When I saw video of Ubisoft’s survival-horror FPS ZombiU, I thought it looked like the game that did the best job of integrating the Wii U gamepad into the gameplay, and having played it briefly I still feel the same way.
I almost didn’t see this game at all. When Nintendo held their New York press demo they brought far more games that could be played in the hour and a half they gave us. At the hour and a half point I still hadn’t seen ZombiU, as other press had beaten me to it, but Nintendo’s PR staff granted me an extra 15 minutes to check out it out.
The basics of the game involve walking around shooting zombies. These creatures shamble towards you but can put on a sudden burst of speed once they get close enough to smell your brain. The quickest way to put a zombie down, of course, is with a head shot. I felt getting those headshots was more troublesome than I cared for, but then, I have a low frustration tolerance. If a zombie grabbed me I died almost instantly; I thought from game video I’d seen that you could shake zombies off with the gamepad, but there didn’t seem to be a way to do that in the demo I played.
As you wander around, the gamepad’s touchscreen displays a map which shows you where you are and can also warn you of nearby zombies. There are also a few onscreen buttons to quickly change weapons or access your inventory. If you find a container and open it, the objects of that container appear on the gamepad touchscreen, where you can take what you want. When you do that, you see your avatar on the TV searching the container, a nice touch that gives the impression that nothing is paused even when you’re dealing with your inventory. In fact, nothing is paused, and you can be attacked.
After finding and equipping a crossbow, thinking I could shoot zombies far away, a zombie snuck up on me and killed me, which allowed me to see one of the cool elements of the game; when you are killed, you are resuscitated in the body of a different survivor, and you have to go back to where you were killed to get your inventory-filled backpack, which is being carried by the zombified former you. You can also loot the bodies of any zombies you kill, although none of the bodies I searched had any possessions to loot.
The gamepad can also be used to scan your surroundings. This is very handy, as you can scan for useful items and determine what they are from a distance. It’s a feature I would probably use this often, but I didn’t during the demo simply because I forgot how to start the scanner. ZombiU is not a game where you’ll have all the controls figured out in the first ten minutes.
In terms of graphics, ZombiU is aiming for a more realistic look than any of the home-grown games Nintendo was showing. It looks much better than any similar Wii game has, but the graphics aren’t going to blow you away the way the most visually striking 360/PS3 games do.
I’m told there is some sort of story to this game, but it wasn’t apparent in the demo, so I can’t speak to whether it’s going to be any good. But the gameplay looks solid and the gamepad is used smartly, so I’m looking forward to playing more of this. I still can’t say whether the gamepad will ultimately feel more like a useful new gameplay mechanism or an annoying gimmick, but from what little I saw of ZombiU I’m hopeful it will be the former. My main reason to doubt is the memory of Ubisoft’s FPS Red Steel, a Wii launch title that used the Wii remote ingeniously but, underneath the novelty, wasn’t all that good a game. Will ZombiU be more than a novelty title? We will find out for sure later this year.