Ubisoft's first-person shooter ZombiU is brutal. Adapted from the ashes of the cancelled Killer Freaks from Outer Space, it sees London overrun by hordes of infected monsters. Your only goal is to survive, but don't expect to do so for very long; battles are desperate, fought with melee weapons or a weak pistol until you can scrape together something more substantial, such as a shotgun. There are no checkpoints, no lives, no retries. When your character is fatally assaulted you are instead spawned into the body of a new survivor to start afresh, your inventory lost.
You can only be attacked twice before you die; the first time you'll be automatically protected with a syringe of anti-zombie venom, but there's no such respite the second time you let your guard down. There are seemingly an unlimited number of survivors ready to go, and it becomes a game in itself to survive longer with each subsequent character; the length of time you lived for as a certain person is displayed as you die.
The interesting twist, though, is that perished characters don't just disappear – they become part of the hellish army. As such you can risk returning to the point where you just died, which will still hold the very enemies that you fell to previously, and find your old self as a decaying zombie. Slay them as you would any other and you can loot the corpse to retrieve your items. In the final version your dead characters will not only be resurrected in your own game but also sent to friends' games so that they can shoot and pillage your rotting carcass too.
The key factor that will either entice or dissuade players is the 'don't stop' mentality. There's the option to pause, of course, but this only gives access to the usual options. Your inventory is accessed in real time on the Wii U GamePad, forcing you to look away from the television if you want to mess around with your items, simulating the need to rifle through a backpack in the same way you'd have to in reality.
Looting is similarly taxing. To pick things up you have to push a button next to the body or box in question, then gather and organise the items on the GamePad's touch screen. While you're doing this the camera zooms out to show a dramatic third person view on the television, the game world continuing to shuffle around you. Grabbing supplies becomes a panicked affair as you glance between TV and GamePad to watch out for oncoming attacks or surprises. The same worries come into play when you're picking locks by tracing patterns on the touch screen. Zombies come out of nowhere, so you need to be ever vigilant.
They also do the same when you're in the standard view, bursting from cupboards or turning up from behind burning buildings in droves. The GamePad screen also holds a useful map, displaying the position of enemies and pointing you towards your next goal. It represents what is shown on a tablet-like device carried by your character, and through this a mysterious helper barks commands and guides you to your next objectives.
The GamePad can act as a night vision-like scanner, used to mark piles of items so that you don't have to waste time trundling to each and every dead body only to find them bare. Focal points light up on the GamePad screen, and if you move to target them and then analyse them with a touch you're told what's there so you can decide whether it's worth your while or not. These functions are vital lifelines, so it was a shock later in the demo when the in-game communications became jammed, filling the screen with static and leaving us reliant only upon what could be seen by torchlight on the main screen.
After walking around the grounds outside Buckingham Palace, beefeater and policeman zombies all over the place, we sneaked into the palace's nursery. The creepy atmosphere of children's playrooms splattered with blood got stronger as we shuffled through ventilation ducts and ultimately find ourselves plunged into almost complete darkness, where the map cut out. Our demo ended after a murderous zombie nurse burst from the shadows and killed us before we'd even had time to aim. In a total of fifteen minutes or so we lost four characters, though admittedly some of those deaths were caused by a lack of concentration.
ZombiU is made for core and skilled players, taking an unforgiving approach to the first-person shooter genre. As with several other Wii U games on show, there's still polish to be done – some parts looked at about mid-tier Xbox 360 standard – but it's one of the more interesting titles shown on Wii U so far. The use of the GamePad screen makes you play differently, more cautiously, and should lead to some genuinely fearful moments of survival horror.