Wot I Think: Atom Zombie Smasher

By Alec Meer on February 10th, 2011 at 6:14 pm.

Released a couple of weeks ago and picking up a good buzz amongst People Who Know, Blendo’s Atom Zombie Smasher is a high-speed kinda-strategy game about the end of the world, and one government’s attempt to stop it. You’re the government. Stop it. I’m the games reviewer. Here’s what I think.

I didn’t smash anywhere near as many zombies as one might have expected. This is because a) Atom Zombie Smasher is hard and b) ‘avoiding’ is a whole lot more important than ‘smashing’, it transpires. This is not, at heart, a game about killing – it is a game about helping people to run away as efficiently as possible.

AZS is the next game from Brendon Chung’s Blendo Games. You’ll know them from the splendid Flotilla and the excellently stylish Gravity Bone. This time around, it’s the ever-popular zombie apocalypse, but remagined as a top-down strategy game, in which you don’t actually see any zombies.

Or, at least, not as anything more than tiny pink squares moving at a horrifying pace across a civilian-packed city. And by civilians I mean ‘tiny yellow squares.’ This is the zombie invasion as seen from the cool, clinical viewpoint of the army general: a broad mandate to save as many of his country’s lives as possible, but you’re kidding yourself if he sees his job as anything more than a numbers game.

Your tools in this attempt to rescue Neuvos Aires (in a knowing nod back to Gravity Bone’s setting) are fixed reserves of soldiers, explosives, blockades and most of all helicopters. This latter is your key tool – get it in, pick up as many civilians as possible, get it out again, repeat. The other stuff if used to keep the horde from reaching the civilians before you can grab them.

Which brings me on to the game’s stand-out feature – making zombies scary again, and in a vitally fresh way. The risk isn’t that the zombies will eat the fleeing populace before you can haul enough out to meet the victory condition (which is generally 60). The risk is that, the second even one zombie catches up with a pack of people, you’re almost immediately faced with a pack of zombies. The change from yellow to pink happens at dramatic speed, and the resultant snowball effect can lose you a level mere seconds after you thought you had it in the bag. These zombies aren’t cannon fodder. They’re a force of monstrous nature.

Fortunately, you’re given a selection of tools to try and thin the herd. Infantry are the only fully-contrallable unit in the game, essentially being a repositionable auto-turret that slowly but surely picks off any deadheads that shuffle into its radius. Snipers are fixed and fire agonisingly slowly, but can hit almost anywhere on the map. As can artillery, which has to reload after every shot (unless you upgrade it, more on which shortly) and can’t shoot near itself. Tripemines and remote bombs… well, you can work out for yourself, lazy.

There’s never enough. That’s important. Via a combination of procedural generation and purest evil, each level sees your stock of abilities harshly limited and a brand new city segment begging for help. You’ll never, it seems, be given quite the ideal combination you need. Soldiers and dynamite and artillery would be wonderful, and you’ll scream and beg and pray and whine that this time, this time all the dice will come up sixes, but no. You’ll get something like snipers and blockades and tripmines, and have to puzzle out some way to make them useful. By useful, I mean “not meaning everyone dies immediately and horribly.”

It is not forgiving. It is not meant to be forgiving. This is a game that fiercely believes in the potent horror of a zombie outbreak. Despite the jolly music, the hand-drawn ‘vignette’ [optional] cutscenes and a faint air of satire, it is staunchly, grimly convinced that you absolutely must suffer.

Losses are heavy. Failure is often an inevitability. It’s about how far you can get, how much of the city you can save – or at least evacuate – before the horde gains an incontestable majority. The speed and precision required dragged me down to states of concentration I’ve rarely known, finding myself confused and dreamlike when emerging into the real world, so much larger yet so much smaller.

Focus. Surviving the short (less than two minutes, normally) daytime is one thing, but if you haven’t got most of the civs out by night-fall, it’s pretty much all over right away. Pink dots surge from every corner of the map, chasing down the single-pixel but still so clearly terrified people at a pace you pretty much can’t do anything about. Though if you have access to the super-weapon (whose shots are gained by enough high speed evacuating and killing), at least you get the satisfaction of wiping out hundreds of pink squares before it all draws to a terrible close.

It’s a sharp new take on both zombies and strategy, approached with enough levity to make it something of an everyman’s game. You could never call it casual, though. Oh no. Frankly, it can all become something of a grind – despite the procedural generation of levels, repeated use of the same, small handful of tactics is required, the initially jolly music quickly turns into brain-pain and finding yourself backed into an unwinnable corner is all too frequent.

