to defeat those other two, the decision to holster a crossbow and leave a healthpack in the backpack which you can only access if you kneel, open it up and—oh god—the zombies are right over there and they are closing the distance...Here comes death. Again.
The Wii U adds a six-inch screen to the twin-stick controller, which allows ZombiU to match standard first-person shooter controls but also one-up them. The GamePad turns out not just to be a new game controller. It's a survival item.
The GamePad controller's screen matches that of the "Prepper pad", a device given to each ZombiU survivor by the mysterious Prepper. They—and by physical extension, you—have a screen in your hand with which to improve your ideal. The pad shows the map of the general area, but only if a special box in the vicinity has been scanned by the pad. It shows enemy zombies' locations, but only if the pad has pinged them with its zombie radar. The pad shows mission goals, the text of discovered documents, the ID of your survivor and even some survival tips. All of this is expected. The pad is, in these ways, a glorified iPhone. How lovely that the Prepper keeps making one-way calls to you through it. His strangely sinister advice emerges from the GamePad's speakers in your hands even as the rest of the game's audio comes from your TV.
The GamePad also becomes a scope for ranged weapons, allowing you to see a zoomed view of your target through its screen-turned-lens. It doubles as your backpack, forcing you to look down and drag-and-drop its contents even while zombies may be approaching your character on the TV.
Best of all, it's a scanner. Hold it up in real life and your character holds it up in the game world. In the fiction, it emits a black light. In the cradle of the player's hands, it shows an illuminated view that makes the game's dark environments easier to see. More importantly, it displays all of the locations where items might be hidden. Angling the GamePad to face them or using the GamePad's right stick to similar effect lets the player scan each potential hiding spot and get information about what is or isn't there. This makes scavenging easier, and it opens the game up to new systems for finding clues, reading secret messages scrawled on walls and solving puzzles. It also reveals the truth about messages left in the game world by other players of this online-connected adventure. As in Demon's Souls, players can leave messages of warning or encouragement on the walls and floors of ZombiU. They're relegated to a system of perhaps-too-obscure symbols instead of Demon's Souls constrained vocabulary, but what's interesting is how you can tell if you can trust them. On your TV, you can't tell. Scan them, and, on the GamePad, you can see if the message has earned other players' votes of distrust. Or you can vote the message down yourself.
In all of its uses, the GamePad becomes the star of ZombiU. It is the most useful tool and the element of the game that most successfully draws the player in. It keeps you alive and so, in a roundabout way, makes ZombiU a better argument for the Gamepad than any other launch Wii U game. It's hard to imagine surviving in the game without it. It might well make playing a shooter without it feel like deprivation.
The game world opens up slowly. You can poke through it or go on a series of missions that will bring you to potential long-term salvation. The Prepper exhorts you to fight your way through London. His missions are simple. Get fuel for a generator. Track a weapons cache. Find this old outcast who might be able to help. The missions twist. The story takes its turns, and in the manner of a Metroid, returning to previously-explored environments will enable the player to discover new secrets.
The voice of the Prepper gives the orders but the survivors' voices set the mood. Your cricket bat proves invaluable, because you're always out of bullets and often resorting to whacking zombies. As you do, your survivor shouts or screams, sometimes laughs. It's all rather unfortunate and disturbing. No one is happy to be here except maybe you, the player, because this adventure is so captivating.
At times, the adventure turns ugly. The world in ZombiU is stiff. It appears to be a real and ruined city, but it functions, as do the environments of other older games, as a landscape of painted boulders that masquerade as something more real. Its furniture is seldom moveable. It sets your path. Out of its darkness, the game's London is both drab and disappointingly dense with repeated rooms. The zombies animate well when they rush toward you but no one has taught them to fall back. They don't so much as fall as they hop and skid backward like a statue shoved back across uneven ice. None of this matters much, since gameplay reigns supreme in ZombiU. What does matter are the glitches, two of which ended my game at the end of a supermarket quest barely 40 minutes into the adventure (one froze my Wii U; the other glitched the quest order and wouldn't let me proceed). A third glitch, which I hit near the end of the game, messed up the quest order again. In a game full of prematurely-halted lives this is thematically consistent but it's also a dreadful pain that makes a hard game needlessly more aggravating. I'd recommend that players save often, but that's the catch: often, you'll be in places in this game where you can't save.
The game's developers have recently started putting messages inside the game. They scrawl words on the floors and walls, welcoming players, inviting them to keep hunting. Their attention is welcome and hopefully their best maintenance personnel are on the case. A game this good shouldn't be scaring players away for the wrong reasons.
ZombiU invites comparisons to Demon's Souls, a game from which it has cribbed. It invites comparisons to Resident Evil, a series it does better modernizing than recent Resident Evils. But the best comparison for ZombiU might be the first, maligned Assassin's Creed. Like Assassin's Creed it brings us something fresh from Ubisoft. It updates old and recent ideas and turns them into something of its own. It avoids the crutches of many modern games and doesn't provide its pleasure through narrowed, canned moments. It instead presents a system of life and death. It screams that it is a game, that it is meant to be played and that the best experiences you'll have with it are from the stories you craft from the way you play. It will hopefully be the blueprint for an even better game, but it stands well on its own.
Assassin's Creed gave us gamers a fun new system in which to kill our enemies. ZombiU, at the other end of the alphabet, gives us a proper omega: a fun and frightening new system in which to desperately try to stay alive.
I should note that lecturer Erin Smith didn't make it.
She died and became a zombie, too. I can't remember if I tracked her down, but I can remember that in a desperate moment late in ZombiU I discovered a zombie from a friend's former life. You see, other Wii U players' zombified characters can also show up in your game, as yours can appear in theirs. I was, as is often the case, barely staying alive. I'd memorized enemy placement for this level, but the appearance of my friend's zombie was a surprise. I killed him and rifled through his pack. In it I found a bounty of health items and ammo.
Fortune favored me, and I played on.
About the multiplayer... you can play ZombiU as a competitive, local multiplayer game, one person doing first-person shooting in arena levels using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, the other using the GamePad as "king" of zombies. The GamePad player sees the level from overhead and simply taps and dispatches enemies to stop the player as if they were playing a finger-driven real-time-strategy game. The FPS player tries to survive or capture flags before the zombies do. Both modes are good tech demo experiments that enable players of two different skill levels to play the same game in two different ways. I didn't play either mode enough to give it a proper assessment and can't recommend the game for its multiplayer. Its academic, though. The single-player is good enough to demand attention on its own.