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.