SDCC 2012: Respawn of the Dead in ‘ZombiU’

During SDCC, Ubisoft demoed their zombie-killing FPS for Nintendo’s new hardware. Always an early adopter when it comes to new hardware, Ubisoft is something like a test case for Nintendo’s new console, a gauge of whether or not the WiiU can meet the expectations trifecta of graphics, delivering hardcore gaming, and exploiting the new controller.

Based on my half hour or so of combined time with a slice of the single player campaign and its multiplayer mode, I can say with confidence that at the very least, ZombiU is committed to resuscitating survival horror. Because make no mistake: you will die playing ZombiU and often, a first-person love letter to breathless tension and near panic as you realize you’ve used your final bullet.

So how does it play? How is the new Wii controller used? And is it any good?

In the single player level I previewed, my character was a middle aged man tasked with finding antibiotics for a fellow survivor at night in an abandoned school. Apparently, you’ll swap out characters throughout the campaign as you attempt to navigate and survive the zombie apocalypse in metropolitan London. Equipped with a 9MM pistol, a shotgun, and a cricket bat, I set out to find those antibiotics, beginning in a nursery.

The first thing you’ll notice when you take control of your character in ZombiU is that it’s a slightly heavier experience than most FPS. Your character handles like a combination of the Master Chief and Condemned’s Ethan Thomas. There’s no bob to the characters, but they’re not exactly floaty like the characters in something like Left 4 Dead without feeling like a tank. Your actions–swinging the bat, in particular–have a real heft to them.

The Wii U hardware renders the darkened environments and shambling dead that come at you with a good deal of detail. There’s that slight sheen to some of the objects in the environment as a light source hits them, but nothing looks plastic-y.

In the narrow corridors of the school, it wasn’t hordes of zombies I had to worry about, but solitary aggressive ones that can only be put down by smashing their brain. The cricket bat is effective on this score, as you use the trigger on the controller to swing while aiming with the analog sticks. I enjoyed the real sense of semi-precise control for the cricket bat, swinging laterally or bashing downward. It doesn’t seem like you can kill a zombie with the bat until it’s on the ground and you can either perform a downward bash or a QTE-style stomp attack with your foot.

Speaking of QTEs, if zombies get in close, this is pretty much how you’re going to have to get them off. And they will get close often if you’re not careful. If you don’t survive your encounter, you’ll of course die. But since this is a zombie game, you’ll rise again. And when playing through the level again, you can find your living dead body and kill it (along with the zombie that killed you).

Shooting feels a little less visceral. There’s not enough kickback in the pistol and when bullets fly at your zombie attackers, it’s a little hard to track whether or not you landed the shot. This was less of a problem for the shotgun, and was mostly an issue with the pistol.

On the campaign side, the Wii U controller is used to scan the environment for hidden objects in an unfortunate mirror of the same kind of scanning mode used in Resident Evil: Revelations. Holding up the controller to look around the environment slows down the action and feels less immersive than intrusive.

In the 1v1 multiplayer mode I played, the Wii U controller was put to far better use for an asymmetrical capture the flag mode. The Nintendo rep playing as the survivor played from the first-person perspective, running through the alleyways, attempting to avoid the zombies I was deploying on the Wii U controller’s touchscreen. On my side, it was like a resource management game, with four zombie types, each tuned to either chasing the player or capturing the flag location. To avoid imbalance in the action, I could only drop new zombies after what I’m going to call the “Zombie Resource Meter” was full.

The touchscreen displays the level as a rough map with some details about corridors and the survivor location. Again, to provide balance, I wasn’t able to drop zombie units into the red highlighted area around the player. This is how you use the Wii U controller.

I came away with my brief time with ZombiU intrigued by the campaign and pretty excited by the multiplayer. I’m still not happy with the shooting, but that could be a matter of a learning curve.

We’ll find out when ZombiU is released later this year.

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