So a few weeks back I got up full of vim and vigour, scrubbed Friday night out of my eyes, washed a McDonald’s breakfast down with two bottles of Lucozade and jumped into my mate’s car. A short drive and half a dozen tube trains later, we reached Earl’s Court, all the way down in that London, where the Eurogamer Expo is held annually.
Without going into too much detail, Eurogamer is a community run event designed to bring people together. It’s not as press-friendly as the big-hitters (E3, Gamescom, The Tokyo Game Show), but it’s not really designed for the press – it’s designed for gamers, affording us the perfect opportunity over a four day period to speak to industry professionals, play the biggest incoming games, listen to gaming bigwigs talk development and, most importantly, dress up like our favourite characters and pose all day long.
I queued for 65 minutes to get in, and as soon as I did I bee-lined straight for the Wii U stand. Informed in the honeyed-tones of the frankly gorgeous volunteer on line duty that it was a 30 minute wait to get hold of the console I settled in, only to discover 20 seconds later that the queue for a certain Wii U game – and the one I really wanted to play – was 2 and a half hours! Well thank god for perseverance and over-estimation, because just over an hour later I had the GamePad in my hands and a zombified cockney cabbie was staring down the twin barrels of my shotgun.
Guided by a rep so handsome I felt self-conscious standing beside him, I was into my first ever play of Nintendo’s new console and one of the best zombie games I’ve ever played. I’m not even exaggerating – ZombiU is very, very good. And here’s why…
For a start the GamePad itself is a pretty nifty gadget. It’s big, obviously, though not as big as I thought it would be. Still, stepping up from, say, a PS3 controller, it feels like you’re holding a keyboard. It took me a while to orientate the buttons, too. It uses the usual XBAY layout, but rotates it a few clicks, so it took my Xbox 360 conditioned fingers a few attempts to hit the right button. Also, as you may have seen in the promotional shots, the analogue sticks are above the face buttons – feels odd at first, but given its size and the resultant positioning of your paws it actually makes sense. It’s light, too, not even as heavy in the hands as the Vita. It’s comfortable and strange at the same time.
ZombiU’s atmosphere got me from the start, despite being in a crowded stand and hearing nothing on-screen bar my panicked yet impressively-accurate shotgun blasts. Beginning in a sewerage pipe leading to the ruddy shores of the Thames, the demo is designed to make you feel unsettled and on edge – and with good reason: the constant sense of dread is the game’s strong suit.
Little details immerse you; stepping into waist high water will see your character lift their precious backpack above their head, using both arms and leaving you completely undefended, great fun as you sneak past a floating corpse you pray is going to stay that way. Heading up into filthy brown twilight, I couldn’t help but take a quick look around to soak in the grim, gloomy atmospherics.
“Don’t waste time admiring the view,” says the rep. “There’s a zombie about to come up that ladder.” Great. In ZombiU, the dead can do ladders… So now I’ve got the rep on my right, a fellow journo on my left, six people behind me eagerly awaiting my imminent failure so they can have a go, and I’m bricking it. I steady my aim, wait the decomposing head to crest the ladder and BLAM! The shot was so pretty that the rep let out a little yelp.
“There’s a sniper rifle there, mate,” he tells me. “You’ll need it here.”
Not one to turn down good advice, I grab said rifle and push on, down the ladder, hugging the grimey wall like it’s my mother’s leg. In the distance, shambling corpses. I clumsily squeeze the left trigger as countless shooters have taught me to do, but the rep tells me to lift the GamePad while doing so. The action jumps to the small screen which has now become my sniper scope. The coolest thing is that its tracking is fully panoramic, so you don’t have to point it at the TV. I line up a shot, but just as I prepare to squeeze the trigger I notice one of the zombies has a pack strapped to his back. I chance it, take a deep breath, fire – and giggle like a pornstar on a tumble dryer when the pack explodes and (re)kills all of them. Yes, my middle name is Tallahassee.
The sense of accomplishment I feel is muted fairly quickly by the realisation that I’m only playing a demo and that was just one group of zombies; the game contains hundreds of shambling corpses intent on eating your face off, and while you have to take every little victory at face value, it’s going to be much easier to slip up than not. Death in the main game will be permanent, resulting in the loss of your precious backpack and necessitating the rolling of a new character who will then have to track down the last guy’s pack and remove it from his hungry cadaver. It’s hardcore, sure, but also asserts the feeling of hopelessness and dread that Ubisoft feel is essential to a survival horror.
Crossing the dirty water to another drainage culvert, I find may way blocked by a huge black grate, behind which stands another deadite. The atmosphere is tense – I’m still not sure whether the zombies will randomly appear, a la Left 4 Dead, or if every play is the same, and thus learnable. The survivalist nature suggests the latter, as does the placement of the rifle and the rep’s confident predictions, but I kind of hope not. The thrill of ZombiU is not knowing what’s coming, and if it really is by the numbers replay value could be seriously hampered.
Using your inventory is particularly scary. The game doesn’t pause, and while you’re tapping the GamePad’s touchscreen, your character is on their knees rummaging in the all-important pack. You’re exposed, and predisposed to rush clumsily, selecting the wrong weapon or item. Anyway, I manage to whip out my pistol, aim through the bars and shoot. The bullet takes half the zombie’s head off, but it still keeps coming! Another head shot obliterates half the jaw, still not down. Finally I take a step forward, aim at the neck and blow away what’s left. It staggers and drops. Looting the corpse rewards me with a couple of bullets, not much for my hard work but valuable nonetheless.
The demo was good, though not as exciting as the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace playthroughs doing the rounds on YouTube, etc, but I can’t reinforce enough just how atmospheric ZombiU is. Creeping through shadows – and you will creep, because to do otherwise just makes you feel horribly exposed – is as tense an experience as I’ve ever had with a survival horror and in the full game, where every bullet counts and every darkened recess, vent or uncovered drain could potentially hide a rampant zombie, such tension and suspense will be ratcheted up to 20.
Unfortunately, my wandering down the wrong exit caused the demo to end prematurely immediately after my mini victory, and I just felt bad starting again when so many were waiting. But I got what I wanted: the Wii U GamePad in my hand and 15 minutes with ZombiU.
The verdict is in, frankly. If Ubisoft maintain that level of threat and tension throughout the entire game, this could one day be counted among the greatest zombie games ever. For some, it will almost certainly be too hard, and those craving the arcade-y blasting of L4D will be disappointed, but for anyone looking for a well-crafted, challenging and mature zombie horror, ZombiU is the way to go.
ZombiU is developed by Ubisoft, and will launch in the UK alongside the Nintendo Wii U on November 30th.