This week, Zero Punctuation reviews ZombiU.
I think I've figured out Nintendo's strategy now. They're playing a long game, they are. The idea is to make all their products look good retroactively by making all their successors slightly worse. The WiiMote might be a fairy wand in a bubble-wrapped condom, but at least it's not a controller the size of a tea tray that you have to hold up in one hand to use the touch screen and which, like a prolonged romantic dry spell, weighs rather heavily on the wrist.
So I got myself a Wii U, and as with many Nintendo products these days, the startup process feels like you're joining a cult, with the constant music that one might hear in the elevators of a methodone clinic and the crowd of Miis staring up at you as if to say, "Come and join us. The Master will be home soon." And I had to mute the fucking TV during the update process 'cause that repeating "Widdly-Wee" noise felt like it was implanting hypnotic suggestions. With a drill.
Here's a fun drinking game I devised for the Wii U: Take a shot every time the little controller screen is doing something that couldn't have just been put on the TV screen without sacrificing anything. It's the best drinking game because afterwards you can legally drive home! Oh, but they tell me, "You can take the screen controller away and keep playing when someone else wants to use the TV," although I still prefer my old solution to that problem which is to tell them to piss off. Why is Nintendo so terrified of my massive TV? They finally grudgingly gave the Wii HD support but want me to take every opportunity to flee from the big black monster like it's actually a surly gorilla holding up a tinted windscreen. I know it looks kind of like the monolith from 2001 lying on its side, but the monolith was actually a friendly alien device if you'd watched the whole film.
But enough about console, let's talk games. In every Nintendo launch lineup, there's a token "we're a mature gaming platform, no, really" hardcore exclusive, a role filled last time around by Red Steel, in much the same way that expired dog food fills a Wellington boot , and this time by ZombiU. Now there's elegant naming for you. In one fell swoop, we instantly know that A. it's a game about zombies, B. it's on the Wii U, and C. Ubisoft's naming department either recently has been or very shortly will be undergoing a bit of downsizing.
But ZombiU came as a bit of a surprise. Once can never expect much of a new IP hardcore launch title because this is traditionally a bland box-ticking exercise to move enough units to the average cock splash with a comfort zone the size of a Japanese parking space, maybe with a few gimmicks to show off the new hardware like a door-to-door dildo salesman showing a housewife all the different speed settings. But ZombiU defies its role in life and is less scrotum-swinging action shooter than nipple-massaging survival horror with leaning towards Dark Souls and roguelikes, of all things, where player characters are permanently lost upon death and are replaced by another random Johnny thrown into the same situation with no equipment because the zombified previous twat is still holding it all. Each protagonist has a random appearance, name, and job and it can be quite demoralizing when you spend several hours as Zack Danger, Private Eye, only to make one stupid mistake and then get stuck with Fat Bob, the fucking Community Support Officer. It's good for creating tension when you really want to avoid failure. Every time I caught a zombie's instakill bite attack, I'd make a weird, involuntary vocalisation that couldn't decide if it was a swear or not, like "FUGBAR!" or "DAYGUNT!"
The game is set in post-zombie London and was designed by someone who rather obviously isn't from London because all their knowledge of the city seems to come from sightseeing tours. You visit Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, and yes, thrillingly, you can kill beefeaters! That's one off the bucket list! According to the story, when the zombie thing came about, everyone expected Buckingham Palace to sort it out, as opposed to someone who actually runs the country. I know this is a confusing point to people who don't live in monarchies, but no one actually expects the queen to do anything. She's only the ruler in the same way certain people claim that they are "owned by their cat - " it's a cute thing to say, but if there's no one around to work the ring pull on the Whiskas tin, then the cat's pretty fucked.
You play a conga line of hapless plebs holed up in a tube station with a mysterious voice calling itself "The Prepper", or more accurately, "T'Prepper 'ey up me ducks put 'kettle on down pub" and events complicate as you explore the city and find opportunities that may represent an escape or perhaps even a cure, while the Prepper just wants you to seal yourself in a vault with so many tins of beans that your offspring evolve into fart-based lifeforms. I do love survival horror and this is about as survival as it gets and actually quite scary at times, even more so if you're afraid of those big furry hats, and why wouldn't you be? At its best, the atmosphere is a bit Condemned-y and has some nice little touches like when you open your backpack around zombies, your character makes little whimpers, like a dog who really needs to piss but his owner is distracted watching looping footage of Niagara Falls.
Incidentally, that's the touchscreen controller's chance to shine. You can quickly glance back up at the big screen while foodling around the new inventory to make sure zombies aren't tiptoeing up with designs on your prostate, something that would have been impossible before the technological quantum leap that is the Wii U, unless there's such a thing as, I don't know, semi-transparent GUIs. Oh yeah, and when you use a scope or viewing device, you have to look through the touch screen, 'cause remember all those problems we used to have when the scoped view just replaced the main game screen? No, me neither! But Nintendo made us invite this damn thing to our party, so we'd better fucking make friends with it or we're not getting cake!
But ZombiU's problem is one of substance. It's pretty short, and while it is tense at first, it doesn't take long to figure out that the super-secret technique for handling singlular zombies is just uninterrupted swings with the starting cricket bat, or as I prefer to call it, my Staff of Wisden . And in all other situations, flare plus molotov clears rooms like a flatulent polar bear, and at that point the game has nothing more up its sleeve. There's a zombie with a helmet and one that messes with your radar, but neither are any match for a stacked game of paper, scissors, stone, cricket bat, and from about the halfway point onward I only ever died from forgetting where I put my own land mines. Traditionally in something like this, the moment the player's gotten comfortable is the signal for the game to unleash the suicide bomber bengal tigers, but I was left waiting for a curveball that never came.
And the Wii U's gimmicks are a solution looking for a problem, plus the controller's got the battery life of a Sega Game Gear crossbred with a mayfly. Full charge, three and a half hours, then dead, and I know Nintendo games keep reminding you to take regular breaks, but that's like reading the legal document before you click "Agree"; nobody really expects you to do it. Maybe you think three hours is a good length for a serious gaming session and maybe sniffing someone's hair in a packed lift counts as first base.
And that's why I take the stairs: Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw
I'm off on Christmas break next week but I'll be back in a fortnight with a top and bottom five and a tummy full of chocolate
Yeah Shadwell Tube Station's always a bit dead that time of night