This latter, though, is a matter of psychology. I’m not convinced it’s a game designed to be won. For one thing, the cutscene as the end is the same either way. For another, you’re given a scoresheet upon conclusion (win or lose), to be shared with whatever easily-impressed/hyper-competitive jugheads you cavort about with online: that’s the key trophy, not whether or not you save the city. You probably won’t. You’re probably not good enough, and the game’s too cruel to throw you a break. That’s the charm and the curse of it. I suffered a few too many “oh, fuck it” level losses that led me to abandon a game long before it would have concluded.

This isn’t a matter of difficulty – it’s a matter of motivation in the face of difficulty. The strange abstraction of the victory slider, which calculates your defence and the zombies’ onslaught as points racing towards a game-ending cap, means it’s all too obvious all too soon when you’re on a back foot, and the statistic-centric rewards for pushing back can seem slight. The mountain you have to climb can rapidly start to seem not worth the effort. Not this time. Those pink bastards are too far ahead. I’m quite sure there are echelons of skill far beyond those I clumsily obtained; the question is whether I want to suffer so much punishment en route.

I’m overstating this somewhat, as there are a bunch of options (and user-made mods, obtainable via a marvellously simple in-game interface) to make it easier. Much easier. There’s even a ‘casual’ mode, which turns down zombie prevalence enormously. Don’t pretend you’ll feel satisfied by that. Oh well done, you hobbled the zombies so you could beat the end of the world. That isn’t what it’s about. Plus, your shame will show in your scoresheet. Atom Zombie Smasher? Son, you didn’t smash spit.

I do recommend this to you, I really do. It feels fresh and clever and oh-so-PC-gaming-in-2011: no rules but its own, and convincingly realising a concept through smart design rather than empty gloss. Something about it can feel just shy of being as vital as I’m convinced it should be, though. It needs a little more give to really find its voice – but between the regular patching and the slow trickle of mods, I’m pretty sure it’s going to find it soon. Even so, it’s the best thing to happen to zombies in a long while. Run away!

(Important Note – there’s also a three-man co-op mode which I haven’t tried yet. I’m attempting to assemble Team RPS to give this up proper going-over soon.)

Atom Zombie Smasher is out now and costs $15, which is on the high side of fair. Annoyingly it isn’t on Steam yet, but in a just world it would be. Try the demo here, though frankly I think it’s too brief a taste to get a real sense of the game.

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56 Comments »

  1. Diziet Sma says:

    Awww man you had me sold at Tripemines. That stuff would make anything run a mile, nice to know it works on zombies. Seriously though, this kinda sounds up my street.

    Edit: And on Mac & Linux too! Oh happy day.

  2. Mike says:

    This looks fantastic. If it hits Steam I would definitely pick this up.

    EDIT – Wait, those beautiful men included Mac and Linux versions? Man. That might push me over the sale precipice then. :P

  3. Mr Chug says:

    Indie devs could learn a lot from Spacechem in demo tactics. Spacechem’s demo gives you roughly a third of the levels, which is a big chunk of game, but everyone I recommended it to who tried the demo ended up buying the full $20 game.

    • BaronWR says:

      To be fair, the demo includes a pretty big chunk of the game: it’s hard to see what else they could have added without making paying for the full game unnecessary

  4. The Innocent says:

    AZS is my indie game of the year.

    I realize it is February.

  5. godkingemperor says:

    do u get $5 each time you mention something should be on Steam?

    • Lilliput King says:

      Probably only there because otherwise the comment thread consists mainly of people asking whether it is on steam.

  6. Merkoth says:

    Maybe it’s Nuevos Aires?

  7. Robert Yang says:

    I got the same feeling of helplessness during the beta and even complained about it, so I think it’s definitely intentional on the designer’s part. Learning curve is still steep, of course, but people complained about depth in Flotilla so I see this as a kind of retort to that?…

  8. unangbangkay says:

    I’m glad I have a laptop, because I bought this game and it refuses to run on my desktop because of a known issue with ATi drivers that still hasn’t been fixed. Rolling back drivers by several iterations is not a solution I consider valid.

    • Man Raised by Puffins says:

      Rolling back drivers by several iterations is not a solution I consider valid.

      Aye, which is a shame because I loved Gravity Bone, had a fun time with Flotilla and was rather looking forward to atomically smashing some zombies. Luckily I tried the demo before buying.

      For anyone not familiar with the issue:

      The game crashes immediately when I run it.

      Atom Zombie Smasher currently has an issue with some ATI video drivers. We’re investigating a fix for this.

