The screen is your weapon: hands on with ZombiU for the Wii U
The power of the Wii U lies in the hardware’s ability to share information and interactions with the player through its tablet-style controller. The large screen of the Wii U controller can show data, but the player's attention is now split between the television and the screen in their hands. That’s why ZombiU by Ubisoft is such a diabolical game: The controller exists in the game’s world, and the undead take advantage of the time you spend looking down to interact with the world. The Wii U screen may give you certain advantages as you play, but it also forces you to take your eyes off the main screen. That’s a very dangerous thing when you’re surrounded by the shambling undead.
You are being played with
The game takes place in what seems to be a ravaged future, and there is a man who talks to you over the radio, giving you advice and tips on how to survive. His identity, and whether or not you can trust him, are two details you’ll have to work out as you play the game. While ZombiU is played primarily in a first-person view, there is no central protagonist; each time you play a random character is generated for you. When you die, that character becomes a zombie, and you are placed in control of another survivor who can then hunt down your past self and reclaim your gear. Each life is, in fact, a life. The Wii controller is your survival kit, in the literal sense. The device exists in the game, and when you hold the shoulder button to scan your surroundings the character on the screen also holds up the controller to scan the area. The player has to actually spin around and look up and down through the controller’s screen to pick out objects of note or scan things for more information. The action never pauses, so you will have to keep a close eye on your character on the screen to make sure no zombies are close by.The game plays with this mechanic as much as possible, and changes the rules of the game and what you can expect on the fly. You learn how to kill zombies, only to encounter an enemy that is more ghost than walking dead. Then the voice tells you to scan the body of a fallen enemy and… you know, it’s not worth giving these moments away. Horror games can, and should, be fun things to design, and I could feel the team of designers in a room somewhere coming up with clever ways to make the player jump. I’m going to go ahead and admit I yelped once during my demo, to the great delight of the Ubisoft representative in the room. When you’re dealing with a horror game, making a critic squeal has to be something close to a standing ovation. The use of the technology to increase tension in the game is what makes ZombiU sing. It’s not the best looking game, and it’s not exactly the most unique setting, but you’ll forget about all that when the game forces you to pick a lock on the controller’s screen and you lose yourself in the test of dexterity only to scream when a zombie begins to chew on you. Watching your back at every moment while dealing with challenges on both screens keeps you on edge, and it feels new and interesting. Your inventory is shown on the controller while you loot corpses and equipment, and it’s hard to micromanage your inventory in real time while you’re standing out in the open. It doesn’t help that the Wii U’s second screen isn’t as reactive or precise as an iPad, and a few motions took multiple attempts to register. I felt like I was stuck in that horror movie cliché where the car won’t start while the monster closes in, only I was fighting a touchscreen rather than an old Buick. So far that’s the only nit I can find to pick. It’s going to be fun to see if Ubisoft can keep this gimmick fun and entertaining through the length of the experience, but based on my 30 minutes or so with the game they’re off to a good start. Let’s hope other developers and publishers can find uses for the hardware that are just as ingenious.