Platform: Wii U
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release Date: November 30, 2012
Obsessive Compulsive Zombie Disorder
It’s been clear for some time now that the games industry has become completely obsessed by the sinister subject matter of the walking dead. It’s the buzzword that developers just can’t shake out of their unimaginative, stubborn minds.
“Hmm… what do players love to fight against? We need something fresh, original and inspiring, guys… How about… Fluffy kung-fu fighting kittens? No, that’ll never work… Bazooka wielding seals of mass destruction? Nah… Wait, I’ve got it! It begins with “Z” and ends with “E”… Zombies!”
The catalyst of this generation’s scary infatuation is unclear. Capcom had great success when they championed the flesh eating freaks in Resident Evil, as too did Dead Rising, but these last six years has seen the industry overrun by a terrifying quantity of the horror movie staple. Think I’m overreacting? Take a deep breath – here’s a selection of games that feature the goto graveyard rotters:
Call of Duty: World At War, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Burn Zombie Burn, Dead Rising, Dead Rising 2, Dead Rising: Off the Record, Dead Island, Dead Nation, Deadlight, DayZ, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, Lollipop Chainsaw, Plants vs Zombies, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 6, The Walking Dead, The House of The Dead: Overkill and Yakuza: Dead Souls; to name but a few.
But surely, this was enough? Barring a few predictable sequels, these games had to be the last of their kind; the final frontier for the undead deadbeats. Right? Right…? Wrong.
When Ubisoft announced ZombiU for Nintendo’s next home console, those of us bored to despair with the zombie zealots rolled our eyes in unison, exhaling a deep disappointing sigh of bitter anguish. Zombies… How bloody original.
But Ubisoft had an ace up their sleeve; a game changer commissioned by Nintendo that would reinvigorate the key component that was patently missing from all of the other games above: the feeling of genuine fear.
ZombiU takes place in the multicultural city of London, home of the bustling underground, Buckingham Palace, the congestion charge and now, a horrible zombie outbreak.
In the demo I sampled, it was up to my survivor to make it through the dreary docks of a ravaged, gloomy London and essentially, survive at all costs. I’m not ashamed to admit that I failed to complete this seemingly simple objective – twice. And ZombiU felt all the more satisfying for it.
ZombiU plays exactly as you’d expect from a modern-day first-person shooter. The analog sticks control your movement and aim, and the LZ and RZ buttons aim and fire respectfully. There’s a button to reload on the fly, and the ability to sprint by clicking down on the left analog stick. But there’s one big difference: the Wii U’s GamePad. Nintendo’s new controller will leave you scrambling in desperation and living in constant trepidation when performing previously effortless tasks.
Don’t Look Down (Unless You Have To)
ZombiU utilises the GamePad in a myriad of inventive ways, the most basic of which is to display an active map. Glance down at the GamePad’s crystal clear screen, and you’re granted a personal radar to highlight incoming and surrounding enemies. The GamePad also displays your available weapons and items (you can view your items by swiping down on the touchscreen to open up your rucksack), and can also be used as an environmental scanner or sniper scope by holding it up to the TV screen.
As I approached my first bumbling zombie, I glanced down at the GamePad’s display and selected the cricket bat with a tap of my finger. There were two reasons as to why I chose to bludgeon the zombie to death with a quintessentially British piece of sporting equipment. First, ammo is a scarce commodity in ZombiU, and judging by my surroundings, I fancied my chances one-on-one with this shuffling nasty. Second, if I had chosen my handgun and filled the zombie full of precious bullets, other zombies could have been alerted to my presence – something I strictly wanted to avoid.
After hitting the zombie for six, which actually took about eight hits to kill (far too many in my opinion), I looted the lifeless corpse and was prompted to look down at the GamePad to add my salvaged items to the rucksack.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “isn’t looking up and down between the screen and GamePad annoying?”. Well, in all honesty, no. Yes, it takes a bit of getting used to, but here’s the awesome thing: The GamePad is your survival kit. You rely on it, depend on it; it is your only chance of making it out alive when faced with the hordes of the hungry undead. But here’s the catch… If you’re not careful, the very object that is supposed to help you survive can quickly lead to an unexpected death.
When your eyes are averted to the screen below, or you’re scanning the environment with the Wii U GamePad held up towards the screen, your character is essentially helpless. Ponder too long in your rucksack, attempt to snipe a zombie without properly checking your surroundings and the next thing you know – angry, flailing zombie all up in your face! This simple design decision adds real suspense to proceedings.
After sending a number of zombies back to the depths of hell, I was eventually caught completely unawares by a nearby murderous muncher, who proceeded to chomp down on me until I succumbed to a gruesome death. This led to the permanent death of this particular survivor, another intriguing mechanic in ZombiU: if your character is killed, they’re gone for good.
I took on the role of a new sorry soul, and was forced to make the perilous journey back to my now infected, mindless corpse, to retrieve my items. This… did not end well. The fact that there were now two zombies – the one who killed me plus my infected survivor – in a tight space, quickly led to my second demise. But for once, I welcomed death. The zombies deserved their dinner, and they posed a pleasing challenge throughout my time with the game.
In regards to the game’s visuals, ZombiU won’t be winning any awards in the graphical department. That’s not to say the game is vapid or technically inept; far from it. Rather, it’s the game’s dark, dingy and overly grey style that masks the game’s competent graphics, giving it a muddy, bland appearance. However, I was told it was an early build and I’m pretty sure that a zombie terrorised city would hardly sparkle with colour and life, so it’s probably an unavoidable negative.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by ZombiU. It didn’t break any boundaries or strengthen my desire to play anymore zombie games, but it was clear Ubisoft Montpellier had carefully considered how to effectively use the Wii U’s GamePad, with positive results.
The Wii U GamePad isn’t a revolutionary device sent down from the Gods. But the gameplay opportunities opened up by the touchscreen wizardry of Nintendo’s new controller certainly has the potential to make an average game, better, and an excellent game, magnificent. And that’s exactly what the GamePad controls did to ZombiU. It managed to transform an ugly, predictable prospect, into an exciting, unexpected thrill. Kudos to Ubisoft for attempting to take full of advantage of the Wii U’s unique hardware. Let’s just hope that other third-party developers can do the same.