For those unaware, FanExpo Canada is an annual convention held in Toronto that celebrates all things nerdy. Whether you’re into horror, science fiction, gaming, anime or comics, there is something for just about everyone. Shop, meet celebrities, attend discussion panels and come in cosplay if you so desire. Most relevant to readers of RipTen is the gaming portion of the convention, which grows in size and scope with each passing year. My first stop at the Expo was the Ubisoft booth, which offered playable versions of many upcoming games. I’ll cover the rest in my next article, but first we should take an in-depth look at ZombiU, a launch title for the upcoming Wii U console from Nintendo.

While ZombiU is one of a handful of  games Ubisoft had on display, it feels far more significant than a zombie first-person shooter otherwise would. Not only was this my first chance to see the game in action, but my first opportunity to test the Wii U hardware first-hand. As soon as the console was officially unveiled at E3 2011, opinion has remained divided on every aspect, from the unique tablet controller to even the name of the system. From my perspective, I thought the controller looked interesting and I wasn’t ready to write it off as just a glorified reboot of the Wii console. When more information was revealed at E3 2012, my outlook on the console improved when I saw games like Rayman Legends in action. The trailer and gameplay footage for ZombiU also had me intrigued.

After waiting in line for only a few minutes, I was able to hold the tablet controller in my hands. I expected it to be heavy, awkward and unintuitive in design, however I came away pleasantly surprised. The controller’s light weight piqued my curiosity first, which is the same comment that everyone seemed to have upon holding it for the first time. In many cases, something light and plastic can feel cheap, but the Wii U tablet controller feels solid and sturdy enough to withstand everyday use. The curved undercarriage also fit comfortably and securely into my rather large hands, though I do question if children or those with smaller hands will find it more cumbersome.

My initial examination of the controller over with, it was time to test it out and play some ZombiU. The game itself plays more like Dead Island than Left 4 Dead, in that the focus is more on exploring, surviving and finding helpful items rather than mowing down constant waves of zombies. My initial concern was that ZombiU would be a generic, throw-away shooter that brings nothing new to the table. Thankfully, I was also wrong about that. The game is incredibly challenging, offerin no leeway in situations where zombies overwhelm you. One bite means instant death, so the player must decide when to fight and when to run. Similar to Dead Island, most of the zombies are not incredibly fast, but they are very difficult when encountered in large numbers.

How the tablet controller is integrated is perhaps the most interesting aspect of ZombiU. The 6.2 inch display screen is used for a variety of functions, most notably inventory and loot management. Whenever you loot a crate or corpse, you must look at your touch screen and move items into your inventory. This is done using a “drag and drop” mechanic that works quite well. Additionally, the screen can be used to scan the area for helpful items, hidden passages and loot that you can take. In combat, the touch screen becomes you aiming reticule that  you move gyroscopically to aim and shoot certain weapons. It works well, but having to constantly look away from the action on the TV to use the tablet can be disorienting. A reasonable learning curve should be expected here.

The reliance on the tablet controller makes ZombiU feel like a genuinely new experience. Having to constantly glance at the screen and use it to perform in-game functions is a sharp contrast to how I typically play games, as I’m used to keeping my eyes on the action at all times. It provides a layer of interactivity, however, that we don’t often receive, and having to aim my crossbow with the controller while five zombies are coming my way was an intense experience. If you’re wondering about the touch screen, it looks and functions very well. The resolution is nothing close to what you would find on a high-end smartphone or tablet, but is was smooth and responsive for the time I used it.

Graphically, it is difficult to give a full assessment of ZombiU based upon a preview, but I can say that it is a noticeable step up from the Wii. The 1080p graphical upgrade allows for smooth animation, richly detailed graphics and a solid framerate that ran consistently during the time I played it. I am also cognizant of the fact that I was playing an unfinishd version of the game, so any visual wrinkles I did catch will likely be ironed out in the final version. I finished the demo generally impressed with what I played. It definitely looks the part of a current generation console, so hopefully the Wii U will not be subject to the dreaded “it looks good…for a Nintendo game” stigma that has plagued the Wii.

ZombiU was really the perfect game to showcase what the Wii U is capable of, as it utilizes many of the core functions of the tablet controller. It also satisfies two essential areas for Nintendo, the need to showcase the enhanced graphics and the need to cater to an older demographic. ZombiU is a very intense and brutally violent game, rather atypical for a launch title on a Nintendo console. In that respect, it manages to assuage fears that the Wii U will just be another venue for casual sports games, child-oriented titles and shovelware. Given the heightened focus that Nintendo will be placing on quality cross-platform titles and online gameplay, I imagine the Wii U will be better received by the hardcore gaming crowd than its predecessor.

While I was apprehensive about the Wii U before, my experiences with the hardware and ZombiU have defintiely cast the system in a more favorable light. While I cannot ascertain the overall quality based simply on the demo I had at the FanExpo, I walked away with a heightened sense of confidence in Nintendo’s next console offering. Nothing about the experience felt gimmicky or throw-away, which I’ll admit was, thankfully, contrary to my initial expectations. The big question now is whether or not my optimism will pay off, which is something we will only discover in time.

For a good in-depth look at ZombiU, check out the video below. It delves deeper deeper into the gameplay and history of the game.

The Wii U console and ZombiU game was on display at FanExpo Canada, which ran from August 23 to August 26, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario. As of this writing, no official release date for the console or the game has been confirmed.