Well, color me surprised. When Ubisoft debuted ZombiU as a Wii U-exclusive (Update: maybe not exclusive forever) zombie game at their press conference yesterday, I wasn't sold. The trailer was exceptionally slick, of course, but who can even tell when it comes to zombie games anymore, you know?

As it turns out, ZombiU doesn't just use the Wii U's unique touchscreen controller to great survival horror effect, it's also got some really smart ideas independent of the Wii U's distinctive control scheme. For starters, it's basically a roguelike? Wait, let me back up.

ZombiU is a first-person survival horror game, more or less. Limited inventory, first-person melee, and deadly zombies. It's chunky and good-looking, but not all that remarkable in its graphical or artistic presentation.

Let's bullet-point this mother, because I wanna get the facts to you guys in the easiest way possible. Let's start with the interesting, roguelike way the game deals with player death:

  • When you make a character, one is randomly generated for you—there is no main character. You give it your playertag, but it gets a name of its own—I say "it," because it can be a man or a woman.
  • If you die (and you will die), you respawn as a new character.
  • Each game begins in a central hub, but the world is largely open. You can go anywhere, and objectives that you complete with past characters are still completed.
  • Best of all, when you die, your past character becomes a zombie, so you can go find them in your next game and kill them and reclaim the gear you got on your last playthrough.
  • It saves your stats, so you can always tell how long you've lived, for example. There will be an achievement for finishing the game entirely in one life, since of course there will be people who pull that off.
  • There can only be one of your past-life zombies in the game at a time, but as you play online, your online friends' zombies will also enter your game. You'll see their playertag over their zombies. Ha!
  • When I played, I had to go get some medicine for a character named Vikram—I almost made it out, but right at the door I finally got killed. My next life, a female character, then hopped right in the door, killed the zombie and the zombified version of my past character, picked up the medicine and was able to finish the mission. That? Is cool as hell.

Now let's talk a bit about the touch-screen, which does a remarkable job of immersing you in the game and making things scarier.

  • The screen serves as your inventory, as well as your interface for lockpicking, keypad hacking, etc.
  • The reason this is cool is that when you go into your backpack or loot a body or container, the camera pops out of first-person, and the game keeps going. Therefore you can see if a zombie is coming up behind you as you hack/loot/rummage.
  • As you play, the screen is a minimap and a motion detector, which lets you pick up zombies relative to your location. Don't think that makes things easier—between the time required to look down and the general unreliability of the minimap (it doesn't give away the great jump-scares), you're still very much in survival-horror mode.
  • It's remarkable how intense it feels to look down into your inventory and then have to look back up to check your surroundings—it makes rooting around in your backpack during the zombie apocalypse feel like… well, rooting around in your backpack during a zombie apocalypse.
  • Lockpicking is similar to other games' lockpicking mechanics, and uses the touch-screen and vibration to lock tumblers into place.
  • There is also a scanner, which lets you scan things in the environment. When you pull out your scanner (using the left shoulder button) the camera goes to third person again and the controller's screen becomes first-person.
  • You can use the touch-screen to scan bodies, containers, and other things in the environment to tell more about them.

And last, some general things I noticed:

  • It would appear that every character is guided by the same voice on the other end of the radio—it sounds like there was some sort of outbreak, but that it was planned for. That's why supplies are placed all around.
  • At one point, things went totally batshit—the power went out, and my scanner and minimap stopped working.
  • I literally yelled twice from jump-scares. In fairness, I have had a TON of coffee today. But it was a whole lot of fun.
  • When things went haywire, I was forced to fight a special zombie called "Nurse" in an enclosed area. She could teleport, and would vanish as I shot her before reappearing behind me. It was unnerving, particularly because she wouldn't stop screaming.
  • Once I killed the nurse, I had to scan her with the controller screen… but she JUMPED THE EFF OUT AT ME THROUGH THE SCREEN and scared the bejesus out of me.
  • Sorry for the unprofessional all-caps. It was really cool, is all.

I was very impressed with ZombiU. Despite its silly name and possibly gimmicky Wii U integration, it's actually a seriously smart game with some cool non-Wii U-specific gameplay ideas, made by people who are clearly having a lot of fun with it. Put another way: It's the game that made me finally see the potential of the Wii U's special second screen.