Playing as the first survivor in ZombiU is an exercise in perfection. Almost everyone who’ll pick up this zombie-themed Wii U launch title will play this first life in the hopes that they might, just might be smart enough to beat this game without dying. This sense of ambition is heightened by the game's design, where every character only has one life.
In my first serious playthough with a near-final preview build, I progressed reasonably far before losing my first guy. It helps to not care about killing every zombie you come across; from what I can tell, there's no reward or experience to gain from killing them, just minor loot. Many of the outdoor levels are designed with enough wide areas and multiple paths that you can sneak by the undead and focus on the objectives.
With the aid of the map navigation and a number of other tricks from the Wii U pad, I managed to last 30 minutes without much trouble, without even having to use the gun and ammo I found. Set in London, England, it was reasonable to have a cricket bat as my main melee weapon, very useful for the times I couldn't avoid zombies. I learned the hard way though that ZombiU is not designed for a no-confrontation playthrough.
Being stealthy is efficient, but the sooner you learn to have a more adaptive play style, the better. That's because the game features a number of scripted events where you have no choice but to confront a dozen or so zombies. And it was in such a scenario that my first character got infected, when a crowd of zombies was nearing the safehouse.
Cue the next survivor. Knowing the unique inventory system of ZombiU, I knew I had to get the backpack of the zombie version of my previous character, because that's where all the stuff is. It was clear I was overzealous in looting my former character, because I wasn't paying attention to the zombies who were surrounding me. Second character infected, and I was off trying to figure out a new strategy for survival.
It was also here that I learned a tough lesson: only the backpack from the previous character is retrievable. Items from older characters disappear. Since my second character got infected before she had the chance to take my first character's items, my third character had to start from scratch with an empty inventory.
I brought this up to a ZombiU development spokesman, as if I were naively thinking that I could point out a design flaw that they would own up to. The spokesman smiled, seeing that naivety all over my face, and all he needed to tell me was that this is how the game is designed. I would have been upset, but before I could reply, he reminded me of the risks and the judgment calls one has to make before leaving the safehouse.
The key lies in proper use of the storage container next to the monitor console in the safehouse. How many items beyond the essentials do you need in the field? How well do you accept the likelihood that your current character will eventually die, thereby determining how many items you leave for the next character in the storage container? I suspect I'll wholly enjoy making these decisions in the game's final build, and so will Demon Souls/Dark Souls fans.
I admire ZombiU's unusual hub design, something that you seldom get in a zombie game. The first batch of objectives involve activating a series of CCTVs to get a better lay of the land, though it's easy to see this repeated goal getting old fast. It will be interesting to see how the mission types change as you explore London further.
I've had about 10 combined hours of hands-on time with the Wii U and its launch/launch window software by now, but no competitive game or mini-game has pulled me in as effectively as ZombiU's multiplayer. Like some other Wii U games, the person using the pad screen and the person using the television are essentially playing two different game genres. The player using the television is experiencing the same first-person style as in the story mode. The one using the pad screen is playing a form of "Tower Offense" where the 'tower' is a human survivor, and you get to send in zombies after him.
There is a maximum amount of zombies you can have in the field at a given time; it helps give the survivor a fighting chance. Through character class management, you're able to unleash a series of different zombie types, and no surprise, the more effective ones cost more resource points. Aside from the classic, slow-moving undead, imagine being able to torment your buddy by overwhelming him with jogging zombies and spitters. The latter is especially annoying, because their gooey spit ends up covering the television screen for a brief period.
The multiplayer only has two modes, but there's a lot of mileage to get out of them. One is the standard survival mode where you try to last as long as possible. The other is a Conquest-inspired mode, but instead of reasonably balanced teams fighting over control points, it's a survivor versus a horde of zombies for control points.
Along with this English urban setting, much of the game's music did a lot to convince me a lot of folks at ZombiU studio Ubisoft Montpellier are big fans of 28 Days Later. ZombiU's music is very reminiscent of the haunting scores that bookend Danny Boyle's 2002 film. Well, I haven't found any running zombies (outside of the multiplayer) just yet, but that could change once ZombiU launches alongside the Wii U on November 18. Oh, and there is a single-life, no saving difficulty setting for you perfectionists out there.