After a hands-on session with Ubisoft’s upcoming zombie title, ZombiU, I can say I’m excited for its release, if just a bit tentative. The tentative side of me remembers the first trailer for Dead Island. A three minute cinematic masterpiece which packed more emotional punch than most feature length holocaust movies on gay, wheelchair bound Jews during Nazi Germany. While still a good game Dead Island’s story turned out to be incredibly flat and unemotional, leaving many people confused by the disparity between the trailer and game. While ZombiU’s marketing has focused on aspects of gameplay, it is essential the title nails its narration if it hopes to avoid the Dead Island story trap.
My demo with ZombiU begins with a quick tutorial from a personal Ubisoft representative on the control scheme and layout. Armed with a meager pistol, nine bullets and a cricket bat, I cautiously enter Buckingham Palace’s hall, studiously investigating every dead body, and therefore potential zombie, in sight. Stirring one to life, the rep urges me to shoot him in the head, the only sure death for the undead. Succeeding, a couple more join the fray, descending on my bullet-less handgun. I switch to the cricket bat and start bashing the bastards’ heads in. It takes a while but eventually they fall to their second ‘death’, allowing me to loot their lifeless bodies. Taking on two to three zombies like this is a tense experience. Any more and I would seriously reconsider the need to be a hero and run.
There’s no doubting that ZombiU’s mechanics work. Despite some getting used to, the Wii U gamepad perfectly demonstrates what the controller is capable of, much like what Twilight Princess did for the original Wii. Aiming, shooting, organising your backpack and scanning the environment for hidden items and secret passageways all feel natural on the peripheral. Moreover, these features all blend tremendously well to create a tense experience.
The experience is what Ubisoft Montpellier has set its sights on; a true demonstration of a zombie apocalypse. When your character dies in ZombiU that’s it for them. You reincarnate as another survivor with the ability to recover your backpack, but none of their developed skills. Coupled with an inability to pause time while managing your inventory makes this situation tense, which when trying to emulate a zombie apocalypse, is a good thing. Tense, challenging titles have always offered some of the most rewarding experiences in video games, something any Demon’s/Dark Souls veteran is already aware of. If ZombiU can maintain the rising horror of losing a bag packed with survival essentials, without being needlessly frustrating, then it is set to offer a sense of satisfaction unlike few games before it.
ZombiU admittedly looks great but is not unlike the best the PS3/Xbox 360 has to offer. Environments are taken from London and range Buckingham Palace both inside and out, the surrounding suburbs, a ruined nursery and fog invested city streets. Consistently eerie, the games locale adds a great sense of atmosphere to the apocalyptic world.
My biggest concern with the Wii U launch title is its story, or more specifically the impermanence of our main character and lack of details surrounding the ongoing plot. So far we’ve heard of someone called John Dee, who 400 years earlier prophecised an apocalypse. A bareboned zombie apocalypse story incapable of enticing players to learn more about the games world could, like Dead Island before it, fall flat. If all that drives players to the end is a timer denoting how long they can survive then that tense, atmospheric experience could very easily become an arcade one, which for a title like this is a bad thing.
Ubisoft definitely have something special in its hands, but just how special remains to be seen. If it can add a stellar storyline to an already evolutionary control scheme, future Wii U owners are in for a real treat.