Zombies have become something of the flavour of the month for games in recent years, with almost every franchise putting their own unique spin on the undead hordes. From Resident Evil's zombies-with-crossbows
to Dead Space's reanimated aliens
and Call of Duty's zombie-based survival mini-game
, you'll be hard pushed to find a game that doesn't make reference to the shambling undead somewhere. But a lot of games seem to have forgotten about what makes the traditional mindless shuffling zombie hordes so scary, giving them countless gimmicks to try and shake up the genre (zombies that can run, zombies that have weapons or even zombies that know how to open doors), which only serve to ruin zombies for everyone involved.
Enter ZombiU, an, er, reanimated version of Ubisoft's previously announced WiiU B-movie influenced game Killer Freaks from Outer Space
. Swapping the zombie rabbid-alike enemies seen in the first screenshots for more traditional, well, see the picture below, ZombiU tasks you, playing as an average, every day common or garden citizen, with surviving an outbreak of something or other that's turning everyone into zombies. So far, so standard, but there are two key things that set ZombiU apart. One, it's in olde London towne, and two, it's one of the only known launch titles for the WiiU.
And they're happy to see you, too.
Played from a first person perspective, ZombiU plonks you into the shoes of one of a number of current survivors. Rather than being marines or soldiers, you're playing as normal members of society - teachers, students, firemen, and the like. Possibly even games journalists, too. Played from a first person perspective, it's up to you to find your way around a pretty authentic looking London, and basically, well, survive. The longer you survive, and the more things you do, the more you'll level up your character's skills, making them better at things like picking locks, melee combat, or simply running away, and so giving you a greater chance of staying alive. And far from encouraging you to take on the zombie hordes single handedly, in ZombiU, you'll be wanting to avoid the shuffling undead for as long as you possibly can. And with good reason. You see, not only are you not packing enough firepower to take over a small country, instead having to scrape together whatever you can as and when you find it - cricket bats, fire extinguishers, and random pipes are all fair game as makeshift weapons - but, much like with any encounter with a zombie in real life (it could happen!), in ZombiU it's one strike and you're out. If your character gets bitten, that'll be the end of them, and you'll have to start with a whole new character, losing any weapons and skills you've upgraded. In fact, most of what Ubisoft's been doing in order to promote the game has been focused around how hard it's going to be. Apparently coming with no checkpoints, and no respawns (as though that's a good thing), when you die, you'll die, taking control of an entirely new character at the safehouse. We're hoping that these safehouses are going to act like checkpoints, with the current "no saves, because we're too hard" posturing merely being a ploy to attract the masochists. Either that, or you'll genuinely have to try and complete the game in a single sitting, which means it'll either be very short, or you'll have to practically turn yourself into a zombie in order to see the end. Being the not-all-that-talented players we are, to us, this concept sounds scary enough as it is. When we inevitably die (and we will, in the first ten minutes), are we really going to have to start the whole game over again? If so, how are we ever meant to progress? As it stands, answers seem fairly thin on the ground, as Ubisoft are playing their cards quite close to their chest about everything, but we'll try and explain how it seems to work through a brief example:
In the demo we saw, the player had to make their way towards, and then through a creepy nursery to try and find some medicine for another survivor, all while being guided by the disembodied voice of a man known as "The Prepper" - a member of a group called The Ravens, who choreographed the zombie outbreak's arrival and have prepared for it accordingly, by scattering boxes of goodies for survivors to find around the streets of London. It's the Prepper's job to get you, Generic Survivor #47 to safety. As you explore the nursery, scattered amongst the upturned children's toys, you'll likely bump into a number of zombies - allow them to get too close and they may misinterpret your signs your sending, and attempt to get cosy. When they grab you it can play out in one of two ways: If you're lucky, you'll still be in possession of a number of injection shots, which are used automatically when a zombie gets too friendly, quelling their desires briefly and buying you some time to run to safety. If you're unlucky, and you've already depleted your limited reserves of shots, the next bite is the big one. And as we've already mentioned, a single bite is all it takes.
The turnout for the 2012 Olympics wasn't quite as high as expected...
When you die, you don't respawn as the same character with all the same equipment you'd salvaged up until a few minutes before your untimely death, but rather, you start as a brand new character in the same world, with a brief quip from the Prepper about how he hopes you'll last a bit longer than "the last poor sod he tried to help". In your new body, your first objective is to reclaim the equipment found by the previous ill-fated helper, who more often than not is now a member of the shambling hordes. As, in your past life, you'd already made substantial progress through the level, it seems to simply be a case of sprinting to where you died last time and reclaiming the backpack of mission-critical goodies. While reclaiming the backpack will allow you to keep all your hard earned weapons and other mission-critical items, any skills learned by your previous character will have been lost, are require re-learning as your new character. If they can last that long. It's an interesting take, but at this point it hardly seems like the system-selling gamechanger Ubisoft are making it out to be.
What really interests us about ZombiU is how it uses the WiiU's Gamepad
. In fact, of all the games we've seen so far, ZombiU seems to put the tablet controller through its paces in the widest variety of ways. The controller itself becomes an integral part of your Bug-Out Bag survival kit (or BOB, for short), performing a variety of functions that all make use of most of the WiiU gamepad's special features.
As you roam the streets of London, the gamepad acts as a motion scanner, highlighting enemy locations around you with friendly looking red dots on the map. Spot an enemy in the distance and pull your gun out, and the gamepad screen becomes the scope of the weapon, allowing you to hold the gamepad up to the screen and aim using the in-built gyroscope. Another feature that utilises the gyroscope is the environment scanner, highlighting points of interest in the area (weapons, boxes of ammunition, and the like) when the gamepad is hovered over them. Unlocking doors is also done on the gamepad's touchscreen, with both a lock picking and a door-code hacking mini game shown so far. The touch screen also handles inventory management (as everything needs to fit into a relatively small backpack, you'll often find yourself having to dump non-essential items to make space for more crucial objects).
But as you may have imagined, in ZombiU, it's not necessarily all that easy. Whereas in most games, should you choose to look at your inventory, or hack a door, the game will pause, buying you as long as you need to open the door, in ZombiU, the game never stops. Whether you're rooting around in your bag or attempting to crack open a door, the game carries on playing out on your TV while you work your magic on the WiiU gamepad's touch screen. This means that any zombies in the area will keep closing in on your position while you work, so time is of the essence!
Crack the code on the WiiU gamepad, but be sure to keep an eye on the approaching hordes!
In all, with ZombiU, we're pretty much torn. We like the idea of a game set in an alternate take on London - the capital as we've never seen it before. We like the use of the WiiU Gamepad for hacking doors and the like. But in all honesty, a game where it takes a single bite to die, a game where when you do die, you lose everything, including any skills, with no save games or checkpoints, and a game that takes pride in having no difficulty levels, meaning we'll have to play the gaming masochist's "realistic" zombie game (whatever that means), rather than playing how we want to - well, it all sounds a bit too much. While we're interested, we're more than a little bit concerned that, like a lot of people, we're going to end up being shut out of ZombiU, as it focuses its attentions on the hardest of the hardcore, refusing to make any concessions for anyone else. A scalable difficulty would be all we needed. In all honesty, we're fed up of hearing about how hard the game is. We're not going to buy a game for it's difficulty. We want to know more about the story, how the outbreak happened, how much of London you actually get to explore, how many different ways we can use the WiiU Gamepad, and, more importantly, whether we'll actually be able to make it through to the end of the game if we're not one of the gaming elite.
ZombiU certainly has potential, and plenty of fresh ideas. Whether they choose to keep them closed off or not will determine the game's success.