      In the meantime, the current workaround solution is to roll back to an older version of the ATI video driver. We’ve been told the version 10.9 driver works.

    • Matzerath says:

      In my very brief research into this, the problem seems to lie with ATI’s new drivers, and it also effects (or so I read) ALL Unreal Development Kit based games. Can anyone verify this? I’m scared to update my drivers – it’s a real pisser to have a working game suddenly become a non-working one.

    • Man Raised by Puffins says:

      UDK games seem fine. The Bulletstorm parody game ran okay and to doublecheck I just downloaded, installed and played a game off the UDK homepage and that ran okay as well.

      According to Brendon this is the problem:

      Nope, not related to your 64-bit OS. ATI released new drivers that broke compatibility with the base technology I’m using. I wrote all the AZS game code, but didn’t write its base technology. So I’m now trying to dig through the base tech and figure out why ATI cards aren’t cooperating.

      Any programmers with spare time, feel free to lend a hand!

      I’m using a library called SFML. http://www.sfml-dev.org

      Others have identified the problem but it has not been resolved yet. I’m not familiar with the code so it’s taking me a while to get up to speed with it.

    • amandachen says:

      Actually, I had freezing problems with Magicka until I installed older drivers (not old, just from november or whenever). I guess that’s a similar issue to the Atom Zombie Smasher problem.

  9. Matzerath says:

    I’ve won a few campaigns, so it’s definitely possible, especially after you get a handle on how points and victory conditions are figured. Basically it’s a game about working with what you have in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and it’s loads of fun.
    And when you set up a nice combo that nearly wipes out a level’s worth of zombies — a perfect gaming moment.

  10. DJ Phantoon says:

    GO! TEAM! RPS!

    If the Coop is good I’ll give it a whirl.

  11. Lambchops says:

    I’ve enjoyed this and I’ve been using it as nice wee dip in and out timewaster.

    I can’t help get the impression (though i havn’t played the game long enoughto validate this) that in the standard 6000 point game victory is highly dependant on what you get for the first few units. Start with artillery, then infantry, then dynamite and you’ll be able to win quite a few territories on the easy levels and get a crucial head start on points and the added bonus of having a reasonable number of territory points each round. Get landed with mines, then blockades, then zed bait and you’ll still win the early levels but you’ll be unlikely to win and territories and the zombies will likely establish a lead you can never claw back. Still it’s damn good fun trying.

    Charmingly presented (as anything by Blendo is) and throughly good fun, I’d reccommend giving it a go.

    • Wilson says:

      Hmm, while getting good initial units certainly does help, I think the combination of turn conditions (e.g. faster zeds, longer daytime, that stuff) and what random units you get later on has more impact.

    • Lambchops says:

      Possibly so. For example, it seems pretty rare that you get a combination suitable for taking on a level 4 outbreak. But if you did then you’d be laughing.

      And I agree the no restart mode does seem like the way the game is meant to be played.

    • Wilson says:

      Yeah, I normally only deal with level 4′s using the Elephantbird cannon or the Llama Bombs. I expect my success rate will drop a lot as soon as I try with the no restarts.

    • Lambchops says:

      I’m glad they’ve added in all these options to tweak the game slightly. I think it makes for a more fun game with no restarts as it adds an element of risk/reward which isn’t quite as prevelant when you can restart levels. I’ve rambled elsewhere in the past about how I think risk/reward is excpetionally important in keeping people involved in games (citing the likes of Minecraft and Spelunky as prime examples of this). for a standard length of game it skews it towards being a bit too hard (I just tried in and got completely annihillated!) but I think it’s perfect for a game length of maybe three or four thousand points.

  12. Wilson says:

    After a first campaign to get used to the various mercenaries, I’ve found it pretty easy to win, on normal at least, but I haven’t yet been bold enough to have a go on the mode where you can’t restart a level (which would make it far more challenging, and is probably how the game should be played really). But I’ve enjoyed it a great deal anyway. Fantastic atmosphere and a lot of potential for expansion I think, if the devs wanted to.

  13. Teddy Leach says:

    Tripemines? Sounds absolutely revolting.

  14. Mr_Hands says:

    Terrific game. I absolutely love the psychotic vignettes. If anything, they’re what keep me going in the game.

  15. Brumisator says:

    Oh wow! What an unexpected gem!

    A pretty tough game, I must say.

  16. Daiv says:

    As appealing as this is, I pity any game that has to go up against Spacechem this year.

    • Brumisator says:

      Spacechem? the game I became bored with in under a minute?
      there’s plenty of room for many many games, for people with differing tastes.

