Nintendo Enthusiast Game of the Year Award 2012
What’s taken us so long to write about our Game of the Year? It’s been pretty busy the past few months and we finally got around to gathering together the editors, making a decision, and having a few of them write down their thoughts on the game. We hope the wait has been worth it…
Alex B, Editor-in-Chief – Gaming Enthusiast
As with every new platform announced by Nintendo in the past few generations, it was the general misconception that the Wii U would be launched with nothing but games for kids. Even as the launch lineup was announced, many cries of “rehash!” “old port!” and “casual game!” were heard. Amid this rather typical Nintendo platform launch madness an unlikely protagonist emerged: an original, punishing, and fresh hardcore title.
ZombiU was a true Survival Horror game – a surviving member of a dying species. It pulled no punches: death is permanent in ZombiU, with character progress easily lost with the slightest carelessness. However, it went further than simply reviving old genre tropes; it used the Wii U’s unique gamepad to make the classic Survival Horror experience more immersive and more interactive, advancing the genre in unexpected ways.
ZombiU ultimately fell short of universal acclaim, to put it tepidly, yet it managed to gather a loyal cult following; a number of grizzled, misrepresented gamers left behind by Capcom’s and Konami’s more recent “Horror” efforts. For us at Nintendo Enthusiast, ZombiU’s unflinching commitment to the Survival Horror genre, as well as its overall quality and innovative use of the Wii U’s GamePad, is enough to make it our choice for Game of the Year 2012.
In an industry full of consumers with gamer-fatigue, looking for new experiences, ZombiU has become the one truly essential launch title for the Wii U.
Michael N, Feature Writer – Nintendo Enthusiast
When I first sat down to write down my thoughts on ZombiU, Ubisoft’s Wii U exclusive survival horror, the first goal I envisioned for the project was to write something new about the game: something nobody had written yet. Having played the game for 80 hours, having beaten both the Normal and Survivor mode, I thought I must have some unique insight into the game and its critical reception. Well, two weeks later, I’m still trying to find something that hasn’t been said about this apparently highly divisive game. You see, since the game’s release alongside the Wii U in November, the internet has been positively ablaze with polarized discussion and opinion, love and disdain for a title that has been described in reviews as visually stunning, and plain ugly to look at; tense and thrilling, and boring and repetitive; compelling, and instantly forgettable. The inferno has died down a bit lately, so the timing seems right for me to enter with a poker, a fan, and some wooden planks that will make some very good kindling… Well, they’re certainly not useful for anything else!
Over the extensive research period I put into this article, time I spent poring over the finer details of every ZombiU review I could find – or if the scurrilous rumours are to be believed, the 5 minutes I spent scanning their summations on Metacritic – the one thing I found that seemingly everyone could agree on was the word “flawed” and I’m certainly not going to be the one to rock the boat here either. The game is not without its flaws – some quite minor, some serious enough that they can’t be ignored. So in the spirit of not ignoring them, let’s get all of the technical issues out of the way right now, at the beginning. I mentioned earlier that I spent 80 hours with the game; well, let me say right now that in those 80 hours I did not encounter a single game-breaking glitch, though they do reportedly exist. One example, as I understand it, is that if your character dies on the way out of the nursery basement, but before you unbar the kitchen door, there is no way to go back and retrieve your mission-critical items, which means starting over. Obviously this is not an issue on Survivor Mode, where any death means starting over. What I did encounter was a plethora of small irritations and distractions, the most common of which include: frozen zombies; frozen animals; getting stuck on scenery; and not being able to loot certain zombies because sometimes the “loot” prompt doesn’t pop up. Nothing too bad there, and the developers have announced that they are working on a patch, although as a Nintendo gamer I do expect better debugging from my expensively-bought products. Obviously the game was on a very strict deadline.
Of course, reviewing a game’s technical merits is the easiest thing in the world to do – maybe that’s why some of the big review sites fill up a third of their word count with information about frames per second and texture quality. It’s all so much static noise to me: if a game looks good, it looks good because of the art direction, not the number of polygons in a character’s face. And by the way, ZombiU looks absolutely fantastic. Or, fantastically ugly. If I had to describe the game’s visuals in one word, I’d have no hesitation – the word is “grimy.” Almost everywhere you go is dark and dingy; cockroaches scuttle out from beneath mounds of rotten cardboard, all manner of detritus lines the streets and hallways… Post zombie-apocalypse London, it seems, is very much the same as pre zombie-apocalypse London. There’s even a greasy film of what seems to be sweat covering the entire screen when you play. It doesn’t make much sense (the game is played in a first-person perspective, and nobody has sweat in their eyes!) but it really does help establish the game’s grimy look. For me, the best looking areas are the outdoor areas. Ubisoft Montpellier have somehow managed to beautifully capture the murky pre-dawn light and the smoggy early morning of a deserted, ruined London. Tower Bridge is a sight to behold, but then so is the Shoreditch petrol station, with its iconic wrecked car dangling from an abandoned crane. The end, it would appear, came quickly indeed.
