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Hands-On With ZombiU

Posted on August 30, 2012 AT 07:53pm

I finally managed to do something I’ve wanted to do since it was announced, I managed to get my hands on the WiiU and try my hand at Ubisoft’s upcoming zombie survival game, ZombiU. What I came away with was a surprisingly mature, difficult, and intelligently designed zombie game on a platform I honestly had very low expectations for at first. However, after putting in a good hour on the machine and its first-person zombie survival game over this weekend’s FanExpo Canada convention, I find myself having a completely different view on the title. It also probably helped that my ego got a nice boost because I was the first person to beat the demo of ZombiU after the game was available to play for two days. I’m totally not bragging, not in the least bit.

Okay maybe just a little.

The mission I got to play through this weekend was the same one that was shown off in some of the earlier gameplay footage. Your mission was to first scope out Buckingham Palace for anything that could help you and the other survivors, well, survive. After that you were to enter the local nursery and track down some medicine for a sick member of the camp and then make it back out, hopefully without a new set of teeth marks in your neck. Sounds easy at first but the moment you get into the action you are proven oh so wrong.

The game is difficult but in a way that is always fair to the player. You are a squishy human who dies easily and it only takes one wrong move to turn you into one of the walking dead. However, ZombiU never throws at you any trap you can’t see coming or escape if you keep your eyes open. In the open courtyard area before Buckhingham Palace’s gates you are swarmed with zombies coming from behind, blocking off the way you came in. The players that lived here were the ones that didn’t just charge into the fray against the zombies but instead started looking for a way out, namely in between the tents. Those that stayed and fought died, end of discussion. At the end of the weekend expo I asked if anyone had successfully beaten that part by killing all the zombies and the answer was a firm no.

Another example of this is when you are searching around the nursery you will come across a hallway with a dead body at the far end slumped against the wall, a doorway on your left, and a closet on your right. Keep walking forward and a zombie bursts out of the closet at close range, almost killing multiple players. Thing is, if you stopped and looked around for a moment you would notice thick red blood trails across the floor and leading into the closet , it even had a bloody handprint on the door to seal the deal.

That isn’t to say that if you notice everything coming at you beforehand the game is easy. Lining up your shots to not waste ammo with body blows, dealing with multiple zombies at a time, all while actively keeping a count of your ammo in your head quickly becomes a stressful occasion that almost makes you want to break out the cricket bat. While it is rather cathartic, melee range is not where you want to be with these critters.

This leads me nicely into one of the more intriguing parts of ZombiU and how it uses the WiiU’s gamepad. On the TV screen all you see is the action, there is no HUD to work with, no ammo counter, life bar, or map; instead, all of that is mapped to the gamepad which is probably one of the more interesting aspects of ZombiU. See, ZombiU is what I like to call “the smart mans zombie survival game,” meaning you need to be the one constantly thinking and keeping track of things, the game isn’t going to hold your hand. While it is possible to find out all the information you want and need to survive, it requires you taking your focus away from the TV screen for a moment to look at the gamepad, heightening some of the tension in areas.

And despite the many gripes and complaints people had about how adding a second screen would add nothing to the game, I find myself disagreeing with them. If this was your standard first person shooter or adventure game I would agree with them as it takes away from the experience, but ZombiU goal was to put you in direct control of a normal person attempting to survive the zombie apocalypse and that it does very well. Quick selecting your other weapons is easily done through touch on the left hand side of the screen while the middle is filled up with a map of the area that shows where you have already looked. Looking through your inventory takes a little bit more work but fits in with the theme of the game, you swipe your finger down the middle of the touchscreen which causes your character to take off their backpack and start rooting through it. You can then drag your weapons on to the quick select buttons or manipulate your inventory with quick and easy touches. But don’t ever forget that the world around you is still in motion; not keeping an eye on the TV can lead to you getting your neck torn out if you start playing with your inventory without checking the area.

You are also able to scan the area for interactable objects and aim scoped weapons with the gamepad, raising it up and looking about the area as if you would in real life. While this is a neat feature and fits with the game, unfortunately it has an issue I just can’t ignore. When you start up a scan or use the scope it doesn’t start the screen at wherever it currently is pointing. For instance if you are standing and holding the controller at an angle in front of you, the scope will still be pointing down and require you to bring it up to aim. I can only assume this is meant to work well for people sitting down with the controller in their lap but it is still an issue.

On the other hand, after an hour of play that’s pretty much my only complaint with the game. After dealing with hordes of zombies, a mysterious ghost nurse, and several hair raising moments of sheer terror, I can clearly say that Ubisoft has succeeded in making a mature zombie survival game for Nintendo’s new piece of hardware. I can’t wait to get my hands on both ZombiU and the WiiU again when they finally release this holiday season.

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