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ZombiU – adding a screen and breaking the mould

Monday, 12th November 2012 13:30 GMT By Patrick Garratt

If ZombiU is the first real example of what dual-screen gaming will bring to the core, the next generation’s future could be lush. Or soaked in gore. Either way, says Patrick Garratt, Ubi Montpelier’s undead debut breaks new ground.

If you want to change weapon, turn your torch on or activate your oh-so-handy zombie radar, you have to look away from the TV. The sense of engagement and “horror” this lends is revelatory.

Life-cycle elongation in the current console generation has created such a profound creativity crisis that many are questioning whether premium video games have a future at all. Big budget action gaming in 2012 is the abused child of a soured marriage between twin-stick controller and HD TV. Everyone’s sick of the sight of one another, and the alimony involved in separation could be ruinous. We all went on honeymoon to Sequel Island, a once beautiful, palm-peppered place, and got stranded. Now it’s blemished by rusting shells, skeletons left by the collapse of the construction industry, and mummy and daddy don’t love each other any more.

ZombiU is the first flight home for years. WiiU and its second-screen concept may be the dawn of a new era for triple-A games. If developers and publishers are as creative with the new hardware in a way Ubisoft and its Montpelier studio have been with ZombiU, Nintendo’s latest console could be the marriage guidance the entire industry needs to ensure big-ticket gaming doesn’t end up as some embittered teenager with track-marks and a flick-knife obsession.

Centrally, the use of the second-screen in ZombiU creates a survival horror game like no other I’ve ever played. To understand why it’s turned out the way it has, it’s necessary to look at its concept evolution.

“We wanted to make something like Gremlins,” said co-creative director Jean-Phillipe Caro, harking back to ZombiU’s birth as comedic FPS Killer Freaks from Outer Space.

“It was interesting, but as we got further with WiiU, we discovered that it needed a slow-paced game to make people able to play with the two screens in the same moment. It was something new, and we thought it was something easy to learn. But when we made some tests, it was really hard.”

ZombiU started life as Killer Freaks from Outer
Space. Ubi Montpelier switched to zombies to
dampen the game’s tempo.

ZombiU is unquestionably different, largely thanks to the travails Ubi Montpelier endured in fitting an FPS to WiiU hardware. In initial testing, the developers found that players approached Killer Freaks from Outer Space as a normal FPS, not looking at the pad and never taking their eyes from the screen. In order to properly include the controller’s touch-screen, the action needed to be slowed right down. This is where the game became zombified.

ZombiU’s premise is simple. You’re a survivor facing the zombie apocalypse. “The Prepper” is the voice in your ear as you move through the campaign, which is set in London. If you want to loot a body, you have to look down at the controller to manage your inventory, using swiping gestures and drag-and-drop on the touch-screen. It’s the same if you want to change weapon, turn your torch on or activate your oh-so-handy zombie radar: you have to look away from the TV.

The sense of engagement and “horror” this lends is revelatory. ZombiU is seriously difficult, a game very much in the vein of Dark Souls. Taking your eyes away from the action, even for a few seconds, could mean death. The device is accentuated with the use of one-bite kills. Rifle through a corpse’s pockets at the wrong moment and you’re dead. Switch from cricket bat to gun out in the open and you’re dead. Look down to switch your torch off to stop attracting the horde and you’re dead. Dead, dead, dead. You don’t want to look down, but you must. By design, you’re physically dragged into the game and placed under pressure. You’re certainly not rolling your eyes and composing tweets containing the words “cookie-cutter,” put it that way.

ZombiU’s plot centres on the Prepper, Elizabethan occultist John Dee and the British royals. In testing, players took at least 15 and up to 20 hours to complete the campaign, so there’s no gimmick here. Over 100 people worked on ZombiU.

And the mould-breaking doesn’t stop there. There’s no protagonist in ZombiU, or certainly not one you control. If you die, you die. A new survivor then wakes in a safe-house to continue the mission, and the person you just resigned to an eternity of flesh-hungry shuffling is now in the world as an enemy for you to eliminate. And you will want to re-kill them: they’re holding all the gear you collected in the previous game, all your guns and food. The new character wakes with a pistol and little else. The identity of the survivors is inconsequential, created from large tables of first names, surnames and professions. Andrew Evans is a “sailor,” for example. Your character in ZombiU is you, the player. You survive. The plot-driving characters are third-parties. This is not a hero tale in the classic sense.

Said lead writer Gabrielle Shrager: “What’s interesting about the zombie genre, and the realistic part of it, is to say, ‘When you die, you don’t get up again. No: you’ve been infected. You’re a zombie.’ From a story point of view, that’s incredibly scary… But that, the one-bite kill, is what defined the narrative approach from then on.”

Shrager described ZombiU’s main characters as “generic”. When I asked her if dropping a constant protagonist was a relief, she said it “absolutely” was. Given the narrative deadlock triple-A action gaming finds itself in at the end of the current generation, it’s tempting to say this could be a benchmark moment, but Shrager added that moving the model out of zombie fiction may be difficult.

ZombiU’s opening sequences.