The fact that I talked about the game’s graphics first might lead you to believe that I think that graphics are the most important thing. Well, I don’t agree with that sentiment when it comes to any game, but I especially don’t agree with it when we’re talking about survival horror. Sound design is the thing that can really make a horror game, and ZombiU absolutely nails it. Absolutely knocks it out of the park. So much so that I don’t even know where to begin… Ok, let’s see: we have the terrified screams of your protagonist; we have the pathetic whimpering of your protagonist (which gets more frantic as zombies close in); we have the pitch-perfect horror music, and I’m not much of an expert with this but even I can tell what the plan was in terms of the music – have a quietly disturbing underbelly of strings which fade in and out to put you on edge, occasionally ratchet the strings up to serious nervous-disorder-inducing levels, and accompany surprise zombie attacks with horrible, far too loud metallic clashing which has the strangely desired effect of increasing your state of panic. Brilliant. Oh, but my favourite thing about the audio in this game is the (again, panic-inducing) way in which the game lets you know that there are undead blighters nearby. There is the paradoxically placid yet petrifying moaning and groaning of zombies who haven’t quite caught sight of you yet, and the equally pulse-quickening, not-so-innocent bleep of your radar that emanates from the controller in your hands. Picture the scene: you’re half-way down a ladder into the pitch black sewers when you hear a groaning coming from below. It sounds like it’s close and you freeze, with your back to the darkness, too terrified to continue on for a moment. You try your radar, hoping to see a blip that is far enough away for you to deal with comfortably once you reach the bottom of the ladder, but what you see is a blip that is impossibly close to your current position. The groaning continues. What do you do? I’ll tell you what I did: I went right back up to the top of that ladder, went through my inventory for a bit, equipped some things that I thought I might need, procrastinated a little bit longer, then told myself to man up and get back down there. It’s amazing what this game does to you.
It is moments like this embarrassing ladder trepidation that show what this game is really about, and that fuel my incredulity when I think back to some of those shockingly negative early reviews. I’m talking about reviews that came out early enough to be able to change people’s minds about picking this up with their console on launch day. So many negative points made, but they seem to have been drawn up from a spreadsheet program, not from the heart of a passionate gamer. It’s as if some people were expecting Uncharted 4, or worse, Modern Warfare 4: Zombie Edition. But ZombiU is not a triple-A game; it never had the time, budget, or development resources of the PS3’s biggest franchise instalments. It is a launch game whose entire raison d’etre is to showcase Ubisoft’s interpretation of the possibilities of the Wii U gamepad. As a demonstration of dual-screen gameplay, it eclipses Nintendo’s own offering in that field. It appears that “the Wii U’s Wii Sports” really really isn’t a mini game collection… Here is a quick rundown of some of the gamepad functions in ZombiU:
- Black light scanner
- Area map
- HUD (which is a misnomer, of course – it’s more of a Heads Down Display)
Of course, just having all of these features on the second screen is not revolutionary in itself. Very nice and very helpful, yes (having a large-size map always on is a godsend, removing the clutter of the HUD from the screen is awesome, looking through the second screen as a scanner or gun sight is a lot of fun), but revolutionary, no. What elevates this game above the other contenders in its genre, and marks it out as a game that really couldn’t be done on the Wii, PS3, or Xbox360, is the interaction between the two screens; the necessity to use both at different times (or even at the same time). I have noticed with a few games that the Wii U’s touchscreen has effectively done away with pause menus. Stopping the action to cycle through multiple screens with multiple button presses before returning to the gameplay part of the game is seemingly a thing of the past now.
This no pausing system is put to very good use in ZombiU, where selecting items and sorting your inventory is not only streamlined to within an inch of its life – just drag and drop, easy as that – but it is also incorporated into a fundamental concept on which the game is built: that when you’re preoccupied with something on the small screen, there is much greater opportunity for scares on the big screen. As with any real life Zombie apocalypse [yeah, I know, but let’s just roll with it], the moment when you stop to rummage through your backpack is the time when you are most vulnerable to undead attack. And it’s not just your backpack, but also when you’re fiddling with your lock pick, trying desperately to find the sweet spot for that last tumbler, or when you’re punching in codes for an electronically locked door. These are the moments when the zombies always start to advance on your position. Incidentally, these are also the moments that sold me on the gamepad and dual-screen gameplay. Frantically rummaging through a corpse’s pockets, chucking things into your bag while trying to keep one eye on the TV as the bloodthirsty horde closes in… It’s intense. There are so many great ways in which this game makes use of the gamepad (the motion-controlled aiming for scopes just works perfectly, scanning potential threats and putting smart markers up onto the main screen is something I want to see a lot more of) as well as some of the not-so-great variety (please please no more tappy-crappy minigames, and that goes for ALL of you game developers!) but I really need to start wrapping this up before the site never asks me back to do another article again!
