As someone who spends quite a bit of time playing survival-horror games, I can comfortably say that ZombiU is probably the most frightening thing I’ve played since the original Dead Space.
Of course, that’s not because the game is especially gory or violent, but mostly thanks to the Wii U and its GamePad. Quite simply, you’re required to do a lot of things with the tablet and its touchscreen that will eventually kill you, and if you don’t learn the control scheme quickly, you’ll die early, often, and repeatedly.
What you can do with the Wii U GamePad
In my demo session, I got a rundown of everything that I could do with the tablet. Some of the mechanics were easier to grasp than others, but everything felt like it worked the way it should.
By far, the scanner requires the most movement, as you physically have to turn the GamePad’s screen back and forth. You can even turn completely around to look behind you, so you can scan a whole area in one motion. By tapping the touchscreen, the tablet searches containers and corpses, telling you which ones have items and marking them with color-coded tags that you can see on the main TV screen.
The Wii U’s GamePad is also used to equip weapons, sort inventories, aim your shots (including a crossbow targeting scope), and pick locks. ‘Trick is, all of these actions take you out of your combat stance, so you can only focus on your GamePad screen when you’re not in the middle of a fight. It’s a tense affair when you don’t know if you’re alone, and as a result, you want to use the touchscreen as efficiently as possible so you don’t get jumped from behind.
So, how well do the Wii U controls actually work?
Personally, dealing with the tablet controller when I’m used to everything everything being on one screen doesn’t immediately click. And since everything happens in real time, the longer you take to remember how to swap ammo in your backpack, the more time you’re giving zombies to surround and maim you. Scanning areas for items, searching crates for supplies, and equipping weapons all require you to lower your weapons, and as result, you’re not in a combat-ready position. It’s both smart gameplay design and a difficult, restrictive combat mechanic.
Contrast this with a game like Dead Space or one of the more recent Resident Evil titles. Flipping though inventories, equipping guns, using health items, and other such tasks can all be done quickly and efficiently with a controller, giving you plenty of time to react and plan your tactics.
But ZombiU manages to cause a sense of panic by making its controls deliberately complex. Despite running through the same area three times, I never quite got used to the control scheme, and more often than not, I wound up dying because switching weapons was complicated enough to make me fumble nervously when I was being attacked. Throw in the fact that the characters in ZombiU are incredibly fragile (you die very quickly if an undead enemy grabs a hold of you), and the game actually does manage to inject some genuine fear into the gameplay.
Dying, finding yourself, and dying again
Nintendo also demonstrated ZombiU‘s death mechanic—if you die, that character becomes a NPC zombie enemy, and you start over with a new uninfected victim. As a nice touch, the former “you” that’s now undead will also still be holding all the items you died with before. So, if you were packing good guns and a bunch of ammo, you can load up once you track your old character down and kill him or her.
Nintendo expects this to happen often, so new characters are randomized, although by nature of repetition, the more you die, the more familiar you become with the controls and areas.
That’s not to say there’s no risk for dying, though. Keeping a character alive and killing lots of zombies levels up your abilities, and the change is dramatic. After a single upgrade to my weapons skill, I was suddenly able to get headshots with almost twice as much regularity than before. With that in mind, I feel bad for anyone who levels up a character drastically and has to start over from scratch.
Though many fans are balking at Resident Evil and Dead Space for being more action-oriented, at least ZombiU seems like it’s sticking close to the genre’s basics tropes. Complicated controls or not, it’s still making good use of the GamePad so far, and most importantly, it feels the way a survival-horror game should.