“It was incredibly liberating, but I think I only felt comfortable because we were telling a zombie story,” she said.

ZombiU’s plot centres on the Prepper, Elizabethan occultist John Dee and the British royals, but that’s something for you to explore for yourself. In testing, players took at least 15 and up to 20 hours to complete the campaign, so there’s no gimmick here. Over 100 people worked on ZombiU.

It’s hard, it’s new, and if it works as Ubi Montpelier intends it’s going to drop dual-screen action into core gaming’s lap with a fairly sickening crunch. Even if it doesn’t, it’s managed to do the unthinkable: put a fresh twist on the zombie genre.

We’re going to have plenty more ZombiU content this week – including exclusive gameplay footage and impressions of the asynchronous multiplayer – so be sure to not miss anything.

ZombiU releases as a WiiU launch title in the US on Sunday. Both WiiU and ZombiU release in Europe on November 30.

Disclosure:

VG247 saw ZombiU at Ubisoft’s Montpelier Studio in the South of France. Sam and Pat attended. Ubisoft paid for Sam’s return flight from the UK, two nights in a hotel for both Sam and Pat, one lunch and two evening meals. Pat paid for his own train ticket to and from Montpelier. The trip took place before the publication of new VG247 transparency guidelines.

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12 Comments

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  1. ManuOtaku

    This is the most interesting third party game offer at launch, and even it goes neck to neck with the nintendo IP´S, ubisoft did it not so good with red steel, i like it but it had is issues, although with red steel 2 they redeem themselves, i will get this in a heart beat; Thanks guys for the input, is really nice to see a good promising zombie game this days, that it is not the telltale game .

    #1 1 year ago
  2. Dave Cook

    @1 It’s brilliant. Proper challenging, really dark, violent and full of smart control ideas. It’s a superb showcase for the Wii U. Day one for me.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. Man_s

    Don’t ever recall feeling like a third-party title is the only launch game on a Nintendo console that has any interest for me. This feels properly “new”.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. OlderGamer

    I went hands on with WiiU this weekend, and I was very impressed. I didn’t get to play ZombieU.I really like the system and love the control pad. However, this game doesn’t strike me as money worthy, mostly because it could be too hard for me to get my value out of it. I was thinking about picking this game up in a year or so when the price drops.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. Dave Cook

    @4 it is a difficult game, will require a lot of dying and patience. It’s a proper time sink. Not some flash in the pan title. I think you’re not alone there :)

    #5 1 year ago
  6. Bomba Luigi

    I love Demon/Dark Souls, I love hard Games (Hard AND Fair of course) and there are not many of them in these Days. I really Hope ZombiU is that good, but i will not judge until I play it myself.

    And I’m still not sure what to think about the Controller. But I give it a chance.

    #6 1 year ago
  7. OlderGamer

    @Bomba I don’t think you have anything to worry about with the control pad. I loved it, felt lightweight but solid. I liked the contours in the back, felt great. Shoulder buttons were solid and felt comfortable. Thumb sticks responsive. The screen was big, bright, and worked well.

    #7 1 year ago
  8. thuglove2005

    cant wait day one pick up 5 more days

    #8 1 year ago
  9. Telepathic.Geometry

    Shite bags! I’m doing me best to NOT buy a Wii U, but games like this, Pikmin, Mario and believe it or not Nintendoland are gradually chipping away at my resolve…

    #9 1 year ago
  10. Gheritt White

    Terrible graphics, forgettable gameplay – Nintendo’s casual offerings will need to be stronger if they want to recapture their Wii success.

    Yes i’m being serious; no VG24/7 doesn’t reflect the mainstream.

    #10 1 year ago
  11. OlderGamer

    You are right VG247 doesn’t represent the average gamer, the average gamer tend to be far more casual/mainstream then readers/posters here. What you are getting here is people that think themself pretty hardcore and scuff at Nintendo stuff, that are saying it is a pretty compeling experience.

    There are a few people here(like myself) that do tend to enjoy nintendo products. But mostly those people are grossly outnumbered by folks that don’t asscioate Nintendo with gaming. It is when those people tell you the WiiU is a compeling experience that people on the fence should take notice. To my knowledge the staffers that have tried the WiiU are impressed.

    I don’t think anyone is expecting it to rule the world, I am expecting more power and whatnot from MS and Sony in a couple of years from now. But from my experience with the WiiU, I thought it was fantastic. I am very happy to buy it. I am so bored of what I already own.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. TheBarstow

    “Terrible graphics, forgettable gameplay – Nintendo’s casual offerings will need to be stronger if they want to recapture their Wii success.”

    I’m not quite sure I undertand your criticism? For a release title, these graphics are quite good and do their job in creating a truly chilling spooky atmosphere. As far as gameplay, I don’t see how you can call it forgettable. Anyone who’s picked the game up and played it can tell you how innovative the game is and how the controls have the potential of innovating and reviving the genre.

    ZombiU is without a doubt a “core” title (core/casual monickers are absolutely stupid). This game, New Super Mario Bros U, Nintendoland, and Scribblenauts will keep this gamer happy for quite a while.

    #12 1 year ago