So, three months later, and 80 hours in, what is my final verdict on the game? As an average guy, sitting on an average sofa, playing videogames for the love of videogames (and for fun!) I think it’s a brilliant game. The core gameplay is just so much fun, and so satisfying. (Probably because of the high difficulty and slower-paced nature of the exploration – if you don’t prepare yourself properly for the horrors that await outside your safe house, you will die. Repeatedly.) The backstory of John Dee’s writings on the blight and fabled panacea is an interesting take on the zombie formula. The game has immense replayability thanks to the super-hard perma-death Survivor Mode and online leaderboards… Basically I found a heck of a lot to like, and very little to dislike.
But it is as an informed follower of this wayward industry that I want to raise my hands and make a real noise about heaping praise onto Ubisoft Montpellier. For crafting a launch game that far exceeds expectations. For being there, on time, at the launch of a Nintendo console with an 18 / M rated game that has an absolutely unique approach to first-person shooting. For having the courage of their convictions and going against the grain in producing an outstanding single player experience in a dead genre. Survival Horror’s end came about when Capcom realised that a third-person action game with horror elements would sell ten times better than an actual horror game. Well, it is thanks to Ubisoft Montpellier that true Survival Horror, for now at least, is no longer dead. It’s a reanimated corpse.
Andy W, Head of News/ Social Networks – Nintendo Enthusiast
Before I actually played ZombiU I was preparing myself for another Red Steel, a Wii launch game by Ubisoft whose concept far outshone the final product. I had yet to experience a game from these oft-mediocre French developers that truly felt worth my time, let alone feeling as if I could recommend to other gamers. But ZombiU is, in fact, that game. Sure it may not be the prettiest game out there and it may feel a little rushed in places, but with the palpable atmosphere, incredible narrative, and inventive gamepla,y Ubisoft have me fully convinced – ZombiU is the Wii U’s system seller.
This is the first real survival horror in years, barring Capcom’s Resident Evil: Revelations on the 3DS, that has remembered its roots – and arguably ZombiU’s greatest strength is its atmosphere. The sense of fear that flows down your spine, as you realize you’re surrounded by a horde of Zombies and your only chance for survival is to run, is incredible. As you have but one life, you must make it last, else you’ll be tasked with the painstaking task of re-treading your last steps to find your now un-dead self and reclaim your bug-out bag.
But, let’s get the game’s bad points out of the way. Graphically it varies; there are instances such as scanning the environment with the GamePad where the game shines. However, for each shining example there’s also a bad one, check out the texture on the piano in Buckingham Palace, reminiscent of the N64 generation, where mirrored surfaces were first used to great extent. There are also numerous instances of corner-cutting, several underground passages and window-less rooms are copied with just minor texturing differences. Not quite as bad as Red Steel’s missing half of a plane, if you walked to the wrong side of a hangar. The sound work is sufficient, helping in most instances to create a sense of dread, but the repetitive grunt your survivor makes with each swing of the cricket bat is grating. There is clear evidence throughout that Ubisoft strived to meet deadlines as opposed to meeting the level of polish we have become accustomed to being Nintendo gamers.
Luckily, the good points are many. On my first play-through, I instantly discovered it would be foolish to rely on guns. The game’s ammo is seemingly scarce and as I’d regularly be jumping out of my skin I wouldn’t be able to aim worth a damn anyways. I quickly became a deft surgeon, and my tool of choice was the trusty cricket bat. I’d systematically bate a zombie into the open, where I’d circle it until I’d pounce on it like a hyperactive six year old on a Piñata! But in place of overly sweet candy were med kits and …overly sweet candy.
Through this approach I found it made each zombie an obstacle that needed to be tackled and literally fleshed out this game. Had this just been another run and gun shooter, I’m convinced it would be possible to complete in mere hours. This is the game’s beauty, it makes you live it; you feel like you are that lone survivor fighting for your one and only life. This is where Resident Evil has gone wrong over the past ten years– Capcom please pay attention.
I expect Ubisoft are already underway with the inevitable sequel (ZombiU Too?), but hopefully they won’t rush the development to ensure it’s released this year. If they address the few issues from the first game it could become something truly special, something very deserving of a place among Nintendo’s own top tier first party line-up.
Game of the Year 2012: