Published on Monday, December 10, 2012

We are a nation of consumers; this is not breaking news. For the most part, especially in this testing economic climate, we work to live. Gone are the days of frivolous spending – treating friends and loved ones to the occasional unnecessary yet highly appreciated token of our affection comes with a degree of guilt. Yet as intelligent, independently-minded consumers, we are also brand loyal. Once we have discovered a product, service or company that pleases us, rarely will we choose to look elsewhere (unless, that is, we become restless). The video game industry is no different to any other, with consumers fiercely loyal to their adopted brand. Microsoft has an army of Xbox 360 advocates, as does Sony with the PS3. As with any conflicting opinions, sides are taken and debates often ignite. A blight of the industry, perhaps (one needs only visit various forums discussing the merits of each individual system to understand), but one that fuels it. For the most part Nintendo have remained on the sidelines, using innovation to ensnare an audience not commonly associated with the genre. They achieved this to great success with the Nintendo Wii, securing an untapped market of so-called ‘casual gamers,’ which ultimately consolidated the company as a market leader. The fan base continued to grow, resulting in an army of loyal exponents. Microsoft and Sony both have their next generation of hardware in mind (perhaps even in production), but, while sales remain strong and the systems continue to yield top quality gaming experiences, are choosing to extend the current generations’ life cycles to the absolute end. Having suffered recent (and near-catastrophic) financial losses, Nintendo simply cannot weather the aforementioned gruelling economic climate, and for that reason have kick-started the next generation cycle with the Wii U, in hopes of persuading its rivals’ followers that now is the time to affiliate with another brand. Whatever your gaming status, be it casual or hardcore, Nintendo’s survival doctrine is spearheaded with one simple question; how long will you survive?

ZombiU wasn’t always ZombiU. It started life as a new IP (rather than a homage to an earlier Ubisoft title), colourfully named “Killer Freak From Outta Space”. Having been showcased as a launch title for the Wii U, the reaction was somewhat underwhelming. The game went off-radar and eventually surfaced as the mature survival horror we see today. Immediately gamers took note and enthusiasm grew for the IP. Not only did the game showcase the Wii U’s revolutionary gamepad mechanics, it was a true survival horror experience on a Nintendo console, promising to pull no punches in the horror stakes and applying a strict adult only rating. It’s fair to say that ZombiU became Nintendo's hardcore gamers’ Wii U poster child, and managed to stand out amongst the third party AAA ports that would launch alongside the system. Nintendo, quick to realise the game’s potential, promptly set about promoting it with the kind of commitment usually reserved for in-house IP’s and third party no-brainers like Call Of Duty. Here was a game that had not only captured the minds of adult, Xbox 360/PS3 gamers, but also acted as the perfect advertisement for the hardware’s unique capabilities. What’s more, ZombiU was announced as a Wii U exclusive, adding an almost overwhelming degree of pressure for the IP to prove successful. ZombiU launched alongside the system and almost immediately it became clear the experience would spilt reviewers and gamers alike. Some would announce the next generation of survival horror had arrived, while others would denounce the title as nothing more than an overly difficult, ugly, linear gimmick. In a way, both schools of thought have merit.

ZombiU opens with the player assuming the role of a lone survivor, finding themselves traversing a desolated London following the zombie apocalypse. There’s no time to find your bearings as the fast moving undead are approaching en masse. A voice reaches out from the darkness, guiding you inside Shadwell station, where a safe house awaits. The opening cinematic sets the scene and pace nicely, but it’s once control is relinquished to the player and you are given the chance to appreciate the bleak surroundings that the game’s atmosphere truly takes hold. This is London; more accurately, a devastated London. Amongst the destroyed buildings, shops and homes there are enough familiar items (and locals) to bring a stark reality to proceedings. From the London Underground automated warnings, to the newsstands, burning vehicles and clothing adorned by the undead, there’s no mistaking the capital and all its bleak beauty. One of the more persistent criticisms of ZombiU is that of the graphical fidelity – or, rather, the lack of it. From afar, the environments and objects are rendered perfectly, giving a vivid representation of a city brought to its knees. Building are devastated, vehicles burn, and the sky’s gloomy presence offers no respite. But inspect the detail up close and you might be compelled to question the title’s next gen qualities. Renders are less than exceptional, and the textures wouldn’t look out of place amongst the last generation’s later offerings. Rather than a true representation of the Wii U’s visual capabilities, it appears that the developers weren’t overly concerned with the granular visual details, as taking time out to inspect them will ultimately result in death. In summary, ZombiU is visually functional and serves to retain emersion throughout. But what of the gameplay?

