I freely admit to approaching ZombiU with a healthy (read: rampant) degree of cynicism. The Wii U's first - and so far only - violent title is none other than a zombie shooter, which we're currently swimming in to the extent where shambling undead are met with groans of exasperation rather than screams and panic fire. Ubisoft's mixed performance with delivering decent launch titles for new platforms (Splinter Cell 3D still leaves a nasty taste in our mouths) and their promise to focus on Gamepad control also start ringing alarm bells, indeed, you've got a recipe for disaster waiting to happen.
Or, potentially, a recipe for absolute brilliance. Ubisoft's star is in ascendancy, and since Zombi was the very first game the French developer ever released, it's clear that Ubisoft Montpellier (From Dust, BG&E, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter) don't want the remake to disappoint. From what I was able to gather from my time in both campaign and multiplayer, this Wii U launch title actually delivers a masterclass in innovation and console-specific design flourishes, not to mention a sadistic streak a mile wide.
I'm as surprised as you are.
As a first person shooter featuring zombies, chances are that you can imagine the basic setup without much in the way of lead-in. You'll kill hordes of unpredictable undead with guns and melee weapons. They'll constantly harry you at inopportune moments. You'll need to scavenge for more gear and ammunition. Despite the English setting (the demo level took place in Buckingham Palace) providing some surprisingly authentic surroundings and armaments - cricket bats and Beefeaters, anyone? - the broad overview is highly reminiscent of a singleplayer Left 4 Dead or Dead Island. Competent enough, but not exactly groundbreaking.
And then Ubisoft's clever touches leap out of left field and start to pile up. The Wii U's touchscreen acts as a backpack, allowing you to swap inventory items with a few simple fingertip drags. Brilliantly, though, you'll also have to take your eyes off the TV (just like a real backpack), which means that zombies can potentially bushwhack you during these tense moments of vulnerability. The Ubisoft rep explained that this was a purposeful design feature, and comes into its own when you're running low on supplies and need to find a safe place to pull out a particular item. It's a small touch, but it adds a feeling of authenticity that makes other shooters feel a bit flat. Yes, even though you're holding a great big plastic plank.
Better yet, the touchscreen also doubles up as a keypad/console when opening doors. If you've got a horde on your tail and desperately need to seek safety behind one of these security doors, having to intuitively tap in the code or desperately fumble while hearing the crowds baying for blood behind you feels profoundly uncomfortable, in a profoundly brilliant way.
As an item scanner, your Gamepad can detect hidden stuff, scan bodies (some of which will get back up and ruin your underwear) or even uncover messages from players scrawled on the wall. Though no synchronous cooperative gameplay has been announced, ZombiU will provide some Dark Souls-esque messaging, allowing your friends to assist you with useful advice. Unless they're b*stards who delight in leaving false info for the merry hell of it. It takes all sorts to make a world, I suppose.
Naturally, the Gamepad's motion control functionality can be optionally used to aim scoped rifles (by holding and moving the Gamepad in front of the TV, using the touchscreen as the scope itself), and swing melee weapons. It takes a while to get used to and can get a little hard on the arms after extended sessions, but again, it's a fun and immersive feature.
So far, I've dwelt on the fun and exciting gameplay flourishes that Ubisoft will bring to the table, but I have yet to detail one of the most important things - if not the most critical piece of info- about ZombiU. Something that will likely make most of you think twice about the game as a whole, if not the Wii U as a console purchase.
ZombiU is properly, seriously hardcore.
That's right. Not only is ZombiU incredibly tough (you're fighting against huge hordes of fast and relentless killers), but it absolutely refuses to hold your hand. Death is swift, brutal and above all permanent, with your corpse becoming a unique zombie that your next character will probably run into. After a morning of super happy exploitative fun times (or Nintendo Land minigames, more specifically), this hardcore focus was a slap in the face - and one that I desperately needed. Hell, that I wanted. Combined with the slick HD graphics and Gamepad fun factor, this is going to be the launch title of choice for many a perspective Wii U owner.
Multiplayer shows off yet more of the Wii U's potential, this time focusing on this year's latest buzzword: asymmetrical gameplay. One player assumes the role of the heroic undead-killing hero, whereas the other uses the gamepad to control the zombie hordes. Slick touchscreen controls allow the zombie player to guide their legions throughout the levels, feint, attack and secure control points for the win, continually harried by their powerful first-person nemesis. 'Thinking outside the box' is an understatement.
ZombiU is therefore shaping up to be Wii U's hardcore hero: a brutal and uncompromising shooter with a vicious difficulty streak and rewarding gameplay... yet that also showcases a new console's best features to advantage. Consider this newly-announced E3 surprise to be firmly on our radar, and a launch title worthy of our closest scrutiny. Here's hoping that Ubisoft Montpellier manage to build a lengthy and enjoyable campaign on this firm foundation.