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ZombiU ::: Review

Back in August I walked away from my brief bout with ZombiU distinctly unimpressed. An unresponsive combat mechanism and a clunky interface did nothing but alienate the user. That was no slight on the novel hardware (I’d just had a great time with Rayman on the same device), but rather the blame solely lay at the door of the developers. It was Red Steel all over again.

However, come the start of December, when I buckled horribly and broke into my penny jar to get a Wii U, I still held onto the hope that an extra couple of months incubation could turn things around. Yet even after playing through it, the answer isn’t clear cut.

Straight out the gate you’re still faced with the same punishing slowness that greeted me in the demo. Your movements are casually paced considering the undead are right on your heels, and you swing a cricket bat with such consideration that you’d expect the zombie’s skull to find the gap and head to the cover boundary for four. It feels wrong; there’s no urgency to any of your actions.

The difference between this and the demo however is that you have time to adapt. Fresh to the controls and asked to take down a veritable cavalcade of cadavers you would die horribly and repeatedly. At home, however, you have time to learn the nuances, adapt to the lethargic rise and fall of the bat, and find your feet in the world. Very aware of this, the early stages almost spoon-feed you zombies one by one in as low a risk situation as possible to get you used to it all.

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Of course, low risk is a relative term. A single zombie on their own can be handled simply, easily pushed back and pummelled into submission, but it can still rip your throat out in an instant should it slip pass your defences. It’s a game where – and I found this out on a handful of occasions – a lack of concentration can see the end of your adventure end before you can recover. It makes you approach every situation and each new room with caution as you learn to both fear and respect the undead.

Tackling more than one target at a time needs serious consideration as wading in waving your bat will only buy you slithers of time. If possible, outliers need to be dealt with first, or sensible use of flares (zombies like light, it turns out) paired with grenades and fire bombs to get rid of groups. These are no silver bullets, however, and a looseness in the controls never guarantee that these tossed objects end up where intended. Should things go even slightly awry, genuine panic can set in as you know that your default melee weapon is next to useless against multiple assailants, and running might only delay the inevitable.

As a fall back you do gain access to a series of guns, but this is no Call of Duty. As you play a member of the general public you have no formal weapons training and that tells in the aiming. Headshots will not come from popping a dot over a zombie’s bonce, they either require a splash of luck or for your enemy to be virtually on top of you. Not something to be advised.

Helping out in the quest for survival is the Wii U gamepad, acting as your inventory and your radar, each equally adding to tension in their own unique way. The former allows you to switch which weapons you have quick access to, though never pausing the game. Whilst digging around in your backpack the camera swings round to show you against the background. Even if there are no actual zombies in sight they play on the mind, and if there is then, boy, does that pile the pressure on your fingers to pull out the right item; flourishing a chocolate bar won’t quite work the same as a Molotov cocktail.

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When not rejigging your weaponry, the second screen alerts you to local threats. Creatures show up as red blips, allowing you to prepare for what’s round the corner. Yet almost cruelly it’s not just zombies but rats and crows, meaning you’re never quite sure what you’ll be facing. The sonar can also function as a scanner to try and help differentiate these from a distance, but line of sight is still required. Despite that, wandering down a corridor to suddenly hear a blip emanate from the pad can cause you to pause, whilst the sound of a chorus of blips reporting back can do more than that.

What all these component parts have in common is that none are flawlessly implemented. The inventory management can seem needlessly convoluted, your actions dawdling, the story full of holes. Respectively they have rough edges, minor failings that whilst never jarring are obvious enough to make you wish that ZombiU had had just a couple of extra months to get an extra level of polish. But by the same token they also add to the levels of tension and drama.

Not since the original Resident Evil or Fatal Frame have I felt truly unnerved playing a game. There are no cheap jump tricks on display here, the pressure and tension come from being pitted against a world that has gone to crap and the only object that you can truly trust is a faithful piece of English sporting equipment. The knowledge that you simply respawn back in your Safe House as a new character – though having lost all your backpack’s content – should the worse happen, does little to calm the nerves as you’re trudging around an unmapped sewer with a handful of blips that you prey turn out to be small and fluffy.

It’s a game that seems to have been built out of equal parts luck and judgement. For as much as I think the slow nature of the cricket bat’s rise and fall is a very clever feature, forcing you to truly understand combat and not just swing out wildly, there are many others that just raise questions as to how they settled upon that as a solution. Although either way it does not matter. Rather than question why what you’re playing is compelling there are times you should just stop over analysing things and settle in and enjoy it.

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Birthday Honours

At this time of year, as the Christmas trees come down and attentions turn to hot cross buns, award ceremonies are ten-a-penny with every magazine, show and website handing out accolades left right and centre. And by golly by jingo we want to get in on the action.

So whilst more reputable publications hand out Game of the Year plaudits, we present you with a list of those titles that have proven themselves enough to make the resurrected BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

Biggest Surprise: ZombiU

At Gamescom ZombiU and I did not get on well. In a noisy hall, shoulder to shoulder with fellow gamers, I attempted to get to grips with a seemingly clunky, cricket bat swinging survivor of the zombie apocalypse. He wasn’t a survivor for long. Neither was the next chap. Or the subsequent poor lady.

In the comfort of my own home, however, Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title came into its own. It wasn’t a game to excel on a show floor, but a considered title that required patience. In return it repaid you with a unique experience that could crank up the tension by merely placing a pair of blips on your radar.

