ZombiU: A survival horror epic in the making?
27th Aug 2012 | 14:00
As a brand-sparkling new IP from Ubisoft (if you ignore the 1986 Amstrad CPC adventure game Zombi, natch), ZombiU has invited inevitable comparisons with Red Steel, which was seen as Wii's great hardcore hope during its own launch window period back in 2006.
ZombiU however has learned well from its forerunner's mistakes. While Red Steel struggled valiantly against the Wii controller's limitations - leading to flaily swordplay and dizzying cameras - ZombiU actively works with the limitations of the GamePad controller, and in doing so it sets a precedent that future Wii U action games would do well to follow.
Perhaps you're wondering what those limitations might be. After all, isn't the Wii U GamePad supposed to be the daddy of all controllers? It's got a freakin' TV built into the middle of it, ferchrissake. Its only inherent limitation should be whether you can lift the thing or not. (And in practice it's so light we were paranoid that the thing would be carted off by a parade of leaf-cutter ants the moment our backs were turned).
Well, it's like this. It's true that Wii U's dual-screen setup is a revelation when used in certain ways - a few moments on Nintendo Land is all that's needed to prove Nintendo's much-heralded 'asymmetrical multiplayer' is a concept with merit, while the charms of playing New Super Mario Bros U in the bed/hammock/futon/chaise longue are obvious, particularly if, like us, you live with an X Factor-obsessed tyrant.
But when a Wii U game asks us to shift our attentions from one screen to the other in quick succession, it's a recipe for brainachery. Concentrating on two busy screens simultaneously is a mental impossibility. It's why it's illegal to text and drive.
Developers appear to have two options then: either use the two screens in tandem sparingly, or not at all. But Ubisoft Montpellier's survival horror thriller carves open a third option for itself: it builds its suspense entirely around having to juggle between the two screens...
In ZombiU you see, survival comes tough and concentration is everything. Its zombies aren't the same namby-pamby undead shufflers you see in Resident Evil or Dead Rising - these suckers will forgo the frilly foreplay and knock you off the mortal coil with one swift chomp. Your character is equipped with an anti-virus syringe, which he or she will automatically deploy into your assailant's neck the first time you get grabbed. Get hooked a second time though, and it's curtains.
Such slight margins of error are unfortunate if you find yourself - as we did in this year's Gamescom hands-on demonstration - in the tight, winding corridors of a post-apocalyptic Buckingham Palace. With very little wiggle room to play with, survival instead depends on clever inventory management. Guns, mines and rations can all be scooped up and stored in your backpack, and you can hotswap between each item by tapping on the touch screen.
But here's where the GamePad barges in to leave its own teethmark on the experience. By default you have six inventory slots to hand, but your trusty rucksack can hold more than that. To equip a new item you simply open it up and drag and drop your new selection into an available slot.
Except it's not that easy: the world doesn't stop spinning while you rummage around your backpack - instead, you've got to keep one eye on the on-screen action while you fumble around for your keys. With zombies willing to bust out of the woodwork at a moment's notice, re-tooling your inventory is a fraught affair. But not nearly as fraught as stocking it in the first place.
Weapons are, to put it mildly, scarce. To fill up your cupboard properly, you'll need to veer off the beaten track and hunt them down. To facilitate this, you're equipped with a black light scanner, which is activated by holding the GamePad in an upright position and panning around the environment using the MegaPad's gyroscopic sensor.
Again, doing so leaves you wide open to a surprise zomb attack, but the pay-off is that you can scan corpses for items, and locate secret rooms by following the white arrows painted on the walls, ceilings and doorways. (Best not to ask what exactly they've been painted on with).
Once you've located a weapon, you're presented with another quite unique dilemma to ponder: do you actually take it with you, or not? It takes conkers of steel to turn your nose up at a brand spanking new shotgun, particularly if you're about to venture into a zombie lair for the first time ever, but due to the unusual way ZombiU 'does' death, it may actually turn out to be the wisest move you can make.
That's because when your character croaks it, he's gone forever, along with all the items he once possessed. Actually not quite forever - there's time for an encore - but alas, only as a zombie. As the next survivor in line, you've got the option of hunting down your undead former self and re-killing him to recapture your gear. At the same time though, Wii U's social media functions will alert your friends to your death, and invite them into your world to beat you to the punch and loot your swag. And that's why, sometimes, it's best to leave that shotgun where you found it.
DECLINES OF SYMMETRY
The dual-screen dynamic is so essential to the experience that the single-player campaign can only be played with the GamePad, but Pro Controller junkies can get their ZombiU fill with the (yes!) asymmetrical multiplayer, which sees two players wrestle for control of three points on a map. It's a lop-sided twist on the age-old Domination format, if you will. While the player with the Pro Controller battles on the ground in traditional FPS fashion, the GamePad-wielder wages war from above in what for them becomes something akin to a real-time strategy game.
The Zombi Master (for that is the GamePad-holder's job title) can magic into existence up to ten zombies at a time. There are several different 'flavours' to choose from - some are aggressive types that are best deployed to inconvenience the player on the ground, while others offer little resistance but are capable of taking the control point at a much faster rate - consider the scout class in Team Fortress 2.
While it's great fun to be the Zombi Master (we've even had our business cards reprinted to show our new title) we're concerned that as things stand, it's a tad unbalanced - the Zombi Master won almost every round we played. Mind you, we were playing with our aforementioned aureate friend from Edge, so maybe he was distracted by a booth babe dressed as a thesaurus, or something.
While ZombiU isn't destined to disappoint like Red Steel ultimately did, we can't shake the feeling that ZombiU is unlikely to go down as a classic. While the ideas behind it are crisp, the game design seems restricted by the insta-death mechanic. It's rare to encounter more than three zombies at a time, so you never get the sense of being overwhelmed or the sense of scale you get in, say, Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead. Furthermore, the melee attacks and guns feel slightly limp, but there's still time for Ubisoft Monpellier to give that a shot in the arm before release.
For now we'll have to wait and see if the final result is strong like Romero's own Zombi Master "Big Daddy", or ends up as just another pile of decaying undead flesh.