The quest for survival starts off after the situation has been summed up. England has been contaminated by a virus, spreading throughout the population and it is believed that this pandemic is actually the realisation of one of John Dee's apocalyptic prophecies. The man is referenced a lot throughout the game too. The player incarnates one lonely survivor among the few that remain in London, out on his (or her) own, with an invisible "friend" giving pieces of advice along the way. Equipped at first with a trusty cricket bat, a flash light, and a scanner, the survivor will need to fulfil a series of objectives, either given by his (or her) "friend" or other non-playable characters met along the way, which are all meant to contribute to his own survival.
The nightmare starts at a place called the "safe house," which serves as a base from where the survivor can observe what happens around London using the CCTV system (provided he or she has scanned some camera control devices first, for his invisible friend to hack), store items he won't be bringing with him London, upgrade his or her weapons, and rest to replenish his or her vitality and save the game. Other places around the game also allow the protagonist to rest, save and upgrade weapons. He or she will explore what now remains of London, picking up any resources found either lying around or on zombie corpses... anything that will prove useful to ensure survival against hordes of "infected."
The game being based on objectives doesn't mean that one can't explore London beyond the main paths that lead to the various objectives. One may find that some places will be inaccessible until he or she has the right equipment, not unlike the original trilogy of Resident Evil games... or even Metroid for that matter. Taking down notes of places where you might want to come back later once the right equipment is in possession could be a good idea... things that block the way and require a different piece of equipment not currently in the inventory are added to the map with a red dot when scanned, which is convenient. However it's impossible to have a look at the detailed map of a remote area. The player has to be in said area to look at the map of said area, which on the other hand can be inconvenient.
Speaking of the GamePad, it acts as the survivor's backpack. This means that whenever he or she needs to look through documents or equipment, the TV screen will only show them looking through their things, prompting you to look at the GamePad where the equipment and other information can be managed. Meanwhile, they are at the (non-existent) mercy of any incoming zombie, meaning that going through it should only be done when totally sure that the area is safe... and then it might not actually be, which is what builds the tension and thrill that comes from playing ZombiU.
The other big use of the GamePad is the scanner. The survivor always carries around a scanner, which can be used for looking around the environment with a black light for hints that would otherwise be invisible, and locating boxes and other containers that may or may not hold items, as well as detecting the presence of living creatures, be they animals or Infecteds. This action is done by holding down the L button on the GamePad, and moving it around. The gyroscopes, accelerometers and geo-sensor inside detect the movements when looking around... or simply use the right analogue stick to do the same thing effortlessly. This bears an uncanny resemblance to the portable scanning device found in Resident Evil: Revelations on 3DS.
Of course, the most defining aspect of ZombiU, and the most spoken of before its release, is how the player's death is handled. Should the survivor become infected by a bite from a zombie, they will become a zombie as well, and the player has to continue the adventure with a different survivor... This is provided that the player is playing the Normal game. In Survival mode, dying means the game is over and must be restarted from scratch.
In Normal, items left by the previous survivor in the chest at the safe house can still be retrieved. However, in order to get back the equipment (and key items affecting the story) the previous survivor had on when becoming infected, the player has to track him or her down and go for the kill to get back the contents of the previous backpack.
Failing to do so, such as dying again before reaching that zombie survivor means that the content will be lost forever (except for the key items which always remain on the ground where you lost them). Repeated deaths can then be damaging to the chances of survival. However, being connected to the Internet means that zombies of fellow players on the Friend's List, as well as complete strangers, will also appear in your game, and killing these can also reward the player with some useful loot. This "connected" aspect of ZombiU brings a lot to the experience.
Speaking of Internet access, the game is devoid of any direct online multiplayer interaction, beyond the ability to discuss the game on its dedicated Miiverse community pages and tagging icons on the walls throughout the game. What remains instead is a local two-player mode, where one player plays as Boris, the self-proclaimed King of Zombies, using the GamePad, and the other player uses either a Wii Remote and Nunchuk or the WiiU Pro Controller. Two modes exist. In the first one, Boris simply spawns loads of zombies in the arena of his choice to try to kill the survivor player, in a overhead view on the GamePad... while the survivor plays in first-person on the TV, attempting to survive for as long as possible in a strictly first-person shooter fashion. The other one is a bit more interesting. Both Boris and the survivor compete to capture a set amount of flags on the chosen map. Capturing flags is done by standing in the area around them for some time. While the multiplayer feels like it's just there so that it can be mentioned on the box, it makes for a nice little distraction from the main game and is not bad per se... It won't make up for the lack of any online co-operative mode, though, and the real meat of the game still lies in the lonely survival horror part.
This has been discussed quite a lot, but while the game is certainly very far from being ugly, it's not visually very impressive either. While it certainly holds up pretty well in this day and age, some blurry textures found throughout, as well as modern day visual effects being somewhat reduced to a minimum use, mean that this is not as impressive as one would expect from the console that is, at time of the game's release, the most powerful on the market.
This could be due to the fact that, when scanning around, the console has to both render the scenery in, apparently, 720p native on the TV screen, while it is rendering a second separate scene on the GamePad and streaming it to the GamePad without delay. This must obviously put some strain on the hardware that wouldn't be found in the same game had it been designed for a regular console.
However, no one should dismiss the game based on visuals alone, because what IS on offer is still one heck of a scary game, with an excellent atmosphere and the visuals are still quite a pleasure to look at. Overall, it's a very dark experience, with the only source of lighting available in a lot of places being the flash light that consumes energy over time and recharges itself automatically once it's battery level reaches zero, or when it is turned off...meaning that there are times when the player will be forced to wait for a few seconds in the darkness. Carefully choosing when to recharge the batteries will then be of the utmost importance.
It should also be mentioned that there are a fair few bugs and glitches left in the game at time of writing (which could be addressed in a future patch), despite the system prompting automatically the download of a first patch on launch day. Zombies suddenly sprouting clones of themselves or passing through walls (or getting stuck in them), as well as the scanner still indicating the presence of enemies or animals that have already been killed, down to the physics engine not always handling properly the positioning of certain enemy corpses within the scenery, leading to some downright hilarious positions of enemies in the environments... This doesn't happen too often and doesn't affect the experience too much, but it has to be mentioned. Here's hoping that Ubisoft hears word of these and rectifies things as soon as possible, for the sake of all future adopters of this wonderful beast of a hardcore game... because that's what ZombiU is.