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Play Expo 2012: ZombiU hands-on

Play Expo 2012

Let’s keep this blunt: on paper ZombiU reads as the Wii U launch title equivalent of Condemned. Monolith’s Condemned was one of the first, and best, 360 titles. It’s an absolute gem that too many people have forgotten through the waves of daily hype the PR machine churns out about the next inevitable disappointment.

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Whilst not sold on the idea of Nintendo’s console yet, Ubisoft’s launch title has most definitely caught my attention. You’re a survivor in Ubisoft’s desolated version of England’s capital city, a London where a zombie outbreak has brought civilisation to a groaning halt.

One of the benefits of 90% of the population being wiped out is no queuing. Which was a refreshing change following the two hour wait caused by a series of ‘technical difficulties’, from the system simply not working to the gamepad touch screen crashing. Not the best start to showcasing a new console and launch title.

Still, we got there in the end. The demo began in a sewer system. Playing the role of a random survivor it wasn’t clear if this was halfway through the journey. Already equipped with a trusty shotgun, flashlight and a travel pack of goods, there was only one route to follow.

Moving through a hole in the wall, the next room was divided by sewer running through the middle. As I began to wade through the thick water the character held his backpack above his head to avoid the contents becoming wet. This was a neat idea. It also meant I was unable to attack or defend in the water as both hands were preoccupied.

Corpses of the deceased were bobbing on the surface of the water around me. I nudged each one carefully to test for any retaliation. They were most certainly dead, and I made my way out of this sewer system.

Every entrance, divide or slight obstacle between rooms or small confines requires interaction. Small ledges can’t be stepped upon or leaped over freely. It’s all restricted by context sensitive input by the player. Simple tasks such as ducking under a grate requires you to press the appropriate button displayed onscreen.

This led to a constant flash up of ‘press this’ whenever looking at an object of interaction. Fingers-crossed this was for demo purposes only, as in a survival horror world it’s a consistent reminder that’ll nudge the audience out of immersion. It’s the equivalent of a text reminder onscreen that you’re just playing a game.

Soon after the first of the shuffling undead was upon me. The controls were consistent for a FPS, though I remain wary of the gamepad. The inventory is accessed via the gamepad. The touchscreen is used to loot bodies, arrange items and equip them. This felt awkward and wasn’t as responsive in comparison to having a standard onscreen system. Simply moving what you would see onscreen to the touchscreen isn’t innovative.

I also found the analogue sticks to be rather unwelcoming. The angle of the right-stick was too centered on its axis, and every time I looked left it’d also look up due to the natural movement of my thumb. This was the first time in Nintendo’s history that their controller felt unnatural. From the SNES’ shoulder buttons, the N64’s analogue stick to the Wii motion controller, no matter how ridiculous they looked in advance, each worked perfectly and felt comfortable in hand.

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Now where were we…ah, the first zombie. As I went to pick up a sniper rifle next to a corpse on the pier, a zombie attacked me from behind. Turning, I pushed the bugger back with the shotgun and unloaded a round of buckshot directly into its chest. With a groan it fell back against the wall and slid down. Giving it a second or two to ensure it wasn’t moving, I turned back and grabbed the rifle.

From the pier there was a boat in the distance with two zombies patrolling it in their own brain dead way. Zooming in with the rifle required me to use the gamepad. Lifting it up at the TV screen showed the zoomed-in view. Two clean shots and two head pops later, I slid the rifle into the backpack of Tardis qualities and moved on.

Descending a ladder via input rather than free control, I entered the water with my backpack raised above my head. A bald overweight zombie – a textbook template – crashed into the water in front of me and began rabidly clawing its way through the water towards me in an attempt to turn my neck into supper.

Keeping my cool I backed off, pulling the pistol out and blowing the top of its cranium into dust. It swung out still and an additional shot took it down. Remember to double-tap.

The next section required me to find a key card that was preventing access to the boat. The only other route was down a ladder and towards a sewer entrance below. Four zombies were between me and it. One was trouble enough: this required a common sense approach.

Using the touchsceen I equipped a grenade, and threw it towards the feet of the marauding group. The explosion ripped through them in a cloud of air compression and vaporised limbs. With this simple action I’d made it the furthest so far at the expo.

There was a peak of excitement from the two attendees who were walking me through the demo. The idea of talking through a new section for them would provide a break from the repetition so far. Then I didn’t press the correct button to access the ladder in front, trying to naturally walk onto it, and fell six feet to my death. Fucking ladders.

With this survivor dead, I was cast into the role of a women called Elisa. When a character dies they stay that way. Unless they arise infected. A bug stopped the demo from continuing at this point and brought an end to my time with ZombiU.

With little sound and no context provided at the beginning of the trial, this wasn’t the best showcase for a title that would appear to demand 110% audience attention and the lights off. There’s certainly promise in the concepts here but it was hard to fully judge what to expect. My death in the game was borderline pedantic and the use of the gamepad screen leaned more into gimmick territory than evidencing any vision.

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I want any original horror game to succeed in both integrity and sales. Ubisoft will certainly have a large slice of the Wii U launch pie, but I hope the quality of the final game itself reflects that.

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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