ZombiU – Hands On Preview

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We come away suitably impressed with Ubisoft's bespoke Wii U zombie title.

Ubisoft has been something of knight in shining armour to Nintendo and its impending Wii U console. Not only have the publisher been convinced to port the hugely anticipated Assassin’s Creed 3 to the system, but has even seen fit to develop all-new titles in the shape of Rayman Legends and ZombiU.

I’ll be posting my thoughts on Rayman later, but having had chance to try out a good number of Wii U launch titles at a recent preview event, it’s ZombiU that’s at the forefront of my mind and the game that I’m most looking forward to picking up come 30th November.

I’ll start by holding my hands up and stating that I wasn’t particularly excited for ZombiU; possibly more through an oversaturation of all things undead across TV, movies and games as much as anything else. Well, after having spent time playing (and watching others play) Ubisoft’s zombie holocaust I’m pleased to announce I was dead wrong in my apathy.

The first thing to strike me is that the game has more elements in common with Dark Souls than it does a Resident Evil or Dead Space, as it borrows the former’s unforgiving difficulty, dependency on getting back to where you died to take back your past possessions and abundance of enemies and traps that lay in wait just around that next darkened corner.

There’s even a similar tagging system to that of Dark Souls, so that spray painted messages left on walls by other players are transferred, through the magic of the internet, to your system to provide much needed guidance. There’s even a feature whereby the resurrected corpse of a friend might saunter into your game (complete with your friend’s equipment) and can be tracked down if your mate tells you where he was when zombies overwhelmed him.

The storyline based on an adapted history of Britain is intriguing too, and though little of the plot’s subtleties were obvious during the short chunk of the game I was able to survive, the constant mention of 16th Century astrologist and mystic John Dee was more than enough to peak my interest.

Apparently the plot revolves around the ‘Black Prophecy’ as supposedly predicted by Dee in the reign of Charles II, and the ‘Blight’ (seemingly the name of the cause of the zombie outbreak). Translatable glyphs written in Dee’s angelic Enochian language provided clues for progression, while the ‘Ravens’ – a group formed by Charles II in case Dee’s prophecy of a future plague came true – provides a last line of defense (akin to Doctor Who’s Torchwood).

Intriguing then, and thankfully it’s a plot which is supported by keenly honed gameplay hell-bent intent on causing as much tension as possible and gothic visuals which transform a very realistically laid out London (at least from what I saw which was based around Tower Bridge and the Tower of London) into a nightmarish twilight world concealing a multitude of undead.

Central to the game is the Wii U’s GamePad and rather than being a gimmick it’s functions are absolutely key to the game’s atmosphere. Looting corpses for precious supplies for example requires the player to stare at the GamePad’s screen and move items one-by-one by use of the touchscreen. While engaged in such activities the game doesn’t pause, so enabling any nearby undead to creep up on you unaware.

Similarly the GamePad can be used to scan environments, so revealing secret supply stashes, enabling the scanning of zombies and their subsequent marking for tracking purposes and allowing you to download maps from electronic devices. You’ll also enter door codes through the touchscreen, once more leaving you to hurriedly hit the required buttons while otherwise unable to defend yourself.

In fact stress has been used as a device to terrify throughout. Prostrate zombies for example might suddenly spring back to un-life and grab the player’s legs, your torch only has a finite charge and seems predetermined to shut off just as you need light the most and wading through water sees your character holding your precious backpack above his or her head to avoid anything getting damage, so leaving you defenseless for a brief period.

When not engaged with the GamePad directly it will still emit a beep to indicate movement in a way similar to the trackers in Aliens. Moody, scary and not always accurate – as my sneaking up on a bird (that I’d supposed to be a zombie) confirmed. Still, it’s good to have an audible indictor of trouble, for trouble is around every corner.

In this particular demo I had access to a pistol, double-barreled shotgun, sniper rifle and cricket bat. A good start at an offence but an offence rendered largely pointless once I’d run out of that scarcest of commodities: ammo. So it is that your main weapon will be the cricket bat, a combination of the left and right shoulder button readying the bludgeoning instrument before commencing its swing.

Zombies are of the 28 Days Later aggressive variety and so timing is everything if you’re to get the best connection (and so leave them on the ground ready for the finishing blow) and bad timing can leave to a very bloody battle indeed as zombies, minus most of their heads, keep coming back for more. You can also push back a group of zombies with a defensive punt, so creating a much needed break or opportunity to run.

Thankfully zombies won’t auto-detect you enabling you to either get the drop on them, or sneak by. While some might carry explosive tanks for example (if say they’re the zombie of a construction worker) so allowing for group detonations. In fact having found the sniper rifle I was able to aim (by holding up the GamePad at eye-level and looking through the scope) and take out three zombies at once with the collateral damage.

If a zombie does breach your defense it’s usually curtains – though a dose of virucide which is extracted from the infected can save you in a pinch. Ultimately though you are going to die, and another unique aspect of the game is that you won’t respawn as the same character, but rather another survivor sheltering at a safe house, so leaving you to retrieve you items from the backpack of your zombified previous self – a nice touch.

I came away from ZombiU well impressed with not only the game but also its functionality and while I’m certainly ready for more, I’m sure I won’t be so full of bravado when I’m cowering in my living room, on my own… in the dark.

Format: Wii U
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
When? 30 November 2012

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