Monday, March 28, 2011

Atom Zombie Smasher Review

Atom Zombie Smasher, developed and published by Blendo Games.
The Good: Procedurally generated content, quick levels, custom game settings and mod support, themed music and cutscenes
The Not So Good: Limited randomized units hamper strategic options, extremely difficult, insignificant unit upgrades, no online multiplayer
What say you? Defend against the zombie apocalypse with inadequate forces and high difficulty: 5/8

The well-documented zombie apocalypse is coming, and what are you (yes, you) going to do about it? Team up with four people and use guitars to smash their brains? Run them over? Become a horticulturist? All of those sound too much like work. How about we just send in the military and nuke the zombies into extinction? That’s the easier path Atom Zombie Smasher brings to the table. In this tactical strategy game, you and up to two others send in the grunts to take care of the menace.

The graphics of Atom Zombie Smasher are a disappointing aspect of the game. The cities you are defending consist only of simple, repetitive rectangular shapes separated by paved streets. In addition, both the people you are defending and the zombies you are killing are represented by plain colored dots, as viewed from your high perch in low Earth orbit (or wherever you are). Some of the explosions exhibit some neat 2-D effects and a couple of the weapons come with small details, but visual eye candy is sporadic at best in Atom Zombie Smasher. However, the cutscenes work well within the retro context of the game, along with a fine selection of music. The sound effects are functional and serve as the occasional audio cue for in-game events. Overall, Atom Zombie Smasher looks like an indie game.

The zombies have come to Nuevo Aires (not as tasty as its neighbor, Huevos Aires), and it’s time to blow them up into oblivion. Oh, while rescuing some civilians, of course. Atom Zombie Smasher centers around the campaign, which features a map dotted with cities that are randomly infected by zombie outbreaks. Ignoring a territory might increase its level next turn, making it more difficult to clean (but awarding more points). The first side to a specified points threshold wins, based on how many territories each side owns; it’s almost impossible to claim one territory per turn by rescuing all civilians before nightfall, while the zombies usually get four uncontested new claims each turn. In addition to this imbalance, level four outbreak territories spread the infection to adjacent provinces, claiming even more land for the zombies each turn that passes. Even if you attain victory in every single city you attempt to rescue, you will still trail by a massive margin if you don't win by a significant margin because of the zombies' inherent advantage. In Atom Zombie Smasher, it’s just a matter of time before you lose.

You can customize each campaign, setting the victory point limit, available unit roster, availability of level restarts, and zombie speed,; while this might have a minor effect on difficulty, the zombie levels seem to adjust to whatever options you choose to have enabled. Rescuing scientists awards research points that can be spend upgrading things like cannon rates and helicopter capacity, while individual units gain experience and receive very minor upgrades over time (yes! it reloads one tenth of a second faster!). While Atom Zombie Smasher features cooperative multiplayer for four players, you can’t experience teamwork online as the feature is limited to the same computer. The game does feature the ability to modify basic game values, so the entrepreneurial end user can alleviate the difficulty on their own. Finally, I should note that Atom Zombie Smasher has yet to run without immediately crashing on two different MacBooks, although the game did function on my Windows machine once a patch for ATI video cards was released.

Your primary goal in each city is to save sixty (usually) or more people, which is equal to at least two helicopter loads out of the city. Atom Zombie Smasher features procedurally generated city layouts; higher outbreak levels feature larger cities and more incoming zombie paths. Once a zombie touches a yellow citizen, they turn purple and the disease spreads at an alarming rate. You are given four to five randomly assigned units to deploy before the zombies arrive to slow their advance; while this gameplay choice certainly keeps you guessing, your options are kept very small, almost assuring certain defeat. Every unit is limited in some significant way: artillery and snipers are slow, infantry is sluggish, landmines and roadblocks are limited in number, dynamite only works once, and the beacon has a small radius. Even the nukes you can call in (the titular Atom Zombie Smasher) barely destroy a city block. You must get lucky with your selection of units since all of the options are underpowered and ineffective. Most of your units fire or move painfully slow, requiring significant prediction of enemy movement to place an effective shot. Since the zombies move somewhat randomly, this can be quite tricky. At least you don’t have to wait long for defeat: each level ends quickly (typically a minute or less), especially once night falls and zombies pour in from all sides. Time acceleration is also available to speed things up. While I certainly respect the strategy involved when dealing with severe limitations in your arsenal, Atom Zombie Smasher isn’t balanced enough to become enjoyable. I mean, what are you going to do with two barricades and three mines? Lose, that’s what.

I think Atom Zombie Smasher is supposed to be unbelievably difficult on purpose (like a real zombie apocalypse would be), but you have to throw players at least a little glimmer of hope every once in a while. This is one game where randomization really hinders the enjoyment: given a generally ineffective, uncomplimentary, and inadequate assortment of items, you can’t possibly protect your citizens well, so it’s a mixture of some planning and mostly luck (which way the zombies end up moving) to survive two rounds of helicopter rescues. Maybe it’s because we’re used to moderate success in these zombie games that the challenge level of Atom Zombie Smasher is off-putting, but I didn’t have fun gradually losing each campaign. That’s not to say Atom Zombie Smasher is a total loss: the random elements do bring the unexpected, and the game has support for user modifications and four-player cooperative play on the same computer. Planning is strategic fun, but you can’t feel like things would be more interesting with access to additional units with better abilities in each level. You can also upgrade those units during the campaign, although their improvements are insignificant at best. When even the nuclear weapons are woefully ineffective, barely disintegrating a city block, you might want to ease up on the difficulty. Atom Zombie Smasher is simply too random and too hard to appeal to a mass audience.