Much has been made of ZombiU’s claim of hardcore appeal. Should ‘hardcore’ translate to an unforgiving play style, then the IP has made good on its promise. The campaign is relentlessly tough and brings with it an ever-present tension. This is not a game to turn to for a quick play session with thoughts of relaxation in mind. It’s not a question of when you will die, but how often. Firstly, the zombies in ZombiU are tough. They move fast and kill with a single bite. Headshots work, but you’re assuming the role of an everyday citizen – weapons are unfamiliar and accuracy is not guaranteed. More often than not the player is forced to refer back to a stock melee weapon, in this case a cricket bat, in order to shove the undead back and gradually batter their brains in. This alone proves a tough ask with one assailant; add a few to the mix and the sensible option is to flee. What’s more, should your character succumb to the undead, it’s  literally game over for them. You will assume the role of another survivor minus any weapons, items or skills the previous unfortunate had acquired – the only way to recoup is by finding your reanimated predecessor and putting them out of their misery. Should your system be online, you’ll often encounter other players wandering the play field, along with brief statistics detailing their longevity. This social element of ZombiU (and the Miiverse functionality) works well (unlike the capability to “tag” messages for other players, which proves fruitless), in so far as valuable supplies can be retrieved and it adds to the anticipation of yet another inevitable death. The gamepad functionality works well and proves to be far more than just a series of tacked-on gimmicks, offering viral and unique gameplay mechanics which for the most part are well-realised. Inventory, loadouts and maps can be viewed while the onscreen survivor fumbles around, ever vulnerable. Locks can be picked/hacked and rooms searched with the gamepad alone, which also doubles as a handy motion tracker (complete with an ominous “ping” when movement is detected). ZombiU’s game world is by no means huge, but what’s included, despite a number of re-visits throughout the campaign, is well presented and, thanks to the omnipresent dangers, remains fresh and engaging. Shortcuts (in the form of underground travel) are included as the campaign progresses.

I’m reluctant to delve into story details or memorable set-pieces, as one of ZombiU’s greatest assets is its mystery. Go into this game with as little knowledge as possible of what is to come and the experience will be greatly enhanced. The story is one we’ve all encountered many times before, but it’s well written and fleshed out with various diaries, memos, letters etc, which gamers are now accustomed to. While the player is given the freedom to range the game’s locations as desired, the game is linear with its tasks and objectives. More often than not, it’s a case of travelling from point A to retrieve an item from point B. However, regardless of repetition it’s a testament to the developers that each excursion is rife with tension and uncertainty as to its success. Even taking all of the above into account, ZombiU will continue to divide opinion. Those looking for a first-person shooter with gamepad integrated functionality will probably leave the experience bitterly disappointed. From its lack of graphical polish to the extreme difficulty level, ZombiU fails to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the system’s other first-person shooter release. But those seeking a genuinely terrifying survival horror experience need look no further. This is not a first-person shooter, it’s an exercise in atmosphere and tension; forgive a few minor issues and it’s also utterly engaging. Will ZombiU succeed in persuading this generation of gamers to switch formats? Absolutely not. Is it a showcase for the Wii U? Absolutely. A brilliant, nerve-shredding and beautifully executed survival horror on a Nintendo console. Believe it. We can only hope there are enough Nintendo Wii U enthusiasts willing to take a chance, as ZombiU2 cannot happen soon enough.

Score: 4 out of 5
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