ZombiU Preview: Wii U's Surprise Package?

Ubisoft channels Dark Souls for its ambitious Wii U survival horror.

It was very tempting to ignore Ubisoft's Wii U survival horror ZombiU on the E3 showfloor last week. The combination of that anonymous title and the seemingly gimmicky gameplay demo shown during Nintendo's conference gave off a very distinctive whiff of Red Steel, the French publisher's limp attempt at a quick core offering for early Wii adopters back in 2006.

But in the interests of being fully comprehensive we duly hauled ourselves over to Ubisoft's booth for a quick look. And believe it or not, what lay in wait was one of the few genuine surprises of the week, offering some of the most creative, imaginative design on show not just for the Wii U but for any console shooter on display.

Here's the rather wonderful central conceit. You play as an unremarkable survivor of a zombie apocalypse, setting out from a central safehouse hub on various missions. Should you be bitten by a zombie, that's it - game over, you're dead. The player then respawns back in the safehouse as a completely different survivor. You'll venture out again, hunt down your reanimated predecessor, put them out their misery and retrieve their inventory to allow you to continue exploring the city. Similarly, any friends killed while playing the game on another machine will also pop up as a zombie and attempt to rip chunks off you.

You'll inch forward through the game bit by bit, collecting new items to open new areas, Metroid-style, before eventually being killed and kicked back to the safehouse. It's a non-linear relay race with a focus on surviving just a few minutes longer every time. And in that regard its primary influence couldn't be more obvious: Dark Souls.

Yes, ZombiU is essentially a first person survival horror take on From Software's brilliantly menacing two-steps-forward, one-step-back template. And Ubisoft Montpelier's Gabrielle Shrager is not ashamed to admit it.

"It's my all-time favourite game," she happily confesses.

"Real immersion and real fear comes from the fact that you're going to lose your stuff, your abilities, your character."

Gabrielle Shrager, Ubisoft Montreal

"Real immersion and real fear comes from the fact that you're going to lose your stuff, your abilities, your character. In Dark Souls you're sh****** yourself the whole time from every angle. If we can even get close to that sensation of 'oh god, run away, run away, run away'... you know how the enemies in Dark Souls will chase you for hours - that epic AI? And without a single word being spoken in-game. That's true immersion.

"That's a huge benchmark for us, and it's a major inspiration for sure."

The game's other key influence is rather more predictable: Left 4 Dead. Like Valve's much-loved multiplayer shooter, ZombiU's enemy placement will differ every time you play, in an attempt to keep things unexpected, replayable and, crucially, scary.

"There are basically two keys to scaring people: surprise and timing," explains Shrager.

"There's no way you can expect to instill fear in a player if you have scripted events that appear twice in a game. So you won't see the same surprise twice [in ZombiU]. The level design changes every time.

"It's incredibly important for us to have persistence in the game - you go into an area and maybe there are no zombies one time, but the next time there's an entire horde. And you can back out, take a look at your CCTV cameras in the safe house, and spot that there's an Uzi in another area which will help you get the job done."

ZombiU.

While the Nintendo conference demo suggested that the game might be a rather straightforward affair centered on bite-sized missions and regular mini-games, the reality appears much richer, with a 12-hour main campaign promised. As should be obvious from the teaser trailer, the action is set in London following a zombie outbreak. Your progression through the game is dictated by three different mission-giving NPCs, all with conflicting motivations.

"As the only genuinely new adult-themed title announced for the Wii U's launch window it could provide a telling barometer for core gamers' willingness to buy into Nintendo's system."

Fred Dutton, Eurogamer

First there's the ex-SAS type who controls the safehouse and is convinced the only way to survive is to hunker down and build Fort Knox. He'll be sending you out to get supplies and ammo, while constantly trying to yank you back to protect the base from horde attacks. Then there's the royal family's physician hidden in the secret bunkers below Buckingham Palace, who needs your help to find a cure in order to save his employers. He'll be sending you out to scan infected for clues. And finally there's a mysterious ancient order based in the Tower of London doing their best to get survivors out of the city and to safety.

Beyond that, Shrager promises a large cast or realistic, believable characters, including a family man who has barricaded himself into a petrol station to protect his family, and a crime lord in lawless East London who is capturing survivors and forcing them to participate in a sick, twisted circus show for his minion's entertainment.

The UK's capital, argues Shrager, is the perfect place for this colourful tapestry to play out.

"London is one of my favourite cities," she insists.

"I'm a huge fan of [graphic novelist] Alan Moore. From Hell is one of my favourite comics ever. That just absolutely sucked me in and showed me how perfect the context of London can be for survival horror, with its occult leanings, its grisly history and its bloody tales.

"And the contrast with the modernity of the biggest and most cosmopolitan banking city in the world allows me to make a few winks at why the world might be ending - bankers, perhaps?"

While on paper this all sounds tantalising, it'll all be for nought if the gameplay itself turns out be an afterthought. Our 10 minutes with the game was too brief to glean any real impression of how it holds up, but there's cause for optimism. The shooting feels sturdy enough and the dimly lit basements of London town provide a suitably tense backdrop for some solid scares. ZombiU is made by the same Ubisoft Montpelier team behind Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, Rayman Origins and Beyond Good and Evil, so they clearly know what they're doing in terms of mechanics.

That said, the game's use of the Wii U controller's screen is a little hit and miss. Being forced to look down at the pad when attempting to unlock doors or pry open lockboxes while the action continues in real time around you, game camera peeking over your shoulder, is a lovely touch, perfectly in tune with the pre-Resi 4 founding principles of the survival horror genre. Rather less welcome though is the motion-controlled crossbow aiming that asks you to clumsily hold the controller up to the screen to line-up your target.

Still, the promise is there in spades. Should it successfully follow through, it will be interesting to see how ZombiU fares. As the only genuinely new adult-themed title announced for the Wii U's launch window it could provide a telling barometer for core gamers' willingness to buy into Nintendo's system. And even if it falls short, it's great to see a third party publisher actually engage with the new hardware and flex its creative muscles, rather than just dusting off an existing release and retro-fitting a few perfunctory touch screen features.

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