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Games of 2012: ZombiU

London's calling.

New York's had Grand Theft Auto 4, Paris had Broken Sword and Tokyo's had both Jet Set Radio and The World Ends With You, but London's never really had the same treatment. There's been the rubble-rousing rewritten history of Resistance, or the city seen through a Guy Ritchie filter in The Getaway, but there's never been a game set in the London that I live in, the London that's equal parts mystery and misery, where Hawksmoor spires pop up in the middle of dreary council estates.

ZombiU's come close to that. It's a caricature, for sure - this is London as seen through an outsider's lens, and it's not just the undead mob that ensures this is a replica riddled with improbability. The geography's brilliantly scattershot, an album of tourist snapshots all haphazardly sewn together; Brick Lane doesn't rub up quite so close to Buckingham Palace in the real world, unfortunately, and I think some of the level artists got off at the wrong stop when they went looking for Green Park.

There's a cartoony overstatement to it all, a hangover perhaps from its former life as Killer Freaks from Outer Space, but the tone's resoundingly bleak. This is the London of lonely late nights and damp grey dawns that Jack the Ripper stalked, and the one that's riddled with traces of the occult. It's the dark, enigmatic city that Alan Moore explored in From Hell, a place where the letters of 16th century alchemist John Dee mix in with the urban flotsam of discarded newspapers and burger wrappers.

I'm pretty sure I stumbled upon a zombie Iain Sinclair walking through Brick Lane the other day, although I'd bopped him on the head with a cricket bat before I could check if it was really him.

It's also the tedious, everyday London that I know, love and live in; the dark alleyways around Hanbury Street or the clash of shop-fronts on Brick Lane Markets have that scuzzy chaos of the real deal, while the flats evoke an aroma of weak tea and stale cigarette smoke. And I'll always have a soft spot for a game that punishes death by sending you to Shadwell station.

Then there are those moments when the dull reality of the city is beautifully subverted: the East London house party gone horribly awry, a gaggle of people either infected or in an MDMA trance shuffling around to a dubstep beat and a whirling blue light, or when you're working through an underground train carriage lined with slumbering commuters, cautiously cracking their skulls open with a cricket bat lest they stir from their eternal sleep.

Ah, that cricket bat. It's a lift from Shaun of the Dead, of course, but it's a wise one; a sample of the peculiar slice of Britishness that Ubisoft's gone for, as well as ZombiU's defining tool. There are guns in ZombiU, but they're clumsy, wasteful things, kicking back violently or spraying noisily about, painting everything but your intended target with bullets. It means that reaching for the willow is often the wisest choice.

There's a grim and grisly horror to the game's melee combat that gives way to sickly joy, soundtracked brilliantly by the carousel of playable characters. The first few swings at an attacking zombie will be met with terrified whimpers, while the killing blow is often accompanied by a cruel laugh of pleasure.

Fear's the prime feeling here, though. This isn't just a true revival of survival horror - it's survival horror that earns the latter part of that faded tag more than any other console game, to my mind. Early Resident Evils and Silent Hills, before both series lost their way, always conjured up an impressive, oppressive mist, but it was soon lost in messy fiction or ludicrous boss fights - ZombiU remains tense and terrifying to the end, scaring as much after eight hours of loose exploration as it does in its tightly scripted opening.

It helps that this is an incredibly lean game, a result perhaps of a more modest budget. Ubisoft Montpellier's worked to ensure that every element works, though, and ZombiU's brimming with smart little details. There's the clever inventory management, and the way the meagre resources soon fill out your miniscule backpack. There's the smart use of two screens that uses the space between the pair to pull you further into the game world, nervously checking the shadows for danger as you pick a lock or rifle through your rucksack.

In loving memory of Michael Phillips, the supply teacher who died when I accidentally threw a molotov at a nearby wall.

But the one detail that's been most thoughtfully worked through is death itself. So often just a comma in other games, a moment of awkward punctuation soon brushed off, in ZombiU it's a well-used full-stop. This isn't the first game to use perma-death, but it's the first to realise how well the concept fits into a world of sudden claws and dry horror.

The threat of a meaningful death makes every second spent alive that much more tense, makes every item hoarded in your inventory that much more precious and makes every encounter with the undead that much more terrifying.

And the attachment you build with each respective character makes every mission to recover the goods from a failed former you that much more charged. It made killing Elijah Patel, the 30-year-old groom who'd been my steed for the best part of four hours, that much more painful for me. And it made heroes out of everyday people, giving you a cast of street peddlers, accountants and electrical engineers with which to fight the undead.

And it makes your intimacy with its vision of London that much stronger. Survival in ZombiU demands a close knowledge of its streets, of the shortcuts, alleyways and walkways that run through the city. It means that, after a few hours, you'll be as familiar with this peculiar sketch of London as you are your own high street.

It means that, walking home late one night through the damp streets of Dalston earlier this week, there was a slow blend of Ubisoft Montpellier's city and my own - the drunken hipster who staggered through the dark towards me should just be thankful that I didn't have a cricket bat to hand. ZombiU was more than a revival of survival horror, and more than a brilliant launch title for the Wii U. It's the game that London's always deserved.

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