“First come the oohs and aahs. Then it’s the running and screaming.” That’s what Dr. Ian Malcolm told us all nineteen years ago as he visited Jurassic Park but the same words could quite easily be applied to ZombiU, Ubisoft’s key launch title for Nintendo’s new uber-console, the WiiU. It’s not just because of the WiiU, either. No, Ubisoft have managed to get a better grasp on the newest gaming plaything than anyone other than Nintendo - perhaps even including the big N - themselves and in so doing have delivered a wonderfully intense, varied and new-feeling zombie game which whilst enjoyable in the main feels like a true survival horror in a world where all the survival horror franchises have otherwise evolved into action-adventures and/or pale imitations of their former selves.
The game starts out in London with you playing the role of a lone human in an area seemingly teeming with zombies. You hear a voice, one urging you to get to safety, and you follow this guiding voice otherwise death will become you. This introduction to the game serves as a tutorial, one that will be greatly appreciated by the majority of players as ZombiU will be one of their very first experiences of the WiiU and the GamePad. At first the game controls as one might expect from many a console first-person shooter (when just running and looking around), although the character you play as feels slower than you might expect, helping to ramp up the tension throughout the game. The whole control scheme in fact is seemingly built not just with the WiiU’s unique capabilities in mind but also with a view to making things awkwardly real, as if you really were running away from that zombie. It becomes very real when you die towards the end of this opening sequence.
Ubisoft have grasped with aplomb what the WiiU is all about. ZombiU needs both the television and the GamePad in order to play as it doesn’t just mirror the same visuals across both screens like some other launch titles do. On the big screen is the three-dimensional world around you, all dark and fuzzy with familiar London-based architectural design; tube stations and key landmarks liberally strewn throughout. The GamePad is used not just to control your onscreen avatar as you make your way from point A to B, killing zombies merrily on high along the way, but doubles as your tablet / scanner in the game. For example, you might be after a keycard on the person of one of the dead bodies lying around. Hold your GamePad up in front of you, look around the area and touch the screen to scan when you’re viewing a body. When you find that body you’ll want to loot it, so look down at your GamePad to see what your inventory currently looks like and whether you have space for your new goodies. The thing is, at all times, the game is still progressing. Things are still happening. Imagine the nerves, the tension, the fear as you’re desperately trying to get that shotgun from your bag to use it against the zombies coming your way. Oh. Too late. It’s incredibly simple but oh so effective. You really do spend a large proportion of this game defecating bricks. Think Dead Space without actually being able to see the things coming your way when managing inventory and the like - all because you’re looking at the wrong screen.
There are other fabulous uses of the GamePad and the WiiU’s various sensors to enable an improved gameplay experience - both expected and otherwise - and one which is far more immersive than would be possible elsewhere. One is that you hear the voice of Prepper, your guide on this eventful journey, through your GamePad as though it were a walkie-talkie. Another is that in addition to it being your scanner when using it as a viewfinder, it also shows your map (obvious really eight years after the DS was launched) and can be used as radar - very handy when trying to understand how many zombies there might be in any given area before you pass through. This isn’t foolproof though unfortunately as the range is limited plus others come in from adjoining areas at times also.
There are a lot of zombies around, and more as you progress through the game’s various missions and requirements. As mentioned before, the opening tutorial sees you die and that’s where you learn this game is closer to Dark Souls than it may seemingly have been at first. You see, if you die, you die. That character called David Jones, or Martha Donovan will be a zombie now. The dead, undead. You don’t stop playing, of course, you just continue as a new survivor (unless you choose the alternative game mode at which point if you die, then that is it). Waking up in your safehouse you continue where you left-off. Your first task will normally be to go and collect your ‘souls’, or BOB (Bug-Out Bag) which contains all your loot you had on you when you died. If you die before you get it the bag is gone. All the items will be found again somewhere in the area but not in one handy bag on the back of a lumbering dead-thing with its name and score floating above it. You might see other zombies with scores and names floating around them too, and these will be visitors from the MiiVerse including your friends who have played - and died in - ZombiU.
The actual gameplay is fairly standard albeit wrapped up in a novel and well-utilised container. Prepper will give you basic missions which encourage you to find a route to a given location, locating keycards and solving puzzles along the way, all with the aim of gaining control of more CCTV cameras or building up your resource pile or some such goal as you move further through the narrative shell. You tend to take it steady when entering a new area thanks to the nervous tension and fear of what might be lurking in the shadows. In time you’ll become familiar with the maps given multiple objectives and many passes through it back and forth. The game has shortcuts (manholes) between locations centered around your safehouse, which minimises unnecessary backtracking thankfully. On your travels you’ll encounter various zombies and you can hit them with bats or take them out with some of your limited bullets. After enough melee hits, if close enough, you’ll get the opportunity to finish them in a less distinct way than Mortal Kombat allows for.
Melee is likely to become your most used kill method given the scarce ammo and alarming inability to shoot well in a consistent manner. Partly the game's set that way with real physical reactions to shooting a gun, but also the terror you’ll feel when multiple undead are bearing down upon you. It’s like the scene early in Resident Evil 4 where you’re stuck in the house and everything’s coming at you from all angles. Only there are far fewer, and you’re far less capable. With more than one zombie on you, despite any limitations you might find with the gun you’re going to die most probably as hitting them with a bat takes too many hits and you just can’t hold out.
Over time the specifics of a mission become less important and your focus is more on surviving for longer and building a better score compared to your previous goes and also the scores of your friends, all the while striving to learn more about John Dee the astronomer and his beliefs, prophecies and their legacy. It’s all hokum but fairly gritty which fits in with the style of the game very well. Being set in London it does feel like it’s from London, without any significant level of Hollywood pizazz - it is a Neil Marshall movie a la Dog Soldiers as opposed to Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. It looks alright as games go. The darkness evident throughout the game is ostensibly what’s needed and comes with nice low-level lighting effects the majority of the time but all kinds of blacks melting into greys and black crush is common as well. The art style is in keeping with the overall atmosphere but very few flourishes are evident. It may be a new HD console, but it’s mid generation PS3 / Xbox 360 in reality. However it is of course running a second screen via wireless which has absolutely no lag in any regard and works perfectly as intended at all times. The audio design is simple enough but adds to the atmosphere as things go well, then awry and finally bloody awfully.
What Ubisoft have done here is provide the standout launch title for Nintendo’s own console. Yes, New Super Mario Bros. U is the obvious riposte to that, and it might be the superior game but here is something new and something which makes sense of the WiiU itself. We have here a true survival horror with the skilled French developers mixing British grit with a Japanese gaming template all expressing the narratives first laid to bare in 1960’s USA. Most important of all anyone who plays ZombiU will understand the WiiU.