Is Zombie U the best multiplayer game of the year?

, | Game reviews

Before I answer whether Zombie U (I refuse to call it ZombiU) is the best multiplayer game of the year, I am contractually obligated to talk about the single-player. Which is kind of a shame, because I couldn’t care less about the single-player, despite that it’s old-school bullet-by-bullet survival horror in the tradition of the original Alone in the Dark. It’s also is a bit like Dark Souls in that you’re gradually pushing forward into scary terra incognita, unlocking shortcuts to new areas, frequently punished by a permadeath system that means you can’t get too attached to your skill upgrades. You get to explore this world six bullets at a time, because that’s how many bullets you get each time you respawn with a new character. Six. You’ll be using the cricket bat a lot. How very English in a smarmy Shaun of the Dead way.

After the jump, isn’t this one of those new-fangled Wii U games?

Zombie U is not about a zombie university. It is instead a Wii U game. I’m not sold on how the gamepad is used. I don’t really need a separate screen for my map and inventory. And I certainly don’t need to wave a gamepad around in the air like I’m trying to get cellphone reception. This is fortunately optional when I’m doing the Metroid scanning thing, which works just fine with the analog sticks. But it’s mandatory when I’m using certain weapons. I never thought I’d say “no thanks” to a crossbow and sniper rifle in a zombie apocalypse.

I’m mainly uninterested in the single-player because it plays out in such an uninteresting place. The London setting is fitting given that the level design is as bland as English food. This is the Wii U, right? Nintendos fancy new hardware? The same system that can handle Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, and Assassin’s Creed 3? Then why am I slogging through dark and poorly adorned shoeboxes jammed into each other with doors that are supposed to hide the loading times, but instead call attention to them. Opening a door in Zombie U is like trying to start a car in a horror movie, except sometimes the door won’t open in time. And why am I only fighting a few zombies at a time? Why is this the modest zombie count of Dead Island without the environmental splendor of Dead Island?

But forget the single-player. The reason to play Zombie U is for the multiplayer. This being Nintendo, it’s not online. It’s for your living room. And this being Ubisoft, it’s unlike any other multiplayer you’ve ever played. It’s for two players only, one playing a survivor on the TV screen and the other playing zombie god on the gamepad. Imagine Left 4 Dead where one player gets the job of being the AI director that spawns zombies. That’s Zombie U.

This asymmetry provides the best of horde mode, but with an adversarial bent and a welcome unpredictability. The zombie god — he’s called the zombie king in the game, but I prefer the idea of a cruel god peppering the world with zombies to make life miserable for a Job-esque lone survivor — starts off throwing regular zombies at his opponent. But where’s the fun in that? So as the game progresses, the zombie god gets periodic upgrades. He will get his pick from three randomly rolled upgrades. These are usually zombie variants, but they’re also eventually powerful improvements in the power or number of zombies. As with all the best zombie mythology, the survivor’s dilemma isn’t whether he’ll survive. He won’t. Instead, the survivor’s dilemma is how long it will be before he dies.

You can play switching off the survivor and zombie god roles to keep score based on kills. But Zombie U’s multiplayer really comes into its own with a domination mode, based on controlling flags. Don’t tell anyone, because it might scare them off, but this is straight-up contest of real-time strategy skillz against first-person shooter prowess. RTS vs FPS. It’s that simple. Zombie god has his resource allocation, omniscience over the map, and tactical choices. The survivor has his FPS abilities, running speed, and ammo management. No other game has done anything quite like this, partly because no system is as perfectly suited to pitting an RTS against an FPS. Zombie U is the single most promising, enthralling, and unique game on the Wii U and I would definitely say this is the best multiplayer game of the year. If I were handing out titles like that. But I’m not, so I’ll just give Zombie U 4 stars.

4 stars
Wii U