ZombiU E3 2012 Hands-On Preview

“Mature” and “Nintendo.”

Two words that haven’t meshed in a long time. There have been mature games on Nintendo platforms, MadWorld, Dementium: The Ward, and No More Heroes come to mind, but the middling quality and distance between releases make these titles carry little memorable impact.

Ubisoft is looking to change that, starting the Wii U off with a bloody bang with ZombiU, a first-person survival horror game exclusive to Nintendo’s new system. While on the surface the game looks like another run-of-the-mill zombie game that the world doesn’t need, ZombiU has many unique traits that help it to stand out from the rest. Never before has a zombie game been played quite like this.

The single-player campaign is essentially standard fare: zombies attack out of nowhere, so fight to survive and figure out what the heck is going on. However, it’s ZombiU‘s approach to telling that story that makes the game so intriguing. There are no “lives” in ZombiU, nor are they any continue screens; every time a character dies, he or she is immediately replaced by another survivor back at the safe house. The new character then has to travel to where the first survivor died, kill the zombie version of said survivor, and reclaim any gear or items that were being carried before death. That’s right, we’ll have to kill the zombified version of whatever survivor we were just playing as in order to get our stuff back. That is simply devious game design, and I love every second of it. I hope I don’t build any emotional attachment to a survivor, because I may have to shoot him or her in the head later on.

The innovations don’t stop there: the campaign also plays out in a persistent real-time environment using the Wii U GamePad as a menu screen. When checking inventory, the player will have to shift views to the GamePad to complete the task, while the character on-screen can be seen digging into his or her backpack. Don’t take too long, though; the survivor is still vulnerable to attack while going through inventory. Trying to pick a lock to get through? Make sure the room is clear beforehand, because lockpicking also moves to the Wii U GamePad, keeping the survivor in constant peril. Inventory management is stressful enough in games like this, now I have to consistently worry about being attacked even when checking my stuff? If the zombie apocalypse ever did happen in the real world, this is exactly how it would happen, so kudos to Ubisoft for the focus on stressful realism.

ZombiU will also include a full online multiplayer offering, and I was able to get some hands-on time with one of the game modes. This was a standard objective-capturing affair, in which the first to three captures was victorious. My opponent held the Wii U Pro Controller, taking the reins of a survivor trapped and trying to escape. I was given the Wii U GamePad and placed in control of the attacking zombie horde.

While the Wii U Pro Controller was used like we’re all used to, the GamePad turned this mode into a Plants vs Zombies-eqsue experience… in reverse. I was given a limited amount of resources and four zombies to work with, each zombie costing more and more resources. The cheapest zombie stood in one place until the opponent got close, the next one was only able to capture objectives, the third slowly homed in on the opponent, and the most expensive one also homed in on my opponent, but at a much faster pace.

It took me some time to get acquainted with the resources mechanic (those types of games never really sat well with me), but as I progressed through the match I started to develop quite a strategy. I could watch all of the action on my screen through the top-down map I placed my zombies on, and I always knew where my opponent was at all times. My inability to adapt to the gameplay at the beginning cost me a victory in the end, but the amount of fun I was having in this mode made it easier to take.

ZombiU is bucking all kinds of industry trends, from how survival horror zombie games are played, to the classic disconnect between Nintendo and mature games. Even more surprising is how well the game is shaping up in that role. Nintendo has a surefire Wii U exclusive hit right from the starting gate, as the new system launching with a game like ZombiU will be very difficult to pass up.


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Author: Jason Fanelli View all posts by
Jason lives and breathes gaming. Legend tells that he taught himself to read using Wheel of Fortune Family Edition on the NES. He's been covering this industry for three years, all with the Node, and you can see his ugly mug once a week on Hot Off The Grill.

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