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 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.
"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.
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.