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Nintendo Airstream 2012: ZombiU - Sean's Impressions

by: Sean Colleli -
More On: Nintendo Wii U ZombiU
I have to admit that ZombiU is my most anticipated Wii U launch title and one of the biggest reasons I’m laying down the big bucks for a console on day one. The gameplay footage I’ve seen promises a truly creative use of the GamePad right at launch, which is really saying something. As more footage and trailers were released it became clear to me that Ubisoft was going for a survival horror revival with ZombiU, bringing the genre back to a desperately needed focus on dread, slow creeping exploration and an emphasis on the serious consequences of mortality. I was not disappointed.

After hundreds of hours playing Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil Chronicles and House of the Dead Overkill, ZombiU was a real slap in the face—in a good way if you can imagine that. The game starts you off in front of the ruined Buckingham Palace, during a drizzling nighttime rain very reminiscent of those creepy-as-hell early village levels in Resident Evil 4. An ominous cockney-accented man give you directives over a radio, but it’s obvious that you’re a means to an end and likely expendable.

In fact, that’s the main thrust of the game. Melee attacks from zombies will inflict normal damage, but if you’re grabbed by one of the ghouls you get bitten, and die. Just like that. You can find syringes of zombie killer to use as a last-ditch escape, similar to the secondary weapons in the GameCube Resident Evil remake, but if you’re caught without any syringes you’re pretty much screwed. You’ll then respawn as a completely new character back in the saferoom, with only basic starting equipment and back at your starting skill levels. Even worse, then it’s up to you to hunt down your previous character who is now zombified, put them down and retrieve all the equipment you were carrying before you got bit.

This gameplay dynamic is rather sobering and does away with the immersion-breaking checkpoint system that’s so standard in games these days. It also heightens the tension considerably, as retracing your steps back to your zombified corpse is just as dangerous as pressing onward into unknown territory. You aren’t defenseless, of course—you start out armed with a pistol and a cricket bat and acquire new weapons along the way—but as in the survival horror games of old, weapon and ammo conservation is crucial.

For example there’s plenty of pistol ammo around but it’s weak and the pistol needs frequent reloading. Shotguns are beastly strong but slow to reload, incredibly loud and the ammo is scarce; appropriately, the crossbow is probably the best all-purpose weapon because it’s silent and you can retrieve the bolts. Slow and quiet is king when it comes to combat tactics, and you’ll want to bash in skulls with your cricket bat whenever possible because it’s quiet and conserves ammo. If you start making noise you’ll attract a lot of brain-munchers, and when you’re surrounded there are no badass dual-pistol shootouts like in Left 4 Dead—your only option is to run.

Ubisoft has extended the focus on tension to the controls, and in doing so has made the most creative use of the Wii U Gamepad out of any of the system’s launch titles. Whenever you’re rummaging through your backpack, searching a chest, corpse or otherwise interacting with the world, the object you’re using appears on the GamePad’s screen. However, you can’t get too involved with the GamePad because everything happens in real time, and the game usually takes this opportunity to throw a few zombies at you. You’re constantly glancing back and forth between the GamePad and the TV screen, which displays your character and the view behind him. This mechanic effectively simulates the uneasiness and paranoia of being alone and vulnerable, forcing you to be constantly looking over your shoulder.

The demo I played was only the alpha build from E3, and aside from some really long load times and some framerate jerkiness the game played great, so I’m looking forward to an exceptional final version. I’ve been waiting years for another game to actually scare me and it looks like Ubisoft is going to deliver.