Here are a few modern myths about gaming: no-one makes scary games anymore, Nintendo games are all family-friendly, and launch games by Ubisoft rarely live up to expectation.
And here's a game that dispels every single one of those. Released in tandem with Nintendo's strange new Wii U console, ZombiU is a terrifying, atmospheric and most importantly smart first-person action game, and it's one of the best horror games there's been for years. As a result, it's also one of the best reasons to get yourself a Wii U.
ZombiU's a return to one of Ubisoft's older games, though you're forgiven if you haven't played it before, or if you hadn't even heard of it. Zombi was a 1986 release for the Spectrum, Commodore and Amstrad, and it was the French outfit's first ever game.
There are similarities, though - you play as a series of survivors in a post-infection city, picking through the undead in a bid to stay alive above all else. And when everyone's after your jugular and there are few friendly faces, that's much harder than it sounds.
London provides the backdrop, and it's an oppressive, atmospheric one. This is a caricature of the capital that's liberal with the details: Brick Lane backs up on to Buckingham Palace, according to ZombiU's curious geography, and it would seem that almost half of the population are Beefeaters.
Inaccuracies aside, it's a great place to explore, full of the little dark corners that can really make a horror experience fly: abandoned supermarkets explored by torchlight prove especially chilling, as do the dark corridors of tube stations where dead commuters slouch in shattered train carriages. Or, perhaps, they're not dead after all. Best bop them on the head with a cricket bat just in case.
Shooting For Six.
Ah, the faithful cricket bat. It's often your best weapon, because ZombiU most definitely isn't a first-person shooter. Guns are unwieldy, vicious things, kicking back violently and proving hard to use effectively. So you're often better off with just a strip of willow; a nice couple of cover drives will see your foe to the floor, where you can deliver a big strong hook to finish them off before you break for tea.
The cricket bat will also be the only real weapon at your side, for most of the game. Like any survival horror game worthy of the name, ammo's scarce, but there's more to ZombiU than that. You see, when you succumb to the grisly grips of the undead - and you will, and often - that's it for that character. They're dead. Finished.
Well, not quite. You'll respawn in new flesh in the bowels of Shadwell Station (and ZombiU's got a great line in understated heroes - my best survivor was a drab 26 year-old recruitment agent in a Primark dress suit called Holly Willows), from which you're best advised to revisit the scene of your demise and see off the reanimated corpse of your former self. It's the only way you can be reunited with your inventory; otherwise it's just you, the cricket bat and six untrustworthy bullets for your pistol.
In Your Head, In Your Heaaadd.
The odds stack up over time, so you'll have to become more resourceful, more canny and just a little bit more nasty. A personal favourite technique involves throwing off a flare for a horde of enemies to all dumbly gather around, and then swiftly following up with a grenade chaser. It's crowd control at its best, and very messy.
Even when you've got a pocketful of explosives, though, ZombiU's never anything less than scary. Ubisoft's use of the Wii U GamePad helps that cause - it's used, quite smartly, as a scanner to help you track down items, but even more effectively it's where you must look when you want to manage your inventory. With your attention torn away from the game world as you rustle around your backpack or through the belongings of an undead-again corpse, it becomes an unbearably tense experience.
So ZombiU's real horror, and it's horror done really, really well. It's the kind of experience we haven't really seen since the early days of the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series, but it's delivered with lessons learned from the likes of Dark Souls. Against all odds, it's something of a modern classic.
- Properly scary
- Smart mechanics
- Great use of Wii U's idiosyncrasies
- Er, a bit too scary