E3 2012: ZombiU
Of all the games I saw, I was most interested in getting my hands on ZombiU. This isn’t just because it looks like a pretty good survival horror game, but rather because there’s no way to assume how well the WiiU integration is going to work with this style of game. At its base, the game is a first person shooter with generally standard FPS controls, the left stick to move, right stick to look around, left trigger to aim, right trigger to shoot. Since this is something I’m familiar with, the controls were overall pretty easy to pick up.
The real question for this game was whether all its merit came from the unique WiiU controller, or if the game did anything unique on its own without it. Fortunately there were a number of features that didn’t involve the controller that sounded really interesting. For one I was told that death was permanent. There’s a certain amount of leveling your character can do, but if the character dies, so do the levels and all the gear you collected. If you want your gear back, you have to find your now zombified character, kill them, and take back your stuff.
When I started playing, I noticed the zombie of Ryan Davis from Giant Bomb walking around in front of me. I shot him in the head immediately. Most of the zombies I saw in this starting area had names above them, and there was a running tally of the people who had been turned to zombies beside the booth. I don’t know how much character customization the game will have if any, but the potential of having characters that I had previous played as and died walking around as zombies is honestly pretty cool, especially if my zombies can infest the games of people on my friends list.
Another interesting feature is that the game will randomize the way setups will work each time you play. Sometimes you’ll enter a room and it will be empty, other times it will be full of enemies. Sometimes that dead body on the table will remain dead, sometimes he’ll get up. I only got to play through the demo once, but I can see how not knowing what’s around the corner can really help keep the suspense of the game through multiple playthroughs.
Oh, and there’s zombie face rendering on the controller:
I collected a crossbow and tried scoping in for some practice headshots. The crossbow can only fire once before a reload, so precision is important. The scoping is performed by aiming, then holding the controller up to the screen in front of the player’s face. On the WiiU controller’s screen, a scope will appear. On the main screen, the player can be seen aiming the weapon with a full field of view on the action ahead. As I moved the controller around I was able to fine tune the aim and take the shot. I had some issues with the aiming sensitivity in this mode, so I hope that they are still fine tuning the controls and will include some adjustable options within the game, but it reacted with no noticeable latency when I shifted positions. The scoping mainly felt awkward because I’m not used to holding the controller up at eye level.
Every action the player performs with the controller is real-time with the game. If you want to open your backpack to switch weapons, the character on the screen takes a knee and the player has to move items around on the WiiU’s touch screen as quickly as they choose to. The fact that the player has to take their eye off the screen is not something I’m used to, but it certainly creates a sense of pre-occupation that no other game does. I honestly like the idea of dealing with resource management on a different screen, it increases the sense of dread when you have to put your attention elsewhere while zombies are present. The inventory is easy to interact with, so it didn’t take long for me to equip new weapons and pick the bag back up.
Leaving the starting grounds, I entered an abandoned pre-school in search of a first aid kit. In my ear I could hear a survivalist guide helping me along the way, the kind of person who would help me as he could, but would leave me to die without hesitation if he needed to. On the WiiU screen a map was drawing in as I looked around, and enemies would appear as red dots. I also had an augmented reality scanner to help me identify what hidden objects were scattered around the room. I could use the WiiU’s screen like a visor, turning around to face directions the main screen’s camera wasn’t pointing. I approached a door, next to which was a body I assumed to be dead slumped against the wall. I slowly approached the body to see if it was going to jump up and kill me, but it seemed to remain dead so I turned my attention to the door. It was locked, but I had a lock pick.
On the controller’s screen I found a small lock picking mini-game. It was a simple rotation game that made me turn to pick until I found the correct positioning for it. Up until now, most of the games I’ve played that involve mini-games like this will pause the rest of the game until it is solved. I had completely forgotten that this is not that type of game. While I was buried in the controller’s screen, the image on the main screen displayed my character picking the lock with the “dead” body in the foreground. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that the body had started sliding to the ground. This was probably one of my favorite self reflective moments, because in order to progress through the game and interact with objects, I was going to have to always have an eye on the main screen to see if anything was coming to get me. The body did stay dead, but with the randomizing of events, it might not have always played out that way.
In a similar way, the game made better use of the screen when searching through lockers or boxes. The camera on the main screen can take a perspective that shows the player in the room and the area around them rather than a close up on the inside of the bin. I could quickly tap the controller screen to collect the objects, close the locker, and continue on.
The floor collapsed under my character and I found myself surrounded by decaying body parts. I quickly stood up and rounded the corner. A zombie ran towards me, then disappeared in a puff of smoke. Each time she reappeared I took a few shots at her, but the room was small and the gun takes a while to reload. I tried, but eventually got killed by her. I assume my character started walking around in someone else’s game after I left.
I certainly did have some small issues with its usability, but I also think the WiiU controller successfully added some unique gameplay situations that I’d never experienced, namely the ability to still be active in real-time within the game world while performing a close proximity actions on the controller’s screen. It’s conceptually similar to what would actually happen, not everything a person interacts with is at a similar distance. A person will sometimes have to choose between looking into the distance and looking at something close by.
In my opinion, this did add to the experience because it required me to be more aware of my surroundings by expanding where my relevant surroundings would be. That’s the main thing that I believe the WiiU controller does really well in all the times I’ve seen it, creating a feeling of immersion by providing the player with close personal actions to perform that directly effected something further away. Somehow it closes the gap between the game and the player virtually and provides a greater sense of an augmented connected reality. It’s an idea that I like, but I’m not completely sold on yet.
I did feel like I was fumbling a lot with the controller because of my unfamiliarity with it. I’m certain I’d be able to get more comfortable with it. The WiiU controller has the analogue sticks on the very outside of the controller. Anyone used to the PS3 controller is used to having to reach into the center of the controller to use the sticks, and or specifically the right stick on the Xbox controller. My right thumb was not used to the WiiU positioning because it rests the thumb in a vertical orientation instead of a more horizontal position. None of this is insurmountable, but they are the primary hurdles the player needs to calibrate to in order to comfortably use the controller. I can’t imagine this would take very long, just longer than the 15 minutes I had at the booth.
Overall I enjoyed getting my hands on the game. I wish I had more time to see how easily I could pick up the unique control methods and see if it really enhances the experience or if it always feels like fumbling. I haven’t seen anything yet that has really convinced me of buying the WiiU right when it comes out, but I’m definitely going to keep my ears open.