Ubisoft Montpellier has been given free rein to experiment with the new hardware, and it’s relished every moment. ZombiU makes the relationship between TV and GamePad screens feel fresh, and – displaying a clear awareness of horror gaming conventions – it toys with you brilliantly. Red herring clues, twitching corpses and suspect doors all play into its manipulation and contribute to sophisticated shocks. The GamePad’s new way to play also presents new ways for you to be played, and the resulting surprises are often delightful.
As you move through the game, you develop a routine of survival: you turn off your light to let it recharge, you scan the area for loot and danger by raising the pad to the TV in a riff on Arkham City’s Detective Mode, and you knock the head off anything that looks like it could cause mischief in future. Beyond that, it’s crowd control: dividing, conquering and nailing doors shut in the faces of zombies, whether you’re negotiating a party in a block of flats that’s taken a turn for the undead or the Tower Of London’s corridors.
The trouble with ZombiU comes when you go off-piste – those moments when you’re thrown from the ribbon of the game’s missions, or die deep within an unscanned area without a saved shortcut to easily retrace your steps. This issue is underlined when, just before the final act, the game forces you into a needless and poorly explained treasure hunt through previously explored environments. The strange dead ends that confused you the first time around suddenly make sense (and the Dark Souls-style symbol messages left by other players might water down frustration), but it shines a light on the fact that ZombiU is a lot less fun when it can’t deal out fresh shocks and surprises.
The game’s strong feeling of earthy realism, meanwhile, is also sadly lost as it continues. At first, threat and variety are ramped up by zombies growing faster and more reactive, and the occasional infected policeman in body armour. Beyond this, however, enemies break with what a purist might call Romero canon and the game takes an unwelcome lurch away from horror and into fantasy. A late-game foray into an arena scenario, meanwhile, is another instance of the needs of the game pulling out of sync with the needs of the narrative. The use of explosive zombies, which ignite upon the thwack of willow against gas tank, genuinely feels unfair with the odds stacked so high.
The terrors of the horde that has descended on London come with caveats, then. ZombiU, however, is a title that will infuse impulse buyers, early adopters and Nintendo diehards with relief and appreciation for the novel gameplay that Wii U can and will continue to provide. It’s a confident start, if not an end in itself – one that makes us eagerly anticipate where Montpellier will take its ideas next.
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