In an era where most games seem to be going for a more instantly accessible and, some may say, dumbed down mainstream experience, ZombiU embraces being slightly obtuse. Now whether this is a design masterstroke or a pure accident it’s hard to tell but it’s come from nowhere to be the most surprising title of 2012.

Honourable mentions: Wii U, PlayStation Plus’s instant game collection.

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Most Likely to Make My Mind Melt: Fez

For a handful of us, our April was consumed by talk of glyphs. We had notebooks and smartphones full of pictures and scribbles as Phil Fish’s mind boggling platformer took over our mental faculties. It started simply enough, presenting itself coyly as an 8bit indie darling. Slowly, however, the truth was revealed and not only was it an inspiring mix of retro visuals and stirring platforming but a vessel that contained an entire new language that had to decrypted.

There was no bluntness to it, though. The language was part of the world, etched into the walls, with a subtlety that meant when its importance was revealed it made you look at the world from a completely different perspective.

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Greatest Multiplayer Experience: FIFA 13

As a concept it may not be revolutionary, but EA’s latest incarnation of the beautiful game is as polished as can be. Part of that comes from the various game modes: grouping each club’s supporters together and charting shared success; a collectible card game where you put your best Panini stickers against a friend’s; or online leagues that shows the best implementation of “True Skill” since Halo 2.

In the last twelve months though there has been no multiplayer experience that has topped getting half-a-dozen friends together and marching out onto the virtual pitch. Each of us takes a position – I like to think of myself as the digital Scott Parker – and attempt to work together in sync, watching for each other’s runs, sliding through through-balls, and hopefully working goals that even Messi would be proud of. Though sadly the opposition seem equally adept. The swines.

Honourable mentions: Nintendoland, Journey.

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Reaffirming My Belief That Games Can Just Be Pure Fun: Nintendoland

If there was a period that sold me on the Wii U it was the Monday lunchtime right after it had launched. A colleague had brought the machine, Nintendoland and a bagful of Wii-motes into the office and an hour later I was plotting a visit to GAME.

Some may say that Nintendoland doesn’t sell the Wii U as well as Wii Sports sold the original Wii, but that’s beside the point as the Luigi’s Mansion mini-game is almost worth the price of admission alone. A simple collection of games based around almost playground concepts, the collection excels at stripping away overly complex controls schemes and allows players to revel in the glee of tig for the modern era.

There are duds, but most either excel in multiplayer or reveal a surprising amount of depth or challenge when tackled solo. They’re simple, but when simple is done so well why overcomplicate matters.

Honourable mention: Super Mario 3D Land

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Most Interesting New Tech: Book of Spells

I’m always a sucker for technology that verges on the novelty. Last year’s obsession with Skylanders and its Near Field Communication toys proves that out. This year it was Sony’s Wonderbook that won me over; effectively a giant set of Augmented Reality cards bound in a cover and combined with an Eye-Toy.

As always, though, it’s how it’s used that makes it wonderful. Wonderbook’s ability to turn your room into a classroom at Hogwarts is achieved by more than simply rendering dragons on your coffee table. You get sucked into the magical castle, shown tiny paper-based dramatizations of spell’s histories, and transported to fantastical locations. At each you flick and swish your wand complete with all the sparkles you need to levitate toads and set Deatheaters on fire.

It may also help that there’s a Walking with Dinosaurs tie in coming later this year.

Honourable mentions: Vita, PlayStation Plus, Game Boy Camera.

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Most Likely to Make Me Miss My Bedtime: Minecraft

Sometimes a glassed walled lair hidden beneath a manmade volcano just has to be made. Then of course when that’s completed it needs attaching to the mine cart network so you can speedily reach the giant floating castle. Well, that would be if my giant floating castle hadn’t burnt down when I installed the fire pit. Next time: don’t use timber.

With each new construction the late nights were worth it. Not since Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts have I had a virtual Lego set that kept me up to the wee small hours as walls needed finishing, ponds needed digging, and giant squid needed herding.

Honourable mention: Wordament

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Oddest: Tokyo Jungle

Possibly the hardest fought category but by a smidge Tokyo Jungle made my mind boggle most. The sheer bizarre concept of playing as a Pomeranian, savaging cattle and courting flee infested mates doesn’t sound like a winner, but it worked.

It felt like a modern incarnation of Double Dragon but when you take into account the story behind the animal adventure the mind truly boggles. Time travels, future humans trying to save themselves by sacrificing the past, and golden retrievers declaring themselves king… I’ll never slag off the Halo storyline again.

Honourable mentions: Frog Fractions, Fez.

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Bestest Game: Journey

Hands down this was by far and away the best game, nay experience, I’ve had all year. It combined charming, mute characters with wondrous landscapes in a platform-come-pilgrimage that saw you gracefully slide down sand dunes, scale snowy peaks and soar through the blue skies above. It constantly changed, but never felt forced or jarring in its transitions just that it always wanted to take you on a new adventure.

More than that, however, it touched me emotionally. The beautiful story conveyed in such minimalistic ways joined with an online cooperative experience that seemed so unique but equally compelling to everyone I spoke to was moving. It may only be a few hours long but that time can be held up as the finest time that can be found in our hobby.

Honourable mentions: Witcher 2, Fez

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ZombiU

Christmas has obviously been and gone as 7outof10 has some new toys. Marvel at our ability to capture footage from both screens of Nintendo’s new console whilst at the same time walking and talking you through the scariest of its launch line up.

Grab yourself a pillow to hide behind; it’s Zombi-U.