    • Daiv says:

      No, there is no other opinion than mine. I am right. I am always right. Nobody else’s opinion matters.

      Oh, it appears I was channeling Fox News for a second there… You’re right, sorry about that blanket statement :)

    • Brumisator says:

      Oh yeah? Well you cause rape!

    • Lambchops says:

      If Spacechem isn’t my favourite indie game of the year then somebody will have done something truly spectacular and wonderful.

      if Spacechem isn’t my favourite game of the year full stop then the odds are that either Deus Ex 3 or Mass Effect 3 manages to really deliver the goods.

      But yeah, there’s room for more than one great indie game with chemistry related words in the title!

    • Saul says:

      Yeah, SpaceChem really didn’t do anything for me. My girlfriend liked it though. She’s such a nerd.

  17. Stevostin says:

    Played it 15 minutes. Good point : it enticed me to improve my score, bad point, I didn’t really get why something was working and why something else wasn’t. Deinstalled it.

    All in all, I dont get why most indie game are played. Really few of them have any interest, and I am speaking gameplay here, not AAA features. Most of them are either doing something that has already been done or experimenting without really reaching the target (like this game IMO). I understand why people do them and how difficult it is to simply do an half interesting game, but why do people play it ? I don’t know.

    • Wilson says:

      @Stevostin – I guess plenty of people would disagree with you on few indie games having gameplay. I would argue there is quite a lot of gameplay here, as you learn how best to use the various mercenaries and cope with whatever the randomness of the game throws at you (controlled randomness that is, not total randomness). I think it generally becomes quite clear why some stuff works and why other stuff doesn’t after you try it out a few times. It seems quite a strong blanket statement to suggest that most indie games are rehashes of old concepts or interesting ideas but ultimately not that great.

    • Lilliput King says:

      stevo: “I didn’t really get why something was working and why something else wasn’t”

      Forgive me if I don’t ‘really get’ this criticism. What was working? What wasn’t?

      “why do people play it ?”

      Well, in this case, because it’s original, taxing and clever.

      Why do people post bizarre anti-indie rants which are none of said? I don’t know.

    • Jools says:

      What a weird thing to say. People play indie games because they enjoy them. I’ve put like 10-15 hours into AZS in short, on and off sessions and I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

      It also seems really strange to me when people group indie games as if they’re a genre or something. There are a ton of indie games I’ve played heavily or that I still play and most have absolutely nothing in common with each other aside from the fact that they were made by individuals or small development houses.

    • Saul says:

      I don’t play the majority of AAA games, because I find the gameplay is poor. This is also the case with quite a few indie games. But I don’t make ridiculous blanket statements about what is good and bad based on the nothing more than the amount of money that was spent on it. People play games because they get something out of it. To find out exactly what that is, you’d have to ask each individual.

    • Stevostin says:

      Apologies for the statement – I didn’t read other comments before posting and didn’t realize there would be so many supporters and that I would sound like a troll

      I made a group of “indie games” because they define themselves like this, with special indie bundles, indie trophy, etc. Now I admit it’s vague and that’s why I made two categories : the old school gameplays remade (typically shoot em up) and games like Atom Zombie Smasher, which are about inventing a new gameplay. I never said that those games have “no gameplays”. Indeed gameplays are the main things they have. Which I guess is my issue, because it nearly always fail to keep me interested. AZS, for instance, I did first level, won it, thought my ratio was low, redid it ten or twenty time to improve it and failing at it : all my various tries resulted in a worse score than my initial “do what seems obvious” attempt. Second level, new winning but tiny ratio, two – three tries, and then I thought “am I really interested to figure out what devs had in mind”. “Of course not” was the answer to me – and I am quite candid at coming here and asking “why are you guys interested in that ?”.

      I mean of course there are ways to win if you scratch your head, but that doesn’t make an interesting computer game to me by itself. First because I can buy Sudoku grid for that and second because achieving what has been designed to be achieved by anyone spending enough time doesn’t convey a lot of excitement to me – at least not anymore. That being said I did finish Braid and World of Goo. Probably because I wanted to check the hype and because they were making an effort to reward you for each level with words, color, sounds, and new gameplay to discover at the next level. I didn’t like those games but I am not that difficult, so I finished those. I guess AZT is simply not rewarding enough to me. And I honestly don’t get, when I have so much steam cheap games on my desktop that I don’t have time to play, how I could be even remotely interested in playing AZT for free. Buying it sounds like sci fi, considering how many decent free flash games can be found online…

    • Lilliput King says:

      Stevo: The game doesn’t really begin ’till you’ve got a full buffer of units. Till then, your control is very limited. Still, that’s not really a problem – it only takes about five minutes to get that full buffer. If you spend 15 minutes replaying the tutorial level 20 times then to be honest that’s your issue, not the game’s.

