Last week, I got an exciting hands-on experience with Ubisoft’s ZombiU. The game was in demo form, with both single player and multiplayer represented, and it was exciting to see a brand new game (and console) in action. Before playing the polished demo, I knew very little about the details of the game. I knew it was a launch title, I knew it had zombies in it, and that was about the full extent of my knowledge.
Also be sure to check out my Developer Interview with Developers of ZombiU
I’d like to admit that survival horror games are one of my favorite video game genres. I played the original Resident Evil for the Playstation, and that would kickstart my interest in other games of the genre. I have played Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Clocktower, and Fatal Frame series rather extensively. More recent games of the survival horror genre have tended to focus more intently on an action/survival horror hybrid. Games such as Resident Evil 6, Dead Space 2, and F.E.A.R. seem to shy away from the lone focus of slow pace, tension-building gameplay. I’d argue that some of the reasons why these old survival horror games made such as a lasting impact is because the gameplay/controls were clunky, slow, and generally hard to master. Old Resident Evil games have sluggish ‘tank controls’ that made maneuvering your character difficult, and the lumbering attack blows in Silent Hill never looked to hurt enemies at all. These games were often difficult, but that difficulty was scary. Not being able to run or attack effectively leads to the feeling of powerlessness, and that is one of my favorite feelings in games.
That being said, I think that ZombiU could be considered a return-to-form for survival horror games. This time around, action doesn’t oversaturate the horror experience. The game refocuses on the tense moments of survival solely. Waves of enemies don’t appear around every corner, and your weapons aren’t constantly equipped with ammo to dispatch them. Every move is a risk that you need to think about, the death of a character could result in a very inconvenient trek back to your equipment.
The game’s main character is an ever-changing roster of randomly generated survivors, all of different ages, occupations, and ethnicities. The character you are playing as doesn’t impact the story in any clear way. The game’s plot is unfolds via “The Prepper”, a military man who helps guide the player through the city and to their next objective. My first character was a middle aged Vietnamese man. I didn’t know a thing about him personally, but his experience (along with the experience of other survivors) immediately became my own.
The demo introduced gameplay fundamentals, such as controls and character actions. This was the first time I held a Wii U controller in my hand and I will admit it takes some getting used to. The Gamepad screen is a large and very crisp touchscreen that is nestled between your hands. It reminds of the outrageous Gamecube/Keyboard controller used almost exclusively for Phantasy Star Online (but not nearly that ridiculous!). Your hands sit a bit further apart. The game included on-screen button prompts and recognizing what button to press took some getting used to. It didn’t help that all of the button icons were colored white.
The Gamepad screen could be considered your main menu, with your item ‘hotkeys’, inventory, map, skills and character information, and other important information. Players could instantly use or equip any item in the six hotkey slots. Looking at your inventory or pulling items into the hotkeys required your player crouching and accessing their backpack, so it was also a good idea to keep the list up-to-date. Objectives were labeled on the map as either small, exact dots or large encompassing circles. Sometimes the player will need to search a general area, instead of being told exactly where an objective is located.
After finding the backpack, I was able to access my inventory. The most well known feature of ZombiU is the fact that the player must switch their eyes between screens while playing. Equipping items, looting corpses or crates, searching through your backup, and other actions result in your character kneeling down on a knee. The camera zooms in close to his back, preventing you from seeing any action around you. This small touch builds tension really well. Most of the time you are not fully certain you are safe, and crouching down leaves your character immensely exposed. There is a fast travel system by using sewers, and safe houses are scattered throughout the city to allow you to save your progress.
The environment is presented in a way that allows for exploration and different paths through the level. Players can choose the more action-oriented paths of slaying zombies or stick to corners and avoiding them. At one point in the demo there were about 5 zombies huddled together, and I had to duck within alleys and behind fences to avoid getting spotted. Zombies can be easily avoided with slow movement speed and discretion. I took a path up to a fire escape and used a flare to draw more stragglers away from where I intended to go.
Another unique feature of the game is the ability to scan things. The scanner allows you to activate CCTV cameras (more on that below), along with getting a better view of the surrounding area. You can use your scanner on alive or dead zombies in order to see if there is any available loot in them. This proves very useful when you see a small group in the distance, but are unsure whether it’s worth it at all to waste ammunition. The game uses a similar online style to Dark Souls/Demon Souls. Gamers play online in their own instanced game world, but can leave messages that are viewable in other players’ games. These messages are hidden and are revealed by using the scanner. Messages can be voted up or down, and some players will surely enjoy leaving false messages to frustrate others.
The game employs an interested approach to updating your maps. New areas are not filled in on your GamePad screen until you find, scan and activate various CCTV cameras that are perched across the environment. They can be somewhat difficult to see, but they can be spotted by a bright red ‘REC’ dot on their front side. Using your scanner on them will activate them. Finding and activating all of them in an area will show the map on your Gamepad. I found this to be rather entertaining, because I think it could be pretty easy to miss a camera and have to deal without a map.
About midway through the demo I experienced by first death. Opening a door triggered 4 zombies to lumber from the shadows. They got behind me, and before I knew it I was on dead on the ground. The game tells you how long you survive with each particular character, ranking you based on your skills. Once my character died, I awoke as another character in the safe house. Death drops your backpack, along with all of its contents. You need to find and recover the backpack by returning to your place of death and dispatching the previous character (who is now a rotting corpse!)
I experimented with different approaches to gameplay and found that avoiding enemies seemed almost necessary if you wished to kill groups later. The game employs a solid use of randomly generated enemy and item encounters, leading for multiple playthroughs to give you a different experience. The main mindset while I played was 1. Explore 2. Find/Loot items 3. Scan the surrounding area and THEN 4. Dispatch/Avoid zombies. Action and fighting seemed to be my last placed priority. That quality alone brought back a feeling of survival horror that I feel has been absent for a while. The feeling of being slow, taken your time, and planning the best way to advance is prevalent in this game. This is not the sort of game that can be run and gunned through.
The game is definitely difficult, and combining it’s difficulty with a new controller to get used to leads to plenty of deaths. This game is a good challenging, though, where lack of progress is usually attributed to poor choices (firing too many shots, trying to run through a group of zombies). One room could be easy to clear and the next could be challenging. It reminds me a bit of Dark Souls on how every encounter, with any enemy, is one you should take seriously. Just one zombie is still not to be underestimated. Players will realize the best way of playing ZombiU is to NOT play the way you approach a normal zombie game. Your character is furthest from being unstoppable. If you enjoy building tension, along with a slow and deliberate gameplay style then this game is for you.
ZombiU will be released on November 18th, 2012.