rAge 2012: ZombiU Hands-on

ZombiU is a big deal for both Ubisoft and Nintendo. It’s a big deal for the French publisher because they have the potential to launch another successful franchise – a feat that they’ve had a good string of luck with of late. For Nintendo, it’s the poster-child for their return to the so-called “core gaming” masses. When Nintendo talks about catering to both casual and core, it’s the likes of Black Ops II, Batman: Arkham City: Armoured Edition and Assassin’s Creed III that are used to satiate the latter. ZombiU does this as well, but it has a distinct advantage: it’s a Wii U exclusive.

At rAge 2012, we got the chance to go hands-on with the game as well as interview ZombiU’s associate producer, Nicolas Robin, and senior game designer, Mounir Radi.

ZombiU is a survival horror game set in contemporary London during a zombie outbreak. Heading into the project, the team at Ubisoft were convinced that with the Wii U’s new technology, they would be able to redefine this niche genre. What they also knew is that they were up against serious competition, so much so that when it came to unveiling the game at E3 this year, the team prepared themselves for a mediocre response. What they got was the complete opposite, something Robin admits was a good and bad thing: a good thing because they weren’t expecting such momentum from the reception, and a bad thing because now the team had their work cut out for them and the pressure was on.

Central to the game, just like the console itself, is the Wii U GamePad. Nintendo’s new controller has been nicknamed your “survival kit” in ZombiU. It is, however, a double-edged sword: while it will be your primary means of engaging with the world of ZombiU, it’ll also make you vulnerable to zombie attacks when you are, for example, searching containers or rummaging through your survivor’s backpack. The moment you take your eyes off your TV screen and begin using the GamePad’s smaller screen to equip a new weapon, your survivor kneels down and begins scratching through their backpack while casting nervous glances over their shoulders. It’s fourth-wall breaking stuff that intensifies the self-evident action of switching weapons, and puts the entire process in the player’s hands. The longer you the player fumbles about, the more potentially life-threatening this simple action becomes.

Creating tense situations is one of the pillars of any good survival horror game, and Nintendo’s new tech has helped Ubisoft exemplify this genre quality. “We wanted to develop on this console because we had the conviction that with the tech we could redefine survival horror,” Radi explained during our interview.
But the tension won’t be created through purposefully cumbersome control techniques; the GamePad significantly increases your chances of survival. During ordinary navigation around the levels (by using the twin analogue sticks like any other console first-person shooter) the GamePad’s screen becomes your radar and means of scanning the environment for items and hidden enemies. Take that radar and scanning ability away from you, and you’re left at a disadvantage. This is exactly what happened during our hands-on time. We found ourselves deep in the basement of a children’s nursery. There was a special type of zombie (a Nurse zombie) with an additional supernatural ability that deactivates the radar screen on the GamePad. Instead of a helpful overview, you have a tiny touchscreen full of static. This, coupled with the fact that you’re alone in the dark with a narrow torch beam, does a remarkable job of creating unease.

“We really wanted the Wii U GamePad to enhance the experience of the player; to break the walls between the player and the game; to increase the immersion,” explained Robin. “So we designed all these little lock-pick features, door codes, backpacks etcetera, so I am the one lock-picking, I am the one managing items with my finger. It was really more interesting for us to do that instead of us having a button that does everything in the world. So it allows us to put the player deeper into the game.”

ZombiU is not an open-world title in a sense that Skyrim or Far Cry 3 is. It does, however, fall into the “Metroid-Vania” genre of game world layout and progression. Every area is interconnected, but you’ll find certain places that will be inaccessible until you’ve learnt a new skill or acquired an item to access that area. With that in mind, it’s a lot like the original Darksiders.

Central to the game’s mechanic is perma-death. ZombiU has light RPG elements and character improvement, but if your survivor dies, then they’re gone forever and you restart whichever mission you were on, only with a new survivor. Any skills your preceding character may have gained (faster reload times, better weapon accuracy etc.) will not transfer across to this new survivor. Naturally you’ll want to keep your survivor alive for as long as possible. The caveat of that, however, is that when your survivor dies they become a zombie (one bite is all it takes) and that new zombie’s level of toughness will be proportionate to how levelled-up that survivor was before he or she died.

Once you die (and you will die) you’ll begin that particular mission from the start with a brand new character. Fortunately, your now undead survivor from before will be in the area that they died, which means that if your new survivor is able to kill his or her predecessor, then you’ll get your equipment and weapons back.

There’s a little bit of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls in the game’s online components. You’ll be able to leave messages for other players throughout the game world. What’s more, invading another player’s game is entirely possible. When you die, your new zombie form can invade a friend’s game if you are playing with your console connected to the Internet. The converse also applies so you might be informed that one of your friends’ zombies has invaded a section of your London map. You’ll then be able to go and hunt for it; killing it will give you whatever items and weapons your friend was carrying before he or she died. You’ll be able to track your own zombie’s progress through friends’ worlds, so if you really feel like griefing a mate, you could significantly level up a survivor before purposefully turning him or her into a powerful zombie that will then invade your friends’ games.

Local multiplayer will also be featured, and will be based around this year’s industry buzz-word: asymmetric gameplay. Designed for two players, one player takes the GamePad and the role of the King of the Zombies, and the other player takes the Pro Controller (the Wii U’s answer to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers) and the role of a survivor. The King of Zombies gets to use the touchpad screen to summon zombies, power-ups and more, while the survivor player has to fend off those attacking zombies. It’s basically a mix of strategy gaming for the one player, and first-person action for the other.

With 15-20 hours of single-player content, three multiplayer modes and a hinted at “new game +” mode, ZombiU is shaping up to be one hell of a launch title for the Wii U. The game will be available on its own or as a bundled edition in the black Wii U console bundle, which also comes with a Pro Controller.

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