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Preview: ZombiU brings back true survival horror

5:45 PM on 10.25.2012 // Alessandro Fillari

True terror awaits

2012 is the year of the zombie. It’s been a strange, but wonderful year for the zombie sub-genre. With games like DayZ, The War Z, and The Walking Dead, the demand for the walking, shambling undead seems to be at an all-time high. And with Nintendo’s new console just on the horizon, what better way to debut a new kind of horror game featuring zombies?

The developers at Ubisoft Montpellier have been hard at work on a brand new title that’ll prove to be a fresh take on the zombie sub-genre. My hands-on time with ZombiU showed that Ubisoft knows what it takes to show the big names what true survival horror is all about by returning to the roots, and bringing back what made these games so engaging.

ZombiU (Wii U)
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release: November 18, 2012

You begin the game with your survivor looking for safe haven while wandering the abandoned streets of London.  Just when you’re ambushed by a horde of zombies, a mystery man using the city’s CCTV network alerts you of the nearby London underground train station, which your character promptly makes a dash for. From here, you take control of your survivor, who is unarmed and must explore the station to find your mystery savior. Along the way, you encounter an ex-survivor turned undead.

The former survivor comes equipped with a backpack, which serves as your inventory and storage when out in the field. Managing it is very intuitive and easy to get a grasp of. Swiping the backpack tab on the Wii U pad will engage the backpack menu, where you can organize your gear by dragging and dropping onto your quick-select slot on the pad.

When sorting your items and equipment, the game will not pause, leaving your character vulnerable. And in an more a clever twist, it’ll prompt players to focus their eyes on the Wii U pad. The gameplay on the television will cut to your survivor focusing on his backpack, much like the player, while the player navigates the inventory on the Wii U gamepad's screen. This not only is a cool twist on management, but it also adds tension by putting the player in the shoes of the survivor.

After wandering the halls of the station further, you’ll eventually reach a makeshift safe house in the one of the security rooms. This serves as your hub for the majority of the game. Here, you’ll be able to make use of the CCTV network and monitor the surrounding areas for supplies and zombie activity, store items and weapons, upgrade character perks (weapon handling perks in particular), apply mods to your guns, and sleep to rejuvenate your character. After resting up, you’re tasked with venturing out to the local supermarket to collect supplies.

Get use to seeing the safe room, because you’ll be returning to this place often. An interesting element is the survivor system. The characters you play as are randomly generated -- complete with their own name, gender, occupation, and costume -- and taking one of many influences from Dark Souls, player death is not only a very painful moment, but also a learning experience.

As you’ll come to learn over the course of the game, it’s best not to get too attached to your characters, because one wrong turn down an alley leading to a swarm of the undead, or even a long drop down a scaffolding, can spell the end for them. Upon the death of your ex-survivor you come to a results screen showing how long you lasted and how many zombies you took out. Afterwards, you take on the role of a new survivor who also found the safe house. When your handler brings you up to speed, you’re tasked with finding a backpack. And from where else? Why your former survivor, of course.

As I’ve mentioned before, getting attached to your character can be troublesome. I spent almost an hour with my first, and after finding him as a walking corpse with bloodshot eyes as my new character, I genuinely felt bad about putting him down and looting him afterwards. But alas, it must be done. Though be warned, dying before successfully looting your previous character will result in the loss that particular set of gear. So you only have one shot to regain any valuable gear and items from you last character.

During my trek through the train station, we got to make use of more equipment. We were introduced to our scanning device, which made use of the Wii U pad’s gyro sensors. Players hold up the control pad vertically and shift it around to scan the environment for clues and loot. As one of the Wii U’s launch titles, Ubisoft Montpellier has went all out to show off the capabilities of the controller pad. With 18 different functions for the Wii U pad, across the single-player and multiplayer modes, the developers hope to keep things fresh with offering players a variety of methods to explore and survive the world of ZombiU.

The element I admire the most is the fact that it doesn’t fall into the same trends as other modern zombie games. ZombiU lets players know from the outset that the run-and-gun attitudes of other horror/action games won’t cut it here. Your survivor has to avoid most of the undead, scrounging up any weapons they can find. The first weapon you get your hands on is a cricket bat, which he or she will attack with very slowly. It does an effective job of conveying that you are normal person with no combat experience of any kind. Which makes all the encounters against the various types of zombies a thrilling experience.

ZombiU isn’t a shooting gallery by any means. It is very much a thinking man’s horror game, in the vein of the earlier installments of Resident Evil. It takes some time to get use to the heavy feeling and weight of your character‘s movement and actions. This adjustment period might put off people who are too used to twitch-based FPS controls, but I found it to be quite refreshing. Guns are slow and awkward, while ammo and supplies are limited. Players have to make a choice of whether to fight the undead, or avoid them entirely. But be careful which areas you leave zombies in. The game will save your progress constantly, and zombies left unharmed from previous areas will be there for you when you make a return.

Added to this tension is the fact your character isn’t immune to the infection that has taken hold of much of the population. One grab from a zombie will spell the end of your survivor. While this sounds a bit unfair -- and to be honest, I thought so too at first -- ZombiU gives you plenty of options to avoid and fight the undead. Zombies are of the slow-moving variety, which gives you a natural advantage. You can run past them, vault over obstructions, and duck into rooms to evade them. When they get too close for comfort, you can push them back which can cause them to stagger. Fighting multiple zombies, and even the different zombie types such as the screamer, which of course summons more zombies, is very unsettling. In the good way, of course. Eventually, you can acquire a vaccine which acts like a safety net when you get grabbed. Again, being grabbed even once without a vaccine on hand means the end for your character.

After making it to the supermarket and clearing out the undead, I made my way to the sewers underneath train station. At this point, my time had ended with the game. All in all, I went through five survivors in the first 90 minutes with the game. Surprisingly, this seemed to be the average for most players. This was a great opener because it really conveys this difficulty of ZombiU, letting players know what they’re in for. If it proves to be too challenging for some, the difficulty can be lowered to the Chicken Mode, which is essentially the easy setting.

I do have to say, at times, it feels a bit too focused on upping the tension and being hardcore-minded. In some cases, the controller layout feels counter-intuitive. Swapping weapons and items are done from quick-select icons on the touch screen, meaning you’ll have to maneuver your hand across the pad to touch the icon. This can feel a bit uncomfortable, because of the weightiness of the controller, but also because of how wide it is. Although this makes ZombiU feel tense during enemy encounters, it does so for the wrong reasons. The single-player mode doesn’t make use of the d-pad, either, which strikes me as odd. While the controls feel great for the most part, I do feel that they went for form over comfort in regards to controls in cases like this.

ZombiU will undoubtedly be one of the most talked about titles of the Wii U’s launch lineup. In many ways, this game feels like a successful mix of the scares and tension from the classic Resident Evil series, along with the hardcore mechanics of From Software’s Souls games. I feel as if this could be a runaway hit for gamers looking for a uniquely challenging experience, and what better way for Nintendo to attract core gamers? For more information on the multiplayer mode, check out Abel’s preview here.

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Alessandro Fillari, Staff Writer
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A San Francisco native, he's an admirer of the city's diverse culture and lifestyle. Prior to joining the staff, he was a contributor and an editor for his college newspaper where he wrote articl... more   |   staff directory

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