    • Severian says:

      Armageddon Empires?
      Solium Infernum?

      Always my response to the “indie games aren’t actually that good” argument.

    • Stevostin says:

      “If you spend 15 minutes replaying the tutorial level 20 times then to be honest that’s your issue, not the game’s.”

      A tutorial is about getting familiar with the games mechanic. Now if I play the tutorial and at the easiest level of all don’t even save 50% of the crowd, I think it’s pretty natural to assume I did it wrong and to try again to see what you did wrong, or what are the basic mechanics. So no, I thinks it’s an issue with the game, really. There are standards for tutorial ; if you step on them as a game designer, you’re responsible for consequences.

    • Lilliput King says:

      Why is it rational to assume not saving 50% means you’re doing something wrong?

      The game doesn’t ask you to save 50% in that first mission. It doesn’t ask you to get anywhere close. You’re actually asked to save 8%. You’re imposing your own standards of success on the game for some reason I can’t fathom, and getting angry when you can’t meet them. It’s like playing the Half Life tutorial again and again then calling it a bad game because you can’t jump through the walls. Maybe you just don’t deserve these games.

  18. RadioactiveMan says:

    I love this game and cannot recommend it enough. The ever-changing puzzle presented by the mix of units, changing conditions, and city size keeps things interesting. The superweapons and unlockable research give you a bit of variation when you are feeling the grind. The vignettes, artwork, music, and encyclopedia create great atmosphere.

  19. Stompywitch says:

    I love the game (Charming, challenging, FUN!), but I don’t like seeing the r-word on RPS. Wot I Think is ideal!

  20. Mike says:

    Oh god I’ve been playing this all evening. So good.

  21. multiname says:

    I really wish they hadn’t squeezed the xp/upgrade mechanic into this. I feel like I’m losing people because my artillery isn’t level 999, instead of because zombies are dangerous/I don’t know what I’m doing yet. I lost interest in playing more.

  22. Vandalbarg says:

    I love this game SO MUCH. Totally worth the money. Been playing it since I got it, and I for one dread the moment when I stop loving that music. I used to dream of a game like this way back when I first started gaming.

  23. Tatourmi says:

    My best game was on a level 3 outbreak with a high-end artillery (4 rounds, 8 or so bombs in each), a very good infantry and some blocades. Why was it the best? Because I didn’t manage to evacuate the zone before night, but as I knew I had an incredibly good roster I told to myself: “Night hey? I WON’T GET RAPED SO EASILY THIS TIME!”. And I carried on, blasting almost all of the city except a little part in the middle in which I managed to have all of the civilians, accompanied by my infantry (Which was trying its best to protect them from the zombies survivors, incredibly numerous). Then I discovered something: After night, THERE IS DAY AGAIN! God, filled with a new hope I continued to rain fire on all the zone around me, UNTIL IT WENT DARK AGAIN!. There was five buildings standing in the eye of the storm and massive explosions all around them. It went on for three whole days and when I finally finished it, when the last civilian got onto the chopper, I was just wowed.
    Just for that kind of useless drama, for all the little stories that I made up in my mind for that precise game (Especially that citizen which I tried not to kill when I destroyed the whole part of the city he was in), I’d say it is an insta-buy.

  24. FalseMyrmidon says:

    Apparently this game won’t run if you have a newer ATI card and up to date drivers. Oh well.

  25. silverhammermba says:

    I can vouch that coop mode is indeed fun – especially when you get a good mix of active mercenaries e.g. infantry, artillery, and snipers. On your own it all comes down to a precarious juggling act (often played out at 10% speed), but with friends it becomes a frantic, emotionally-intense ballet.

    There’s something special about infantry facing down a horde of zombies while your friend rains down artillery from above.

  26. mcwill says:

    Interesting concept – taking those Flash zombie outbreak simulators and adding in bombs. Not exactly groundbreaking, but fun.

  27. patricij says:

    If you like the music (especially the one after a fucked-up LEVEL4 mission), make sure to check out the lovely guys behind it, The Volcanics!

    I ended up buying the album the song is from over at CD Baby and downloading it as I write this…can’t wait!

  28. NPC says:

    You call Flotilla splendid, but I see there was no WIT? It did come out in an oddly silent way…